Studio Owners

Dalia Rawson's New Ballet Keeps Beating the Odds

Students and Studio Company dancers join Rawson on the steps of their new building, before social distancing became necessary for COVID-19. Photo by Daniel Garcia, courtesy of New Ballet

Silicon Valley Ballet announced in February 2016 that the company would close and file for bankruptcy. The closure included the school—and $250,000 in tuition money for the current school year and summer program was lost in the bankruptcy.

But the collapse could not take down Dalia Rawson, the school director. A survivor who had weathered the company's financial upheaval for years—and her own life-threatening illness—the bankruptcy didn't stop her.

Just two weeks after Silicon Valley Ballet closed, she incorporated a brand-new entity, New Ballet. What started as an effort to offer classes to the school's 250 students through the term they had already paid for turned into a fresh start for a school freed from a troubled company.

But it would take another four years for the school to fully emerge from the tumult of its past, marked at the end of February with a ribbon cutting on the school's new home.

"It's been a long journey to get here, and there were many moments when I wondered if it would happen," says Rawson, even as she faces a new challenge of temporary closure due to COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place order in her county. "I'm grateful for all the lessons that put us in a strong position."

Weathering Many Storms

Silicon Valley Ballet was the last iteration of what started as Cleveland Ballet in 1972. Cleveland Ballet adopted an unusual two-city model in 1985 and became San Jose Cleveland Ballet, though the dancers remained based in Cleveland. Rawson joined the company as a dancer in 1991.

She says the company always seemed to struggle financially, but it was still a shock when, in 2000, the Cleveland arm abruptly folded two weeks into the season. The company continued on a smaller scale as Ballet San Jose, and later, after 2012, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley.

Shortly after the company settled in San Jose, Rawson began teaching at the company's school, primarily because the cost of living in San Jose was so much higher than Cleveland. "I was hoping to save to buy a condo someday," Rawson says, joking. "But then I fell in love with teaching."

She continued to perform and teach until 2006, when she developed intense back pain and fatigue. She thought it was the stress of Nutcracker season, but she was soon diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin lymphoma. She underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation, followed by a bone-marrow transplant with an experimental treatment using what are called cytokine-induced killer cells, which only a few people had received before her. She eventually made a full recovery, but it ended her 15-year performing career.

"I was 31. I couldn't come back after the treatment and expect to be at the level I was at," Rawson says. "I put all my energy into teaching."

Taking the Reins

In 2012, the company ousted its founding artistic director Dennis Nahat, in a move to partner with American Ballet Theatre. ABT principal José Manuel Carreño later took the helm. Many of Rawson's longtime colleagues also left the organization, including the school director. Rawson was offered the position.

She rose to the challenge. In her first year, she doubled the school's budget from $500,000 to $1 million in revenue through a variety of changes: She raised tuition to parity with other area schools, grew the summer session and added new programs for younger dancers. "That first year was total madness, but it was wonderful," says Rawson.

Her appointment as director was conditional on her implementing the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum, something she wasn't familiar with. She traveled to New York City to meet with the ABT curriculum directors to see if it was a fit. They agreed to work with her, and she led the transition of the San Jose faculty to ABT certification and established the school as an ABT satellite.

Rawson says that the new curriculum was a factor in the first-year budget growth, because it helped justify the general tuition hike. It also increased enrollment of advanced students, who pay higher tuition for intensive training. "I instantly connected with the curriculum, on a pedagogy level and as a business model," she says. "It has a place for students of every ability, which allows us to train as many kids as possible."

As the school prospered, the professional company teetered on the brink of closure. Elizabeth Gummere was one of the consultants brought in to assess the company's finances. But Gummere saw a bright spot. "The school was doing brilliantly," she says. "I thought, 'If there was any way the school could be on its own, that would be great.'"

Starting Fresh

The closing of the company was devastating for Rawson. She grew up in San Jose watching the company, and that inspired her to one day join. But what upset her most was that school families lost $250,000 in tuition money in the bankruptcy.

"It broke my heart," Rawson says. "I had to find a way to do something, or I couldn't live with myself."

She set out to incorporate as a new entity that could continue to offer classes, at least through the time parents had already paid for. Sleepless nights of reading legal books and talking to lawyer friends followed, and within two weeks she incorporated New Ballet.

The community rallied around her. Gummere filed for the incorporation with her and joined the new board. Ten faculty and staff volunteered their time for the first few weeks of classes. Those who could volunteered longer, and some took a smaller paycheck for a bridge period. Rawson volunteered for months.

Elizabeth Hutter, now the principal of New Ballet, was on faculty at the time of the bankruptcy. She says she didn't flinch when Rawson told her of the closure. "I told her, 'As long as my door code works, I'll keep coming," says Hutter, who showed up the day after the news to teach as usual, as did many others. "I've never seen that kind of groundswell in an organization to do the right thing."

Hutter says that while not all the teachers and pianists were in the position to volunteer, there were enough not to cancel any classes, even if some were combined and used recorded music.

The effort wasn't lost on the school's families. Bill Perry had two kids in the school at the time and later joined New Ballet's board.

"It felt scary when the bankruptcy happened. There wasn't another school in the area I was excited about for my kids," says Perry. "But Dalia was quick to respond. We saw it was going to be all right."

Rawson and the new board set out to raise funds to sustain operations until new tuition money started coming in for the summer program and the next year. But raising money during the first few months was risky. New Ballet was incorporated, but 501(c)3 tax-exempt status took another four months. "I had to tell any potential donors that whatever money they donate may not qualify for not-for-profit tax benefits should the application be denied," she says.

But donors had faith in her. The school raised more than $117,000 before the nonprofit status came in June.

Hutter says she never doubted Rawson. "I had seen over and over that if she put her mind to something, it was going to happen," she says. "So, I and others hung in. We didn't know how it would evolve, but we knew it would be something great."

The Search for a New Home

The school continued on in the same building it had always shared with the company. But the landlord quickly informed Rawson they intended to sell. While they offered her affordable rent and said they'd give her time for a search, she'd have to face the daunting Silicon Valley real estate market.

It seemed too good to be true when SVCREATES, a nonprofit that promotes the arts in the area, offered to include New Ballet in an arts campus it was developing, but that fell through after months of planning.

She looked with brokers and on her own to find the right space downtown. With few options, she considered moving the school to the suburbs.

"I didn't want to lose the ballet as part of the grit and fabric of downtown culture after all these years," she says. "But it looked like it was going to have to happen."

Six months later (their landlord agreed not to sell until they found a new space, but had an interested buyer by this time), they found something that looked promising. It was an athletic club space in a large event hall downtown. It needed minimal renovation, and the landlord was motivated to rent to New Ballet because a ballet school fit the same zoning requirements as the athletic club.

"It was like, 'Wow, how did this fall in our laps?'" says Perry, who helped Rawson with the search.

Rawson made the deal, giving New Ballet a home of its own and the stability that eluded it for so long.

The school has 350 year-round students and a 14-member studio company, and it now has enough performances per year to offer a subscription series to San Jose audiences who haven't had that since the company closed. In May, the board approved a plan for a full professional company for the 2020–21 season, with Rawson named artistic and executive director of New Ballet.

Rawson never imagined she'd be in charge of the remains of what was once San Jose Cleveland Ballet. She credits Nahat, the organization's founder, for her success handling big challenges. "After cancer, it felt like I wasn't scared of anything. I should just go for it," she says. "And then I understood what Dennis had always told me: 'Don't ever say no. Keep working until you're the last one standing.'"

Photo by Trisha Leeper, courtesy of New Ballet

Calpulli Tonalehqueh bestows an Aztec blessing at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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