RPO collaboration latest step in Rochester City Ballet's growth

05:00 AM, Jan 31, 2013

Jesse Campbell, left, and Megan Kamler rehearse a scene from Rochester City Ballet's newest piece, New York Cityscapes. (LEAH STACY)/


Written By Anne Schuhle

If you go

What:
New York Cityscapes, a collaboration between the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Pops Series and the Rochester City Ballet.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $79.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or rpo.org.
Open dress rehearsal: A free In Studio Series presentation will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Rochester City Ballet, 1326 University Ave. Reservations are required and limited. Call (585) 461-5850 or go to rochestercityballet.com.

When Jamey Leverett sat down to discuss a new project with Jeff Tyzik, the hair on her arms stood on end. When Tyzik saw a cellphone snippet of the choreography Leverett had created for their upcoming show, he got chills.

Theirs is a visceral collaboration, if ever there was one.

The results of it will be on stage Friday and Saturday as Tyzik, principal pops conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and Leverett, artistic director of the Rochester City Ballet, channel their mutual respect and talents into the U.S. premiere of his five-movement New York Cityscapes at the Eastman Theatre.

The production is just one example of how the Rochester City Ballet has been expanding its reach and continuing what Rachel DeGuzman, director of advancement and external relations, calls “explosive growth.”

The organization’s budget has more than doubled from about $500,000 six years ago to $1.14 million for this season, she says.

We’ve also hired professional dancers and transitioned from a company that was doing professional-level performances to one that has become one of the best regional ballet companies in the country,” DeGuzman says.

In practical terms, that meant that in November when the company presented The Nutcracker Suite with the RPO for the 14th time, its 19 dancers — who have 34-week contracts — were at a level of talent that only one principal dancer for the production had to be hired.

That was a first, and it was a huge shift,” DeGuzman said.

Artistic blueprint

The company just finished the final leg of a three-year strategic plan, and DeGuzman said its board and management team expect to complete a new plan within the next couple of months.

The blueprint that will ensure the company’s sustainability and relevance include:

• Purchase of its 60,000-square-foot studio building at 1326 University Ave. Rent from three tenants “gives us regular income and helps with cash flow,” DeGuzman said.

• Establishment of a permanent performance home at Nazareth College in Pittsford.

• A touring presence at the River to River Festival at Pace University in New York City.

• Production of The Blood Countess, the company’s first full-length ballet, which “tapped into popular culture to advance our relevance to young people, which is important because the traditional audience for arts is aging,” DeGuzman said.

• Introduction of the ballet’s Good Pointe Society, a young professional group that sponsors an annual masquerade ball.

• A $35,000 contract to run its first weeklong residency in performance at Syracuse University from Feb. 17 to 23.

Funding

Ambition and change are costly commodities in the nonprofit world, so the company is considering various avenues to build its financial base. Among them is crowdfunding, via indiegogo.com, which has enabled the ballet to set up its current six-week social media campaign to tap into younger donors and others, like DeGuzman, who find satisfaction in pooling her small contributions with others to reach a larger, specific goal.

The company is hoping to raise $20,000 for its 25th season production this spring, “Rochester City Ballet: Past, Present & Future,” from May 17 to 19 at Nazareth College Arts Center.

We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, even from people who don’t contribute,” DeGuzman says.

The campaign (at indiegogo.com/RCBPastPresentFuture) runs through Feb. 20 and had attracted 19 donors and $1,470 as of Thursday morning.

Local and regional

Integral to the company’s continued growth are its efforts to become a regional ballet. A giant step in that direction is next month’s residency through Syracuse University’s Arts Engage Program.

This is very significant,” DeGuzman says. “We’re being paid a nationally competitive fee, and it will affect our ability to be nationally sustainable. It changes the way we do business.”

Because ballet productions are expensive, moving into other markets gives the company a bigger return on its investment by enabling it to perform the same show for various audiences.

It’s something we’re very excited about, and we’re pleased to have established a relationship with Syracuse University,” she says.

The company also hopes to grow its programs in other upstate and Southern Tier cities.

The work with the Arts Engage program will involve community members and students, a performance by members of the ballet company and a student performance of a composition by Jamey Leverett’s husband, Tim Leverett.

Having Tim and Jamey and the dancers there will make it a really rich exploration of the artistic process,” DeGuzman said.

The evolution at Rochester City Ballet has caught the attention of others in the arts community, who are enthusiastic about the changes.

Ruby Lockhart, executive director of Garth Fagan Dance and a member of the board of Dance/USA, says the company’s focus on Jamey Leverett’s work is making it more contemporary. “I think that they’re very well supported by the Rochester community,” Lockhart says. She started noticing changes about three years ago when the company began branding programs like The Blood Countess and began the Good Pointe Society.

They have younger board members now, and they’re really developing a diverse reach,” Lockhart said. “This is great because it means they’re trying to stay relevant and looking for ways to reach people.”

She also praised the way the company brings people into its space — as it will on Wednesday for a free In Studio Series performance and discussion of Cityscapes — because it helps people understand more about ballet and what goes on behind the scenes.

That educational factor is part of the company’s mission, DeGuzman said. “No matter where we go regionally, Rochester will always be our focus,” she says, pointing to the company’s long relationship with the Rochester School District and its efforts to help close the achievement gap between city and suburban schools by ensuring that social class and school enrollment don’t limit exposure to the arts.

For example, when budget cuts eliminated funding to bus Rochester School District children to see The Nutcracker, the company took a tour version to eight schools, and it may go to more next year.

There is a general perception that ballet serves the elite, and we don’t buy that,” DeGuzman says. “We want to bust that assumption and turn it on its head.”

Cityscapes

The company’s In Studio presentation of New York Cityscapes on Wednesday will help introduce more community members to dance, but it also will hold special meaning for its creative team. It will mark the first time Tyzik has seen the entire production of what he calls his “picture postcards” of New York City.

I’m looking forward to the first time Jeff sees it in person and sees the energy level and joy the performers have dancing to his music,” Leverett says. “I think it will be a magical moment.”

She and Tyzik previously collaborated on his composition Bravo! Colorado and are already talking about future work, Tyzik said. Neither has a favorite among Cityscapes’ varied movements, because each is as different as Tyzik’s lifetime of experiences in Manhattan.

Tyzik describes “African Dance” as hopeful, not ominous, even though he was inspired to write it when he learned there’d been an active slave trade in the city. Other movements include “Traffic Jammin,” “Tango,” “Tarantella” and “Ragtime Redux.”

With ‘Ragtime Redux’ I wanted to show how music transitioned from ragtime to folky and back again,” he says. “These are little mental explorations of mine through music.”

And they’ve provided Leverett with the type of challenge — “a mental puzzle” — that she savors. Among her creative considerations has been how to best work with the unusual juxtaposition of the dancers and musicians together on the stage.

The dancers are in front of the orchestra, so I create specifically to the space available,” Leverett says. “I’ve heard the musicians say it’s nice for them to see the movement their music is inspiring. They can all see each other; the combination is magical.”

The organizations’ collaborations may be as well. “When you have artistic leaders who want to collaborate, that’s really exciting and you don’t know where it’s going to go,” Tyzik says. “It’s a chance to expand everyone’s awareness so it’s a tremendous opportunity.”

All of the principals also see it as a chance to introduce orchestra fans to ballet and vice versa, potentially creating new audiences for both.

I think the collaboration is wonderful,” Lockhart says. “It draws from two different pools, or more. RPO is very talented and the Rochester Ballet Company is really fortunate to be able to work with that level of musicians. It’s good for dancers, it’s good for everyone.”