In 2016, Madison Ballet proudly celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary. That milestone offered a moment to reflect upon Madison Ballet’s beginnings, its artistic and educational successes to date, and its future direction.
Deeply rooted in its community, Madison Ballet presents a fresh approach to ballet: accessible, affordable, and thoroughly enjoyable for audiences of all ages. The organization promotes appreciation of ballet through professional-caliber public performances, a bustling dance school on Madison’s west side, and educational programs in area schools, libraries and community centers. Nearly 20% of Madison Ballet's programs are offered for free or less than $10 through generous donor support.
The organization is best known for its production of the holiday classic, The Nutcracker, which draws nearly 13,000 people from around south-central Wisconsin each year. But Madison Ballet’s work extends far beyond the stage. Through the Discover Dance outreach programs and the School of Madison Ballet’s scholarship program, the organization touches a diverse group of children and adults, many of which might not otherwise have access to formal arts training. During the 2017-2018 season, over 20,000 residents saw a performance, participated in an educational or outreach program, or studied at the School of Madison Ballet.
Now the second-largest dance organization in Wisconsin, the Ballet’s history began well before its incorporation in 1981 as the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble (the current name was adopted in 2000). In the 1960s, Tibor Zana founded the Wisconsin Ballet Company and the Madison School of Ballet. In 1968, he staged the community’s first production of The Nutcracker at Madison West High School. “Tibor started a great tradition,” said W. Earle Smith, Madison Ballet’s artistic director from 1999 to 2018. “He brought dance to the forefront of the Madison arts community.”
As artistic director of the Wisconsin Ballet Company, Zana sparked interest in dance by attracting international stars to perform with his company, including Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Edward Villella and Desmond Kelly. Zana also reached thousands statewide through lecture/demonstrations in schools, clubs and even the Waupun prison.
Wisconsin Ballet Company’s roughly eighteen annual Nutcracker performances took place in Wisconsin communities from Rhinelander to Beloit. The production boasted about 70 local performers and many more contributors behind the scenes. Zana’s zest for dance led to national awards for choreography and the Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts. His enthusiasm also fostered community involvement in dance productions, a tradition JoJean Retrum continued for 22 years, after she co-founded the Madison Youth Ballet (later named the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble) in 1977 with Charmaine Ristow and Vivian Tomlinson.
Gretchen Bourg, Madison Ballet’s managing director, says, “Our rich history and the community’s unwavering support form the foundation of today’s Madison Ballet.” Zana continues to serve as an at-large advisor to the staff of Madison Ballet, providing a continuity of vision that is rare in the ever-changing world of the performing arts.
During his 19 year tenure, Smith—a former dancer himself—choreographed over 25 new works for Madison Ballet’s repertoire, including five full-length ballets. His high-flying Peter Pan was an instant family favorite, and his rock ballet, Dracula, garnered such critical and box office success that it helped the company gain a foothold in the touring circuit.
In 2004, with a generous gift from the American Girl Fund for Children, Madison Ballet premiered Smith’s adaptation of The Nutcracker for the opening of the spectacular new Overture Center for the Arts. The ballet is one of Overture’s ten resident arts organizations, making the new production a signature holiday event for the Madison area.
Smith dubbed Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker a “full-blown community event” made possible by Madison Ballet’s professional company of dancers, community performers, artistic staff, production staff, stagehands, musicians, and roughly 300 volunteers who help mount the production. Over the last three decades, this beloved production has been seen by over 250,000 people, drawing audiences from across the Midwest region.
While The Nutcracker and other story ballets remain the linchpin of Madison Ballet’s schedule each year, the company’s mixed bill programs have gained popularity, showing a different side of the art form and delighting audiences with their athleticism and roots in neoclassical ballet.
The quality of work being presented by Madison Ballet allowed the organization to acquire the rights to several ballets by George Balanchine—founding Artistic Director of New York City Ballet and widely considered a 20th century master. Through innovative programming and a focus on artistry, Madison Ballet has evolved into an organization with a strong regional presence and a national reputation for excellence.
One of Smith’s most visible accomplishments was the formation of Madison Ballet’s professional company. The company, comprised of 12-16 dancers, serves as the artistic core of the organization, playing lead roles in performances, the school, and outreach programs.
Madison Ballet opened its School of Madison Ballet in September 2005 with seventy students. Today, enrollment is at 350 and growing each year. Alumni of the school and studio company have gone on to a number of prestigious companies and schools, such as Sacramento Ballet, Miami City Ballet, School of American Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and Ballet Chicago. But community remains at the heart of this program, which provides up to $30,000 in scholarships each year to ensure no student is turned away for financial reasons.
“We are taking the lead on changing the face of ballet,” says Rachelle Butler, a former member of the company appointed director of the school in 2018. “Ballet is steeped in tradition, but we feel a great responsibility to ensure that the art form evolves so it continues to be relevant and accessible to all. The arts should be a mirror that reflects the faces of our diverse community.”
Madison Ballet’s educational reach also extends to Head Start preschool classrooms and libraries around the city through Madison Ballet’s “Movement in Your World,” a creative movement series that provides children valuable opportunities for self-expression and exposure to the arts. Other community outreach programs such as “Offstage & Personal” and “Behind the Curtains” bring the magic of Madison Ballet to both the young and young-at-heart, providing new perspectives on this timeless art form.
All these efforts to broaden Madison Ballet’s reach appear to be paying off, as nearly 30% of students in the School of Madison Ballet identify with communities of color.
Madison Ballet has also been at the forefront of unique community collaborations. In 2012, Madison Ballet and Madison Youth Choirs embarked on a “shared service” project designed to streamline operations and costs for both. The two organizations currently share rehearsal and office space, and have been working with other youth arts groups in the Madison area to spearhead a more ambitious project that could house multiple youth arts organizations.
In 2016, Madison Ballet and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, longtime collaborators on The Nutcracker and other full-length productions, embarked on a multi-year feasibility study to deepen the partnership between the two organizations. Funded by a grant from the Madison Community Foundation, the study explored the potential for a deeper partnership with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Such innovative thinking has generated great interest from the business community, who are eager to see these two pillars of the regional arts scene forging a new path to success and sustainability.
The 2018-2019 season will mark a change in artistic leadership for the company. Following Earle Smith’s retirement from his role as artistic director, Madison Ballet selected Chicago-based Sara Schumann as Interim Artistic Director to help the company mount its 2018 Nutcracker. The organization is conducting a national search for a permanent artistic director.
Through smart planning and high artistic ambitions, Madison Ballet is poised for many more years of bringing dance to south-central Wisconsin. As Susan Kepecs wrote in the January 2005 issue of Dance Magazine, “The organization is charting new ground.” With thirty-seven years of fertile ground now below its feet, Madison Ballet promises to keep on its toes and delight audiences for years to come.