The Fall and Rise of the Joffrey Ballet School
Turning a founder’s artistic vision into a sustainable business
Davis Robertson has a rotary telephone sitting on his desk. It originally belonged to Edith D’Addario, the one-woman band who ran New York City’s Joffrey Ballet School for the last half of the 20th century. According to Joffrey lore, D’Addario had happened upon her position almost accidentally: In the early 1960s, she was sitting in the lobby of the school as her daughter Gail took class, when the telephone began ringing incessantly. With no office person to pick up the call—co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino were busy teaching classes—D’Addario planted herself behind the desk and began answering the phone. She soon became the Joffrey Ballet School’s office manager and then in 1966 the executive director, working until just a few years before her death in 2007.
Robertson—who is artistic director of JBS’ performance troupe, the Joffrey Concert Group—keeps the phone as a reminder of how far the school has come since the Edith D’Addario days. Though D’Addario was a galvanizing force in the history of JBS, by the time her health began declining, the organization was a shambles. Attendance had been dwindling for years. Records weren’t being kept properly; the few that existed were on paper. The school had only one very outdated Apple computer, used strictly for e-mail. (D’Addario preferred her typewriter, which she kept bolted to her desk.) The school’s website was one static page, asking visitors to call the school for more information. The school had only one performance, at the end of the year. Advertising had fallen apart. It was all on the verge of going under.
Today, nearly a decade later, the Joffrey Ballet School is thriving, thanks to top-to-bottom professionalizing, a diverse training model and identifying—and expanding—revenue generators. With 89 teachers, artistic directors and administrators employed in NYC, seven summer programs scattered across the U.S. (Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and NYC) and two international intensives in Florence and Moscow, JBS has grown its enrollment exponentially and blossomed into a financially stable, profitable institution.
Moving the Needle
Getting there, of course, was no picnic. When D’Addario’s health took a turn for the worse in 2005, her daughter Gail—the former JBS student—stepped in. But she’d never operated a business day-to-day and soon found herself in over her head. Enter Chris D’Addario and Lee Merwin, childhood best friends with matching MBAs. D’Addario, who is Edith’s grandson (and Gail’s son) and was at the time entrenched in his property investment business, sent Merwin in his stead to take control of the flailing organization and try to turn things around. Merwin began operating as managing director: He modernized the accounting, installed a proper phone system, got everyone on e-mail and slowly expanded JBS’ advertising presence. He even found permanent housing on a nearby block for full-time out-of-town students.
Working with the initially skeletal organization was a challenge. “When I got there, there was no way to see the actual state of the finances,” Merwin says. “I only knew what was in the bank account and a little payroll history. The first two years were a lot of me calling the landlord and telling him we’d be a month or two late on rent.”
Merwin dug in, often running the reception desk and taking people’s payments for the evening adult classes himself because he couldn’t afford to have someone else do it. “My first winter, I had to get everyone to agree to a 15 percent pay cut, which I made up to them over the following summer,” he says. But his thriftiness and business acumen paid off: He eventually hired a bookkeeper, followed by two more full-time office administrators. With a better understanding of the business’ divisions—the year-round JBS students, the audition tours, the summer intensives—Merwin was able to stabilize the finances. He and D’Addario realized the real cash cow of the organization was the summer intensives and quickly increased the number of auditions held around the country.
No More Robbing Peter
Five years later, at the point of near burnout, Merwin took a break from JBS and D’Addario stepped in. (Merwin would later be coaxed into returning, as director of operations, in 2011.) D’Addario set about changing the standards for his artistic staff—there are four program directors at JBS—to further incorporate a business perspective: Retention rates and performance budgets became an expected part of their vernacular.
When Jo Matos, artistic director of the children’s and young dancers’ programs, begins planning the annual spring performance, the show’s budget is front and center. “We must propose a budget to Chris that includes every single dollar that will be spent,” says Matos. “So I get proposed expenses from my musical director and the production director who does my lights, and then I see how I can fit those in my budget and where I need to make adjustments. It’s all based on: This is the size of the house; this is how much we’re going to charge; this is how much things cost.”
This fiscal responsibility is a new—and even refreshing—experience for the program directors. “We’ve had meetings about the bottom line we have to meet, cost ratios and things you wouldn’t normally have to embrace as an artistic director,” says Robertson, who feels the biggest impact of Merwin and D’Addario “has been the understanding on the artistic end of the business end and vice versa.” That wasn’t the prevailing attitude before: “We would often rob Peter to pay Paul, thinking everything would magically happen,” says Robertson. “Now there’s great care taken.”
The Not-So-Hard Hard Sell
With an eye carefully trained on bringing in revenue, the JBS adopted a unique, threefold approach to its student training: First, it continued to expand programming to include a wide variety of disciplines; second, it now embraces a larger student population than just the upper echelon of pre-professionals; and third, the curriculum itself—now well-structured with tangible benchmarks and continuity from level to level—is designed to attract and retain high school–age students over four years.
“I wanted to fundamentally transform the ideology of the JBS to getting the kids jobs,” says D’Addario. “How could we make them the most well-rounded, versatile, professional dancers, and happy in their careers?” What really set Robert Joffrey apart, he says, was “his fundamental understanding of dance and dancers—training them not just in classical and contemporary ballet but in multiple forms of dance, and embracing talent and passion over body type. I wanted to incorporate that philosophy within JBS.”
