Ballet Austin's downtown decision pays off.

Ballet Austin chose to refurbish an existing space rather than build from the ground up. In Austin, Texas, downtown is for dancing. This year Ballet Austin celebrated its fourth anniversary in impressive quarters located in the heart of the trendy 2nd Street District of this rapidly growing metropolis, where yesterday’s dilapidated neighborhoods are tomorrow’s desired addresses. At a time when it might have made good sense to move to the suburbs, where space was cheaper and convenient to a large student population and their minivan-driving moms, Artistic Director Stephen Mills and his team took a risk and moved to the still-marginal downtown district. Four years later, the area is as hip as it gets, with condominiums across the street, chic coffeehouses and eateries, a new City Hall building, the new W Hotel and Austin City Limits studios. “It was a gamble,” says Mills. “We weren’t sure people would follow us there. Maybe it’s serendipity, but it all came together.”

The Butler Dance Education Center houses the professional company, Ballet Austin Academy (founded in 1956 by Barbara Carson) and the Butler Community School, the organization’s newest enterprise. The off-white limestone and glass building has eight studios, 34,000 square feet of space, a 760-square-foot state-of-the-art Pilates Center, an in-house 287-seat performance space and a 60-seat community meeting room. With 4,000 students coming and going throughout the year and a rising company presence, the experiment in urban trailblazing has proved a success.

It all began in 1999 when Mills had a vision. At the time, the ballet company’s operations were spread among four buildings, three of which were near the University of Texas campus, 30 blocks north of the current location. The organization longed to consolidate.

“Standing on a hillside, I had an epiphany to build a downtown urban dance center,” Mills says. “It’s a way to insert dance into everyday life.” Executive Director Cookie Ruiz tells the story of how Mills sent her on “a goose chase” to drive home his point. He took her up a hill, then told her to turn around so that she could take in the impressive vista of Austin’s downtown. “Find me a place there,” he told her.

With full-length windows and an open feel, the industrial building that Ballet Austin took two years to refurbish serves as a beacon for dance, allowing street traffic to glance inside and see an array of movement forms. The tasteful but nonetheless flashy Ballet Austin sign combined with large, flag-like dance photos vaulting from the sides of the building give ample visibility. The transparency welcomes viewers to be more engaged in the company’s process. “You can’t ignore us; our walls are glass,” says Mills. “People can’t help but know we are here.”

For Director of Schools Bill Piner, the advantage is having everything in one building. “We are a lean and mean streamlined operation,” he says. Ballet Austin can boast $2 million of income for the combined schools (in the 2009–10 fiscal year). “It has far exceeded our wildest dreams,” he says.

Two schools under one roof sounds complicated, but once you get used to seeing bunheads leave one studio while hip-hop students enter, it’s really just a great way to get a whole lot of motion happening in one building. “We don’t feel a separation,” says Vicki Parsons, who manages both schools. “We share the same space.”

Savvy marketing tools ensure a steady stream of students: a lively social media campaign, class card flexibility that allows students to jump around, a personal e-mail welcome to every new registrant and “Come Dance,” an annual day of free classes that begins the season. The location has proved to be both mom- and college-student-friendly, too. There are things for parents to do inside and outside, with classes conveniently scheduled at the same time as kids’ classes, and handy cafés and hike-and-bike trails just outside the door.

Since the Butler Community School offers just about every kind of dance and movement, Ballet Austin now has a greater connection to the local dance community. More than 2,700 students are dispersed over 63 classes per week, including Pilates, Zumba, modern, hula, Feldenkrais and a full range of dance fitness opportunities. The BCS Kid’s Zone, for ages 8–12, offers classes in everything from tap to musical theater.

“I have the freedom to grow the program,” says Parsons, who seeks out teachers with either extensive experience in their field or the appropriate credentials. “Ballet Fit is immensely popular now,” she says. Technically, they are farther from the university than they used to be, yet ties with college students are stronger. “Our Student Rush Sundays are popular with UT and St. Edward’s students,” says Parsons.

While the class offerings at the Butler Community School shift according to what’s new and interesting to the student body, the curriculum for the Academy, on the other hand, remains fairly consistent. Yet the building structure is laid out so that students of all kinds of dance roam and mingle.

“It’s not your normal ballet academy,” says Lynne Short, Academy principal, who on her way to class can just as easily step around kids taking tap as she would Academy trainees. “A wonderful variety of people come in to get in shape,” she says. “All kinds of music wafts through the halls. We have every kind of dance here and across the age range; it’s really energized the building.”

The Academy has also grown, with an enrollment of 1,018, including three levels of Creative Movement (ages 3–5), three levels of pre-ballet (ages 5–7), three levels of Lower School and five levels of Upper School. Currently 18 trainees study at the highest level, and there are 10 Ballet Austin II members. “We are a serious ballet school offering a high level of training,” says Short. “But we also want our students to experience different types of dance.” The downtown location has worked well for students who relocate to Austin to train at the Academy; part-time jobs are readily available in the booming area nearby.

Short also appreciates the greater activity between the company and both schools. “Company members teach ballet for both schools; they are like rock stars here,” she says.

Mills likes the idea that someone can take a ballet class once a week as a hobby while another person is training for a career, and all in his sleek digs. Either way, it’s all about the appreciation of dance. “I see less division between the schools and the company now,” he says. “And new people have definitely ended up in our seats. We had the largest ticket sales of The Nutcracker in our history this year [December 2010].” Meanwhile, growth in the downtown area continues, with more development to the south and more people consistently moving in. Says Mills, “The experiment has proved my idea that art has to be relevant in people’s lives.” DT

 

Nancy Wozny writes from Houston about the arts and health.

Photo by Andrew Yates, courtesy of Ballet Austin

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