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Carnets, Visas, and Exchange Rates: Why PNB is Touring to London and How It's Doing It

By Azlan Ezaddin
June 2002

In the window behind Margo Spellman, remnants of load-bearing walls, the roof framing and the foundation are about all that remains of what used to be the Seattle Opera House. Spellman claims she’s gotten used to the noise and doesn’t seem fazed by all the activity. “It must be a guy thing,” she ventures. “All the guys who walk in here get distracted by the construction. Kent was all excited when he got to drive a crane last week,” referring to co-Artistic Director Kent Stowell.

Still, Spellman, like any good Marketing Director, knows the numbers on the new Marion Oliver McCall Hall, the future state of the art home for Seattle’s Ballet and Opera companies. Dressed in chic black and without batting an eyelid, she coolly cites off the widths and breadths of the new facility that is being built on the site of the old Opera House. There is no doubt she is excited, just like everyone else at Pacific Northwest Ballet, by the future of the Company.

Scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2003, McCaw Hall isn’t just a new, cool theater – it also represents a validation of the growth and success of PNB. Led for the last twenty five years by the artistic vision of Stowell and co-Artistic Director and wife Francia Russell, the Company has become one of the top five ballet institutions in the United States. For the last two years, this vision has been further fine-tuned by the acumen and experience of D. David Brown, the Company’s current Executive Director.

There have been several strong Executive Directors in PNB’s past but Brown came to the Ballet with “loyalty” branded on his heart and “pragmatism” tattooed on his forehead. Prior to joining the Company, he enjoyed a 28½-year association with Boston Ballet, a 'feat' unthinkable of in this day and age, beginning as a corps de ballet dancer and making his way through the ranks – including a swift promotion to Principal Dancer within two years – culminating in the position of Executive Director.

Having held various artistic, production and administrative positions in Boston in addition to a degree from Butler University, Brown appears to have a clear idea of what works and what doesn’t. “I was fortunate to be able to grow with Boston Ballet as it grew from a fledgling regional company to one of national and international reputation. Certainly my dance background informed my role as a partner with the Artistic Director, but it also gave me a hands-on understanding of what is absolutely necessary and what would be nice to have. This has always been useful during budget creation time.”

Brown isn’t afraid to provide the practical – and financial – counter-balance to the Artistic Vision. Even his attire seems to project that image: a smart business shirt and an executive tie, in matching but contrasting earth tones, that embody business judgment but with a nod towards the aesthetics. There is no doubt his “partnership,” as he calls it, with the two Artistic Directors is an active one, as the Company seems to be guided by his philosophy on touring:

“I believe there are several rationales for justifying the considerable expense, time investment and challenge of unforeseen obstacles that touring presents: 1) Touring is a moral booster for the artists of the company as well as the close supporters and donors who may actually join the company on tour; 2) Touring of course adds performance opportunities for artists and those performances are usually in interesting places; 3) Visibility for a unique repertoire of works can be an attractive reason for touring as well as building international visibility for our wonderful artists themselves; 4) Occasionally additional support for the company appears as a result of touring.  5) I feel however that the most compelling reason to tour is to find third party endorsement of the high quality of PNB.”

“The most important thing about touring is to be clear about why you are doing it.  All of the reasons cited above can be the basis for that clarity.” [more]

Brown is of the opinion that, “London certainly qualifies here [as a venue that interests dancers].” Of the tour he states, “Our offerings for the London engagement show not only those works in which we dance best, but our own production of Silver Lining, conceived, choreographed and produced by our own highly talented production staff with Artistic Director Kent Stowell's direction.”

The Company does have a highly talented production staff indeed. What good is a performance without costumes, props, set, lighting and all the little but essential details that make a world-class production? The job is challenging enough for a production staff but when you add the element of touring, the magnitude of the challenge intensifies. After all, you don’t have a ballet company on tour just by putting dancers on a plane. In addition to the 50 dancers, there will be “15 Production and Wardrobe crew, 6 Administrative staff, 6 Musical staff, and 4 Artistic staff” according to Company Manager Dwight Hutton. To augment this crew, there will be a local London-based crew, consisting of “20 Stage crew and 5 Wardrobe crew.”

“There are considerable [arrangements to be made], whether we are presented or self-presenting (we are self-presenting this time). Immigration issues, visas, and work permits. Monetary concerns – exchange rates and local tax laws.”

The arrangements of course extend to costumes, props and sets well before the Company departs for London. Hutton adds, “Timing is everything. You want to be sure you have everything you need. As the containers need to be shipped 6-8 weeks before they are needed, we must be preparing all of the arrangements and paperwork well before that. A month prior to their being shipped, all the carnets and inventories must be complete. We are shipping 3 containers of sets, costumes, etc. There are 200+ costumes traveling with us. We take all of the adapters, transformers, and generators necessary, primarily for the wardrobe equipment – sewing machines, steamers, etc. We do try to take all materials and tools that generally would be necessary for any show.”

On top of it all, you have the differences in the language even though it’s the same language. Hutton doesn’t believe there any problems with the language but admits, “Actually, it is fun learning their theater slang – getting some great new phrases.”

The mind-boggling inventory and the attention to detail for this tour is a clear indication that PNB is not skimping on this tour. “There have been some minor economies occurring with set pieces, etc. but nothing that materially affects the production,” according to Hutton. Londoners will get to see the works as they are meant to be seen. They are after all a world-class sophisticated audience that can spot a phony a mile away.

To get the word across, “PNB has retained three of the top arts marketing and PR folks in London to help us sell seats and get publicity,” according to Spellman. “Debra Boraston, Don Keller and Heather Kenmure make up our team, and they work in collaboration with the great staff at Sadler’s. In general, we market PNB the same in Seattle and London but we may use different words, visuals and graphics. Because Silver Lining is a non-traditional full-length ballet, we are targeting some non-traditional audiences such as those that attend Broadway shows and musicals.”

However, PNB is not unfamiliar with London and Sadler’s Wells, having performed there in 1999. Spellman adds, “We’re thrilled to be returning to London. It's familiar, so it’s a bit less stressful. It will allow us to focus on the diverse program we're presenting.”

“We loved our first visit to Sadler's Wells. It was a treat to be in London and to be one of the first ballet companies in the newly renovated theatre. Fond memories include being filmed by the BBC for our Midsummer Night's Dream DVD.”

“Sadler’s Wells is one of the best theatres we've performed in. It’s fabulous for dance. The close proximity of audience to dancer provides an intimate experience for everyone.”

“We were well received by London dance fans on our last visit, although there were two rather different crowds in attendance for Midsummer vs. the mixed bill. The student crowd was loudly appreciative of the mixed bill, more like a crowd we’d experience in the States. Our relationship with the London audience is too new to really describe it. I've heard that the summer audience is different than the rest of the Season, so it will be interesting to find out!”

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