The Australian Ballet was one of the first big arts bodies to shut its doors in response to COVID-19 and may be one of the last to return to theatres. It’s facing the most critical challenge in its 58-year history. But as Executive Director Libby Christie MAICD outlines, fast innovations and the launch of an online platform mean a buzzing digital season is still wowing audiences and around 80 dancers are still training hard as the board and executive prepare different complex scenarios for a return to work.
About 18,000 viewers tuned in to watch the first production to go online this year – The Sleeping Beauty. Happily, this is around the same number or more who would have sat in a theatre in a capital city to watch a production.
The online result is “fantastic”, and has attracted a whole new following, says Christie. “We're pretty confident that we're reaching more people than we would through our theatre seasons.
“In addition to giving our loyal audiences their fix of ballet, which they can’t get any other way at the moment, it's enabled us to get out to a broader audience of Australians who might be further afield and not able to have come to see our shows.
“For me, that is success because it's saying that more Australians are seeing The Australian Ballet and they can develop a sense of pride and ownership, and an interest in what we do and that's very important for us.”
Face-to-face dance classes have also gone online and adult demand is so strong that these classes will probably continue past the crisis and be factored into the business model, she adds.
Despite this success with free content, there are sobering revenue challenges, now and into next year and the future is largely unknown, says Christie. “We are facing a really terrible financial situation.”
While The Australian Ballet is subsidised by government, this subsidy is a small percentage of its income each year. About 65 per cent of annual income is earned from ticket sales. “We're very commercial in the way we operate,” says Christie. “And of course, with limitations on public gatherings, our ticket sales stopped, not just dwindled – they just stopped overnight.”
As events were cancelled, ticketholders were offered refunds or an option to donate to the organisation, which many have done. Other sources of income have been the JobKeeper Program and assistance from government partners on rent relief. Funding through the Australia Council for the Arts has been paid early, which has helped with cash flow but for the first time The Australian Ballet has had to take out a significant bank overdraft.
Here in a question-answer interview with the AICD, Christie answers some questions about how The Australian Ballet and its board is trying to plan for an unknown future
What scenarios are you looking at for recovery?
It’s fair to say that most of us for the last few months have been focused on how are we going to make it through this year to protect our people and company. And now we're starting to pivot our attention to what the future might require, but it's early days yet.
We're confident that we have this year covered. But if this goes on into 2021, or if there's a second spike and theatres don't reopen and people don't come back into theatres next year, we'll face really difficult issues, and have to make some tough decisions.
What we're doing is thinking positively and planning a range of scenarios that begin with a way back into theatres, maybe with reduced audiences. So what does that look like? The worst-case scenario is just one we are looking at. But nobody knows what's going to happen next. So it's really, really hard to plan, and we have to look at a whole range of scenarios that relate to modifications of business as usual. Then we naturally have to look at other scenarios where it's not business as usual and either the first half of the year is shut down but the second half isn't. I think when this started back in early March, all of us expected to be back in theatres sometime after September this year, but most of us have become more realistic now and that's unlikely to happen. So we've had to take a longer term or more conservative view.
What health factors are there to take into account?
We need to work on safe ways to get dancers back to work in our studios so they can prepare and rehearse before we even contemplate returning to theatres.
When it comes to theatres, there are people talking about maybe using alternate seating for example in theatres so there's social distancing for audiences, but the problem for us is that performers on stage can't be socially distanced, and nor can the musicians working in the orchestra pit. So, we all have to work together to find a way of safeguarding the health and safety of everybody – not just the audience but the performers as well.
What will the board consider first for the future?
Our next board meeting will be looking at plans for 2021 as well as the impact on 2020. I think firstly the board will be interested in understanding what impact this is all having on our business model next year. And part of the business model is…what do we put on stage? What are we going to be offering? And what are the financial implications and risks?
It even varies from state to state too and as we are a national company, while we might be headquartered in Melbourne, we perform around the country. So each state response is something that we have to understand and take into consideration.
How are you connecting with your board?
We have a regular series of board meetings, but we have had to add a few extraordinary meetings, to talk about plans for how the company is going to make it through 2020.
We also have a range of board committees - audit and risk and an investment committee which are holding extra meetings. I have regular check-ins with my chair. And I also provide the board with regular fortnightly updates on our cashflow and forecasts, how everyone in the company is managing, and how we're connecting with our audiences through our digital work. So the board is very connected with what we do and fully informed. It's a very collaborative and collegial approach between board and management and we're in regular contact with each other.
How are donations tracking?
For our philanthropic patrons, who we are always were in close contact with, their first question is always: ‘How are the dancers?’ We've had some dancers ringing some of our patrons and vice versa. To check in with each other.
The Australian Ballet has always been very grateful and dependent on a significant number of generous patrons, and they continue to stay really close and connected to us. Only time will really tell what impact the pandemic has had on their capacity to help us, we don't know yet. But we do know that we have their ongoing support and interest. And they'll continue to help us as much as they can.
We are also very grateful that some of our audience members have been happy to donate their tickets for cancelled performances and recognise the value of that to the company. It's fantastic because it's really increased the number of people who philanthropically support us.
How are you sustaining culture?
If you're a dancer, you're like an elite athlete. Every day that you're not training increases the time it's going to take you to get back into your working life. So while we can't have our dancers rehearsing in a studio, our dancers have been dialling in every day on the internet to do what we call our daily class for two hours under the supervision of a ballet master or ballet mistress.
Then they work with our medical team on strengthening and rehabilitation, on a one on one basis through Microsoft Teams. They're working with our physiotherapists and team to keep up their strength and technique. All this remote activity has been working effectively. That's been a top priority for the artistic and medical team in the company. The rest of the company is working on planning our 2021 season and staying connected with our philanthropists and our sponsors such as Telstra and providing the digital seasons. As we are not working normally, we've reduced everybody's time by 20 per cent back to 80 per cent, so that has given us some payroll relief as well.
It takes organisations like ours many, many decades to build up our talent with the world class dancers, creative workers and musicians that now make up the company. To have to put your career on pause in the middle is really challenging and quite critical for our people. So, to make sure that they are confident that their careers can continue after this with us is a top priority for us.
My team and the executive of the organisation meet daily and we start every day by talking to each other. The first question we ask is, ‘How are your people?’ When we do identify people who are feeling low, making sure that we take extra, extra special care with them is a priority.
Once you've either worked in or been close to The Australian Ballet, you get this sense that we are a family and all care for each other. It’s part of our culture and so at a time like this, it's quite natural for us all to stay connected and to be concerned about each other's welfare.
More about Libby Christie
Libby Christie MAICD is a director on the boards of Standards Australia, Northrop Consulting Engineers, and the Major Performing Arts Group.
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