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Boston Ballet thriving as 50th anniversary celebration arrives

Kathleen Breen Combes (left), Jeff Cirio, and Lia Cirio.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Kathleen Breen Combes (left), Jeff Cirio, and Lia Cirio.

Even after all this time, a full decade, Mikko Nissinen calls the abrupt exit of “The Nutcracker” from the Citi Wang Theater nothing short of a “heart attack.” It cost Boston Ballet more than $6 million and forced the company to find a new home.

“Good you didn’t die from it,” says the artistic director. “Because you could have.”

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But Boston Ballet survived. And now, as the organization embarks on a celebration of its 50th year, even Nissinen concedes that the Wang split — precipitated by the theater management’s decision to go with a touring version of the Radio City Rockettes during the 2004 holiday season — may have been, at least in part, a blessing. The split with Boston Ballet’s longtime landlord allowed the always money-crunched company to reposition itself.

These days, Boston Ballet runs its own box office, has been earning record revenue, and has revamped “The Nutcracker,” its biggest production, to popular acclaim. Through increased fund-raising, the company has also wiped out an accumulated debt and brought in $3 million for an emergency fund. It is now the fourth largest ballet company in the United States, with a $31 million annual budget and the world’s largest ballet school.

Meanwhile Boston Ballet is, observers say, thriving artistically. After rounds of cuts in recent years, the company has been adding dancers, balancing striking contemporary works with ballet classics, and has embarked on an ambitious touring program. The out-of-town exposure is meant to spread word of the company’s renaissance and increase the ballet’s cachet to attract talented dancers from around the world. This is important for a company that has, in the past, lost top dancers to other companies, most notably Sarah Lamb, who joined the Royal Ballet in London in 2004, and James Whiteside, who joined American Ballet Theatre last year.

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Nissinen, a native of Finland who is fond of sports references, says he has high expectations for the anniversary, which kicks off Sept. 21 with a free showcase, “Night of Stars,” on Boston Common.

“I want this season to be the World Series,” he says. “Winning the whole thing. No matter how well we’ve done, the greater community hasn’t understood that.”

By that, Nissinen is speaking on two levels. He wants Boston Ballet to attract the kinds of donors found largely on the boards of the city’s dominant cultural institutions, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Museum of Fine Arts. He also wants the broader public to become more conscious of the company. That’s why Boston Ballet is presenting “Night of Stars” on Boston Common.

The event is held every year as a kind of gala kickoff to the company’s season. But this year, instead of being a ticketed event inside a theater, it is free and outside. Nissinen proudly mentions that there will be three massive screens broadcasting the proceedings.

“This is really our way of saying, ‘Thank you, Boston, for the first 50 years,’ ” he says. “And there are still so many people who don’t really know who truly Boston Ballet is. This is going to be massive. We have a full orchestra. I’m taking this very seriously. It’s going to be like the story of the Boston Ballet.”

That story, since Nissinen’s arrival in 2001, has featured high drama, most often offstage. The Wang decision, made in 2003, left the ballet’s signature production — and main money-maker — briefly homeless until it eventually found a spot in the Opera House. That transition led to a series of cuts, the most painful during the economic downturn in 2008, when the Ballet reduced its stable of company dancers from 50 to 41.

“It was a very worrisome time for all of us,” says principal dancer Kathleen Breen Combes, who joined Boston Ballet in 2001. “The minute they start cutting positions, you begin to wonder if we can do the [repertoire] we’ve done, whether this is going to be more work for those who are left.”

During that difficult time, observers say, Nissinen and the ballet’s leadership took a direct approach. They didn’t hide the cuts from the public, and they sought out other arts leaders for advice. In 2008, the artistic director — also acting as executive director for a while to save money — made one of his most important approaches. He reached out to Jack Meyer, the former head of Harvard University’s endowment, to recruit him to serve on the company’s board.

The key, Meyer says, was Nissinen’s decision to be upfront about the company’s financials. He sent them to Meyer one night after he requested them. The next day, Meyer called back and said he would join the board.

“Keep this in mind,” Meyer said. “He didn’t show me the books because they looked great. They did not look good at all. My reaction was ‘Wow, the Boston Ballet is a little gem that maybe Boston doesn’t appreciate. And we don’t want to lose this in Boston.’ ”

Meyer was intrigued by the challenge of helping turn the company’s fortunes around.

“It’s not that we have to raise $500 million,” he remembers thinking. “We can get this done. I will confess at the time I didn’t know that much about ballet, but I liked the idea of working on this project.”

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Artistic director Mikko Nissinen (left) and executive director Barry Hughson.

He’s not the only board member who has had an impact. Alison Quirk, who joined Boston Ballet’s board in 2009 and is now vice chair, is an executive vice president of State Street Corporation. State Street served as the presenting sponsor for the company’s recent London tour, the chief corporate contributor in the successful $1.4 million campaign to pay for it. (Boston Ballet won’t say how much State Street gave.) In addition, two years ago the Ballet raised the minimum giving requirement for board members from $10,000 to $25,000.

Overall, Boston Ballet has raised $23.6 million since 2009, with almost half going to pay off accumulated debt, $4.8 million for an artistic fund to pay for the company’s new “Nutcracker” and other works, $4.3 million for the 50th anniversary programming, and $3 million for a cash reserve. The company now has a $10.5 million endowment, up from $7.7 million in 2004.

The economic recovery has helped, said Barry Hughson, a former dancer who ran the Atlanta Ballet before starting as Boston Ballet’s executive director in 2009.

With a long-term lease at the Opera House, the company took over its own ticket sales, enabling it to pocket the handling fees previously collected by Telecharge. The Ballet can also get access to ticket-buying data, an important tool for marketing future performances.

“When you control your venue, you control your destiny,” says Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director. “I don’t think it was fully appreciated at the moment, when they were having trouble at the Wang, but they did the right thing and they made the Opera House work.”

Since 2007, Boston Ballet has toured to Spain, Canada, Finland, and South Korea. And it’s now making an effort to target what Nissinen considers key dance cities and major venues. That led to July’s dates in London and performances planned for next June in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Fiona Hanson/Associated Press

Boston Ballet in for “Bella Figura” this past July in London.

The company’s Clarendon Street headquarters have been renovated, with dancers now offered access to Pilates, acupuncture, and a chiropractor on site.

Most impressively, the company has been adding dancers. There will be 56 in the company this season, with plans to add another two for the 2014-2015 season. That compares to 42 when Nissinen arrived in 2002.

Combes, now a company veteran, says that she’s been thrilled with the changes. “I am surprised,” she says. “I had faith in the organization and I had hopes that we would have people who stepped up and supported the organization, but it was — after that happened and then the economy — you’re thinking things could get really bad.”

The hope now, says Hughson, is that Boston Ballet continues to grow. The company recently hired Mary Winn Miller, a Harvard Business School graduate, from McKinsey & Company to serve as its first planning and business development manager. Her job is to help develop strategic plans, both for the short and long term. Future goals include broadening the company’s audience, continuing to tour, and expanding education and community programs.

“The nonprofit performing arts at this level in this country, the ecosystem is fragile,” says Hughson. “That said, this company is in the best position it’s ever been in its history.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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