Money, and the ballet

by Rob Tiller

There’s a tension between art and money.  Money is instrumental, a means to an end.  It’s associated with commerce and a variety of  tawdry of human attitudes and behaviors. Randy Newman’s song, It’s Money that I Love, is deliciously ironic, since it’s simply pathetic to love money.  Art is different.  It’s nourishing.  It opens doors.  It expresses our best, and makes us better.  Art feels ambivalent about money, but somehow they need to get along.

Last week I found myself reflecting on art and money after Ginny Hall invited Sally and me to take a tour of the studios and offices of the Carolina Ballet with Ricky Weiss, the company’s artistic director.   We’ve had season tickets for the last decade, starting shortly after the beginning of the company, and have seen all or almost all of Weiss’s ballets, some of them multiple times.  He’s a great choreographer in Balanchine tradition.  He has achieved something truly incredible in building a very strong company in our own Raleigh, North Carolina, and we’re so grateful.

As a longtime fan, I looked forward to talking with Weiss, but felt some anxiety about the money issue. I was well aware that the company needed it to survive.  Sally and I had discussed a possible contribution several times and agreed that we’d feel good about making a meaningful gift.  But it was not something I looked forward to discussing.  Where I’m from, we didn’t like to talk openly about money.  I’m not clear on the reasons, but we didn’t talk about things like salaries and prices for big ticket items.  It was taboo.

In the end, though, our meeting was surprisingly fun.  Weiss and Hall walked us through the studios and work spaces, which were not especially beautiful, but that was part of the point.  He made clear that he’s very conscious of managing money carefully, not spending it on things that don’t matter, and spending as much as he can afford on what counts.  He talked in detail of the cost of point shoes, costumes, and sets, of paying the dancers and staff, and of expenses such as disability insurance.  He compared his productions to those in New York, and admitted his sets were less elaborate, but he took pride that his productions cost a fraction of those.  As a person interested in the backstage, I found all this really interesting.

Weiss told us about falling in love with the ballet as a kid, dancing for Balanchine for 19 years at the City Ballet, leaving to become artistic director for the Pennsylvania Ballet, and leaving there under difficult circumstances.  He also described a six-year period of free lancing and searching without success for  the right position.  He said that during this time he considered leaving the field.  (This would have been a tragedy.)  He talked about the Ward Purrington’s long effort to bring professional ballet to Raleigh with no idea of the long odds against success.

I’d wondered whether Weiss, with his enormous and continual creativity, would find it interesting or helpful to have a philosophy of art and dance.  He did.  He seems to view ballet as not simply expressive, but also magical, transcendental, and yet at the same time basic to human existence, like food.  I was surprised, then, that he had no real trouble with the idea that some people don’t especially enjoy ballet, or even actively dislike it.  He didn’t feel compelled to win over everyone.  He noted lightly that someone once took him to a hockey game, and he didn’t particularly like it.

It turned out that Weiss had an unexpected gift for asking for money.  Without any hints from us, he at last said he’d like us to consider giving the exact amount that we’d already decided we wanted to give.  It was uncanny.  I felt happy and excited.  It’s wonderful that we can help with something that has brought us so much joy.