New Orleans Ballet Association has staged a remarkable comeback after Hurricane Katrina.
A glance at Google Maps told Jenny Hamilton most of what she needed to know about the state of the New Orleans Ballet Association after Katrina, the Category 5 hurricane that rendered the city 80 percent underwater on August 29, 2005. She wasn’t surprised to find that 12 out of 14 of NOBA’s teaching sites were damaged, along with the organization’s offices; presenting venue, the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts; and, of course, her apartment. “I never cried,” says Hamilton, NOBA’s executive director. “I couldn’t afford too much emotion.” With a staff scattered across five states after the storm, she returned to Louisiana to rebuild not only an organization but a city.
Rebuilding meant giving back to New Orleans something it desperately needed besides food, fresh water and housing—the free dance classes and inspirational performances NOBA was responsible for. Despite its compromised resources, NOBA’s leadership, staff and community all came together to create one of the most robust comeback stories in the dance field.
Getting Back on Their Feet
NOBA, which started in 1969 as a civic ballet company, eventually evolved into an education and presenting organization—one that’s accumulated many national awards and honors for best practices. Since the early 1990s, thanks in part to a partnership with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC), NOBA has offered classes—recreational and pre-professional—through the school systems and community organizations.
After the storm in 2005, Hamilton returned to Louisiana and had classes running again in two months—an extraordinary feat considering the extent of the damage. NOBA suffered $100,000 in losses—including dance equipment (barres, mirrors, A/V electronics, sprung floors, marley, music), office equipment (phones, computers, furniture) and the damage to the buildings. With the Mahalia Jackson Theater closed—it wouldn’t open again for another three and a half years—upcoming productions had to be canceled, and NOBA lost 75 percent of its projected earned revenue for the 2005–06 season. An emergency cash reserve went toward compensating the staff members. “We never missed a paycheck,” says Hamilton proudly.
Without 12 of their 14 classroom sites, Hamilton and her team arranged to teach in neighboring Jefferson Parish. They put up yard signs around the largest city, Metairie, announcing “Free Dance Classes,” along with Hamilton’s personal cell phone number. “It was the Wild West,” she says. More than 65 organizations from all over the U.S. came to the rescue with supplies worth more than $500,000, and some sent cash, like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which contributed $5,000.
“The generosity of dance organizations was simply incredible,” says Hamilton. Her future husband’s home was soon filled floor-to-ceiling with donated materials such as tights, leotards, dance shoes, costumes, warm-ups, CDs, dance magazines and books. NOBA’s regular donors contributed, too. “Many called to see how they could help, and many of our subscribers generously donated the value of their subscriptions back to us,” she says.
In the meantime, Hamilton scrambled to reconfigure the performance season for the following spring at Tulane University, a venue less than half the size of the Mahalia Jackson Theater. David Parsons donated the Parsons Dance company artistic fee, and the Joffrey Ballet curated a repertory program that would fit the Tulane theater. Though NOBA sold fewer tickets because of the smaller venue, Hamilton considers the performances a triumph over adversity: “We filled the house when we didn’t know the location of more than 50 percent of our audience, and much of the city was still in ruins.”
The Show Must Go On
Now, 10 years later, things are better than ever, and NOBA continues to bring programming to communities as schools reopen. In January of this year, NOBA started an early childhood development program for students ages 3 to 5.
The organization now offers free classes at 10 sites across three parishes, and tights, leotard and shoes are provided to every student in need. “When the first city recreation center reopened after Katrina,” says Hamilton, “NOBA began the tuition-free dance programs again. We’ve since raised the funds to bring tuition-free classes back to each neighborhood center as it reopens or is rebuilt. The demand for classes has increased with each year since the storm, with waiting lists at many of the centers.”
The pre-professional program has doubled its enrollment since the storm and is holding steady at 100. NOBA pre-professional students get the chance to learn from visiting artists like the Martha Graham Dance Company, Parsons Dance and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Graduates tend to head to Ailey II and institutions like SUNY Purchase, Houston Ballet Academy and Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “Our students are exposed to an extremely sophisticated and varied array of technical and choreographic styles—not only in the dance studio, but on local and national stages,” says Millette White, education coordinator.
NOBA has also expanded its partnership with NORDC to create a program for senior citizens. Initiated two years after Katrina, “this program now serves almost 300 seniors a year with a comprehensive fitness program,” says Hamilton. “We’re serving record numbers of participants ages 3 to 80-plus—1,750 each year.” In fact, NOBA’s current challenge is serving everyone who wants to take part in the programs offered, says Susan Bensinger, who manages the youth dance programs.
The Silver Lining
If there is such a thing as a silver lining to an event as devastating as Hurricane Katrina, it’s the recognition NOBA has achieved as a great example of urban arts planning in action. The organization gained national attention for its impressive adaptability and how quickly it restored services.
Hamilton says it’s the dedicated faculty’s sustained engagement with the community that has enabled the organization to develop deep roots in the city. Over the years, not only have they introduced many dance artists to New Orleans audiences, but NOBA has also forged unique collaborations between choreographers and the musicians New Orleans is famous for. Under the Choreographer/NOLA Musician Commission Initiative for instance, NOBA was able to present the world premiere of Trey McIntyre’s Ma Maison (2008) set to the music of Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Financially, the organization is on solid ground. The operating budget has grown since Katrina by more than 40 percent, and Hamilton and her staff have managed the growth with a thoughtful eye.
“Of course we survived the storm—we’re an arts organization,” says Hamilton. “We are trained as artists to deal with adversity and be creative. This is how we are built.” DT
Nancy Wozny covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ dance world for DanceMedia from Houston, Texas, where she lives and writes.
From top: Thinkstock; by Jeff Strout, courtesy of NOBA; courtesy of NOBA; (6) by Jeff Strout, courtesy of NOBA