Sailing close to the wind in the money month of May

May is the month when money, or the lack of it, is on the minds of Australian dance companies.

Every May, they release their annual reports and this year, none is more perplexing than the result for Bangarra Dance Theatre.

The company finished 2011 with an operating surplus of $1007 – that’s right, just one thousand dollars plus enough for two cups of coffee. The company’s executive director, Catherine Baldwin, called the result “sailing close to the wind”.

Ending each year with a surplus is “a key objective” for Bangarra, so there doesn’t seem to be a real cause for worry, but why is it that Australia’s only Indigenous dance company has to survive on such slender surpluses despite good box office results and excellent performances?

Bangarra’s grants from governments, federal and New South Wales, amounted to $2.2 million. Of that, $1.6 million was federal funding, from the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. In addition, Bangarra received a special Australia Council grant last year of $168,000. Yet it’s just not enough.

Dance companies receive about $11 million (in total) through the Major Performing Arts Board. The board encompasses 28 performing arts companies but only five of them are dance companies – the Australian Ballet, Bangarra, Sydney Dance Company, West Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet.

The Australian Ballet received $5.3 million last year from the Major Performing Arts Board and the Sydney Dance Company received $2.3 million. That means of course only about $3.4 million has gone to the other three companies. The Queensland Ballet and WA Ballet are strongly supported by State governments.

There are strong similarities between SDC and Bangarra. SDC has 16 dancers and Bangarra has 15. SDC’s income from box office last year was $1.2 million and Bangarra’s was $1.4 million. SDC, however, raised more money in sponsorships and fund raising than Bangarra and it also has the benefit of $1.4 million income from open dance classes.

In the context of private giving, it’s interesting that the $104,500 donation to the company last year by its chairman, Julian Knights, was double the donation he made the previous year.

Both SDC and Bangarra are funded to support the number of dancers they now employ, however SDC recently announced an invitation-only audition in August 2012 for male and female dancers. (More information is on the company’s website.)

That means that some dancers now under contract must be leaving or the company is going to receive more funding for more dancers.

Footnote: The SDC’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, will announce next week the program he has curated for the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance season. The SDC’s annual report has already revealed one part of Spring Dance, a season called Contemporary Women that will feature four Australian female choreographers creating work with SDC dancers.

And speaking of the Sydney Opera House, its former chief executive, Michael Lynch, has been working with the dancers and staff of Northern Ballet, based in Leeds, in England, to help them prepare for the future following a 15 per cent cut in funding from the UK Arts Council. This is the same cut as other English dance companies and in the case of Northern Ballet, it means the company will lose half a million pounds a year.

As in Agony and Ecstasy, the documentary series on English National Ballet, the Northern Ballet’s internal workings and conflicts were filmed for a two-part documentary on the BBC called Arts Troubleshooter.

Lynch is a good troubleshooter. After his years at the Sydney Opera House, he was a successful chief executive of London’s Southbank Centre and is now chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong.

He would be familiar with the Northern Ballet company from its seasons at London’s Sadlers Wells Theatre, where his wife, Chrissy Sharp, was general manager.

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Riley, from Bangarra’s Of Earth and Sky, photo © Andy Solo