The Kennedy Center is taking another step to shore up its dance program by establishing a special fundraising arm to support ballet.
In a letter this week, the center is asking patrons to join the Kennedy Center Ballet Circle by making contributions of $1,000 to $250,000. The money will support the annual season of ballet, and donors will receive ticket privileges as well as invitations to special receptions, rehearsals and discussions.
The quality and frequency of the dance programs at the Kennedy Center have drawn scrutiny from critics and Washington audiences in recent years. Michael M. Kaiser, who became the center's president almost two years ago, brought with him direct experience with major dance companies in the United States and England and a personal affection for the art form. Since arriving, he has bolstered the center's dance offerings and has repeatedly said the center should do more.
Last month Kaiser announced that the center had struck a deal with the New York City Ballet, the country's largest ballet organization, that will allow the company to perform at the Kennedy Center. City Ballet has not appeared in Washington for 15 years.
"As you know, each season the Kennedy Center presents performances by the world's leading ensembles, including the Kirov Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Dance Theater of Harlem and many others," Kaiser said in his letter. "Your membership will provide significant annual support to help the Kennedy Center continue to serve as an international venue for excellence in dance."
Dance is traditionally one of the most expensive arts to stage. Some companies have elaborate sets and a large dance corps, as well as musicians, technicians and wardrobe supervisors. Even the most established companies sometimes have an operating deficit.
"All performing arts bring a deficit to some extent. If we would charge ticket prices that would enable us to break even, people couldn't afford it," said Marie Mattson, the center's vice president of development. The idea for an exclusive ballet donor group not only fills an acknowledged need but satisfies contributors who want to support a single cause and get an immediate return, Mattson said.
"Some people support the Kennedy Center in general, and those funds go to general support. But there are people who want their money to go to specific activities," Mattson said.
Currently, the center has fundraising appeals dedicated to the National Symphony Orchestra and the center's education programs.
Last season, the Kennedy Center presented 62 performances by seven ballet companies, including Russia's Kirov and Bolshoi. The budget for the season was $7.5 million; ticket sales accounted for $5.4 million, and the rest was covered by the center's general fundraising, according to officials.
This season presents unusual challenges because the Kennedy Center's main stage for dance, the Opera House, will close for a year-long renovation after this month's performances of "The Nutcracker" by the Bolshoi. The center has signed 10 companies for the current season, with four performing only at the International Dance Festival in the spring. There will be 55 performances, including the festival. The slightly shorter schedule means fewer expenses but less revenue. The budget for this season is $5.6 million, and about $3.6 million worth of tickets have been sold so far.
As a sign of how devoted the Washington ballet audience is, tickets for "The Nutcracker" sold out to subscribers and mail-order regulars. The first week of the ballet festival has also been sold out to regular subscribers, according to center officials.