Tuesday was opening night for the first, and only, week of the New York City Ballet at SPAC this year. The incredible shrinking ballet — from four weeks when the renowned troupe officially opened the new arts center on July 9, 1966, to three, then to two starting in 2008, and just one this year and next.
After that, will it be two again, as SPAC’s management and the ballet’s say they are working toward, or one, or even none? Who knows?
The problem is the same as in 2005 when former SPAC Executive Director Herb Chesbrough was ready to pull the plug entirely on the ballet: money. With well-paid dancers, expensive costumes and its own orchestra, it costs a lot to put the NYCB on stage each night, and box-office receipts don’t pay the freight. That leaves fund raising to make up the difference.
Under Executive Director Marcia White, SPAC has done a better job of that recently, as well as attracting bigger, and younger, audiences with special events such as “American Girl Night.” But the ballet’s fees were rising at the same time, and a big subsidy was still required for last year’s two-week season: around $1 million. So now it’s down to one week.
Any area would love to have the New York City Ballet for a week, with seven performances and 14 ballets. But the Capital Region knows what it’s like to have it for several weeks, long enough for someone to see it once or many times, long enough for the dancers to become part of the community. A week’s residency, even if followed by separate one-week residencies by the National Ballet of Canada and the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, just isn’t the same.
Cultural activities like the ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra (which SPAC must also subsidize) are not going to pay for themselves, especially at a time when audiences for classical performances are shrinking. But they were why the beautiful amphitheater was built with state money on state land, and why SPAC occupies it rent-free.
SPAC and the NYCB, which has been summering in Saratoga for most of its 65-year existence, both have an interest in keeping the multiweek arrangement intact. They should keep looking for ways to raise funds (separately and together), get sponsors and cut costs to make it happen.