Robert Ray, the director of the ballet trainee program and the overarching artistic director of JBS, was brought on board in 2011 specifically for his curriculum-writing abilities. Ray had been a professor at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in Australia, where he wrote the curriculum for the postgraduate diploma in classical ballet. “The brief from Christopher D’Addario was to structure it more in a collegiate way,” says Ray. “A course had to be much more identifiable in its components.” Before he arrived, the learning models were “a bit vague” and “wouldn’t have passed muster” in an academic setting. “Up until we made these changes, the Joffrey Ballet School was a place to hang about for a year or two,” says Ray. “But now when the trainees enter what they know is a four-year course, there’s much more a sense of completing it.”
When Michael Blake applied for his position as artistic director of the jazz and contemporary program, he immediately knew this would be a much more demanding job than any he’d had in the past, even as a college professor. “They made me jump through hoops to get the job,” he says. “I had to dream up a program and put it on paper—it was like a 10-page presentation about my goals.” Such careful attention paid to a division other ballet schools might view as secondary is a hallmark of JBS. Because the school is not affiliated with the Joffrey Ballet, its students need not be specifically trained to feed into the ballet company. (The Joffrey Ballet, which relocated to Chicago in 1995, opened its own Academy of Dance in 2009.) JBS exists as its own entity, albeit bearing the Joffrey name and focusing on Robert Joffrey’s original vision.
By exposing its students to a smorgasbord of disciplines, and by enrolling those who might not meet the ballerina ideal, JBS has earned a reputation as an institution steeped in the 21st century, preparing its trainees for diverse dance careers. Since Blake’s arrival three years ago, the jazz and contemporary program alone has grown to 80 students from 20. Ray thinks such varied training leads to longevity. “That’s how they’ll have a long career, if they can do lots of different things,” he says. “We’re not just training the body but also the mind—to have an open mind about dance and not be channeled in just one direction.”
Robertson feels freed by the school’s multifaceted training approach. “If I were only trying to funnel dancers into the Joffrey,” he says, “there’s no way that I could really develop them to have the best of careers.” Last year, 70 percent of the Joffrey Concert Group dancers found professional dance jobs. But Robertson and the rest of the JBS faculty are just as attentive to their students who will never become professionals. “Far too often, we dance instructors are looking at the top one percentile,” says Robertson. “But then we’re only training people we hope will be in the top end of performers. We’re not educating individuals who will be our next audience.”
Delivering the Goods
Along with the overhaul of JBS’ training model and general professionalization, the Chris D’Addario era has ushered in financial sustainability. His first step as executive director was sitting down with Merwin and creating a project management business cycle for the school, as well as a long-term strategy for growth over the next decade. “We had to transform how the business was run,” says D’Addario.
Concentrating on diverse training as a way to build enrollment has worked wonders. What was once an organization on the brink of folding has become one firmly in the black, with new revenue streams and expanded programming. The number of JBS year-round trainees has multiplied twelvefold, and more than 70 percent of the summer intensive students return for two, three or even four years. The summer intensive program itself has exploded, with 4,000 students in 2013 across seven domestic locations and two international ones, all directed by JBS staff. The number of dancers who audition for the summer intensive has hit 10,000, up from 800. Two hundred sixty trainees participate in the year-round ballet and jazz/contemporary programs combined, up from 30, with plans to reach 300 for the 2014–15 school year. Not including the adult drop-in classes, JBS enrolls 960 students across all of its programs.
A large part of this success can be attributed to D’Addario’s eagle eye for business—which scrutinizes all the way from Texas: Not wanting to raise a family in NYC, he lives in Dallas with his wife and three kids. D’Addario thinks the long-distance management strategy works because of his emphasis on communication. When he’s not e-mailing or calling or conferencing with his business associates or artistic staff, he’s encouraging them to share and cultivate their ideas on a daily basis. “Artistic directors don’t have their own fiefdoms,” he says. “You’re part of a larger organization that requires communication.” And he’s made a point of hiring businesspeople who know how to “manage artistic personalities and still maintain their sanity,” he says.
D’Addario is very hands-on himself, auditing every phone call and e-mail from parents each week. And he reviews the results of every summer intensive audition and the financial breakdown (so that he knows exactly how many scholarships the organization can afford to give out at the following audition). He has an eye for design and aesthetics, which lends itself to sleek advertising campaigns but also some nitpickiness. “We’ve done photo shoots where I’ve scrapped the entire thing, and I’m just chewing people out,” says D’Addario. “But I think the end product of what we put out is completely superb.” Indeed, JBS’ new in-house customer service program, in place since fall 2013, commissioned surveys—sent to more than 2,000 people—that have scored in the 98th percentile for satisfaction.
Now D’Addario is poised to take what he’s done for JBS to a broader audience. He’s developed a database operating system called Studio Pulse that he’s implemented at JBS and hopes to market to studios nationwide by the end of the year. The software takes attendance, organizes scheduling, keeps track of payroll and revenue, allows employees to sign into an online portal and can text and e-mail schedule updates in real time. “It’s all about communicating and sharing ideas, cultivating these ideas at an artistic level and deciding how to translate them for your business,” says D’Addario. “I want to empower other schools.” DT
By the Numbers
Total enrollment: 960
•Children’s and Young Dancers’ program: 700
•Ballet program: 180
•Jazz/Contemporary program: 80
Members of the Joffrey Concert Group: 30
Summer intensive enrollment: 4,000
Adult enrollment: 700+ (open classes)
Photo (top) by Christopher Duggan; all others, James Culp, courtesy of JBS
Photos (bottom) by Alex Maxwell, courtesy of JBS