BY INGRID SCHAEFER SPRAGUE
PHOTO BY JIM BARON
As a child, Jessica Wallis saw her first ballet — the Cleveland Ballet — at the Cleveland Playhouse. She fell in love with dance and started ballet at six years old. Later she went to the Playhouse to see the American Ballet Theater and National Ballet of Canada. “I just loved it so much, seeing these world-class companies,” Wallis says. “I missed seeing that so much.”
Fast-forward to today, and Wallis has found a solution to the gap left when the Cleveland Ballet moved to San Jose in 2000. “It just didn’t make sense that Playhouse Square, which is the second largest performing arts district in the nation, had no ballet,” Wallis says.
“The conclusion was Playhouse Square didn’t have the resources to really dedicate to fill seats for ballet, so the Playhouse discontinued professional ballet.”
Wallis explains that ballet has a niche audience and seats will not fill by putting up a poster a month ahead of a performance. “It really needs an organization specifically building ballet and culture around it,” she says.
In Wallis’ business model, Ballet in Cleveland focuses on bringing in the best professional dancers and companies to perform at Playhouse Square. She emphasizes that Ballet in Cleveland is neither a school nor a company of dancers. “This is what it takes nowadays — ballet companies are going out of business on a regular basis,” Wallis says.
The basis for the Ballet in Cleveland model is rooted in the changes in funding for nonprofits, which have resources that are “fewer and far between,” according to Wallis. Additionally, the operating costs of having a permanent ballet company are steep. “The operating costs for a ballet company to operate are astronomical,” Wallis says. “It is not fiscally sustainable as it used to be.
“There are over 300 dance production companies; why start something from scratch? It takes millions of dollars to operate a ballet company every year, and that’s tremendous. Also, in Northeast Ohio, we’re overly saturated with nonprofits. I take so much pride in Ballet in Cleveland because we don’t try to do what everyone else is doing.”
As ballet presenters, Ballet in Cleveland offers exclusive visiting dancers and companies from around the nation and Canada. This is a draw for ballet aficionados. “Let’s say I want to see New York ballet with top dancers, but I can’t afford to go to New York City,” Wallis says. “Or I shouldn’t have to go to Pittsburgh to see ballet. Ballet in Cleveland has access to the top-tier dancers, bringing them here to Playhouse Square.”
Ballet in Cleveland held its gala event in March at the Tudor Arms hotel, featuring American Ballet Theatre Soloist Misty Copeland, Ballet Master Carlos López, and Ballet Next Artistic Director Michele Wiles
(former American Ballet Theater Soloist), both New York ballet companies. The gala fundraiser presented all of the dancers on a stage constructed in the middle of Tudor Arms with a sit-down dinner and a very unique performance by celebrated ballerinas.
Ballet in Cleveland also provides master classes in tandem with the performances or stand-alone master classes four to five times per year at Playhouse Square’s Gund Dance Studio. “For the gala, all three dancers came to the Playhouse Square master classes,” Wallis says. “They were up close and personal, building a culture around ballet. That’s what it takes.”
The first Ballet in Cleveland master class began in 2013. Ballet West Soloist Allison DeBona, of Salt Lake City, performed at a fundraiser dinner and taught two master classes – one for younger dancers and one for older ballerinas. In addition to the dance rehearsal, the master class offers a “Q and A” autograph session. Wallis says this is what inspires young dancers, to see professionals and ask whatever you want.
On the heels of the master classes, Ballet in Cleveland is offering a dance intensive from June 29 through July 10 at the Playhouse with DeBona, Principal Dancer Rex Tilton, and Artistic Director Adam Skulte, all of Ballet West. Although many more students wanted to attend, 80 dancers will participate in Art Emotion, the two-week classical and contemporary ballet intensive. Wallis hopes to cultivate funds for a scholarship trust fund for future intensives.
Wallis describes DeBona as an entrepreneur like herself. “You look to make a name for yourself as your own artist,” Wallis says.
“You’re not going to be dancing at 50 years old. What is your longevity beyond the stage? How do we go above and beyond?”
Breaking down stereotypes, Ballet in Cleveland also addresses men in ballet with their master class “Guys Dance Too.” The mission of the program is to show the importance of males in ballet, and Wallis harks to famous dancers and choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Joshua Beamish, and George Balanchine. “You can’t have a pas de deux if you can’t get a ballerina lifted above the head, and so it’s huge for us. Also, at least 75 percent of artistic directors are male. It is important for the long term.”
Wallis says the Ashley Bouder project held last fall is the biggest thrill she has experienced. Bouder, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, connected with Wallis over social media, saying she really liked what she was doing in Cleveland. When she performed for Ballet in Cleveland, she first showed a video defining classical and contemporary ballet. The first act featured ballet with choreography by Balanchine (a unique opportunity since his style is copyrighted) and the second act featured a world premiere “Rouge et Noir” with choreography by Joshua Beamish. A huge goal of Ballet in Cleveland several years down the line would be a celebration of Balanchine choreography, Wallis says.
When Wallis is asked how she secures top-tier ballerinas, she says Ballet in Cleveland takes good care of their artists who make guest appearances during their off weeks from their ballet companies. Dancers are impressed with Playhouse Square and the facility where Ballet in Cleveland teaches, Wallis says. “The dance world is a very small community and you get to know people,” she adds. “We respect them as artists to come here. Word of mouth means a lot.”
Ballet in Cleveland uses social media to spread the word and e-blasts to local dance schools. Wallis thought of another unique approach to building a culture for ballet in Cleveland. Last year during the Playhouse Square chandelier lighting, Ballet in Cleveland also unveiled its own wine label to promote ballet with Foite,
a Pinot Grigio, and Arabesque, a cabernet sauvignon, domestic wines from Firelands Winery. Wallis said a private label Italian wine list coming out soon will feature Cannonou, a red wine, and Vermentino, a white wine.
Ballet is relevant and it can’t afford to die out, Wallis says, and Ballet in Cleveland has the best to offer. “There are those who think the arts are not serious and not a business and that it’s just fluff, but this is a business and I take it seriously,” Wallis says. “It’s not pink tutus and tiaras.
“Ballet in Cleveland is financial and has a strategic plan, sustainability, and assessment of the current climate of what folks in Northeast Ohio will support. It’s business and we will not be just looked at like another struggling arts nonprofit. We are completely transparent in how we do things—we are in it to win it. Ballet in Cleveland makes something Cleveland can really be proud of.”
For more information: balletincleveland.org