ABT’s Moore Leaps From Hospital Bed to CEO: Interview

In her office above a movie theater in New York, chief executive officer Rachel S. Moore presides over the American Ballet Theatre where she once danced in the shadow of the stars.

Fortunately for the ABT, she had a serious fall when she was 24, and when she awoke her tutu was gone. The fates instead pointed her to various institutes of learning until she graduated from Columbia University in 1994 with a Masters in Arts Administration.

Thanks to Moore, 49, who became CEO in 2011, the classical ballet company is in healthy financial shape (though donor checks are always welcome) with tours, outreach programs and box office stars like David Hallberg, Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes. The number of performances has increased and revenue over the last three years has gone up by 17 percent.

We spoke as dancers pushed into the elevators on the way to an early morning warm-up session.

Hoelterhoff: I had to line up to get in. How big is this company?

Moore: About 90 dancers and 65 musicians who form the core of our orchestra. Add 100 in administration and 50 in education for our school and outreach program.

Break Even

Hoelterhoff: And the budget?

Moore: The operating budget is a break even on $43 million. Earnings are 60 percent; support 40 percent. The breakdown on the 60 percent earned is ticket sales 40 percent, education 10 percent, tour fees 7 percent, other 3 percent.

Hoelterhoff: Dancing isn’t for the pain or risk averse. How many performers will be out with injuries at one time?

Moore: We reckon that at any given time, 10 percent of our dancers will be out with injuries.

Hoelterhoff: What happened to you?

Moore: I had to have surgery and was out for three months, then faced another operation with no guarantees. So by then, I had time to realize that I was not going to be a star and maybe I should get an education.

Hoelterhoff: Do many plan second careers all along?

Moore: Dancers used to put their heads in the sand. Many hadn’t finished high school. Now you have to be 18 to be accepted into the company and most take courses outside. Learning about the visual arts, literature -- life -- makes you a richer artist and prepares you for the future.

Dubious Programs

Hoelterhoff: How many more arts managers can we absorb? Some of the programs seem dubious.

Moore: There’s not enough focus on finance. If you don’t have the numbers under control, how can you be creative in other areas? You need accounting classes so you can balance the books. And I found intellectual property law and labor law really useful.

Hoelterhoff: How many unions do you deal with?

Moore: Three: Dancers, musicians, stage hands.

Hoelterhoff: I gather the company was in disarray when you arrived.

Moore: They’d had about four executive directors in a short time. The deficit was huge and there was a lot of unrest among staff and dancers. We were able to make changes because I knew both sides. We restructured the finance department, analyzed production costs and overtime. We looked into union contracts and worked hard to rebuild our relationships.

And we reframed ourselves as a national company by touring a lot. New York is very expensive; touring is about mitigating loss.

Hoelterhoff: How much does a production cost?

Hard Costs

Moore: A full-length production? About $5 million, including rehearsals. The hard costs are about $3 million.

Hoelterhoff: How far do you and your artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, plan in advance?

Moore: We’re now scheduling 2017. We don’t cast beyond a year ahead. It makes no sense.

New in the ballet world are co-productions to share expense and gain exposure. You select partners who aren’t direct competitors. Australia is great.

Hoelterhoff: I note classical ballet is very white. How do you get black dancers onstage?

Moore: We’re trying. This morning I had a conference call with several South African dance professions about identifying and training dancers of color and getting them in the pipeline. We hope to do some teacher training courses in the townships. It’s part of Project Plie, for which the Ford Foundation gave us a lead gift.

Hoelterhoff: On your website I noticed that your school has classes for three to four-year olds!

Moore: Yes, but at that age, they just sort of hop around.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

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