"FROM REEBOKS TO POINTE SHOES, BALLET FLORIDA HAS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE." - NY TIMES
"FROM REEBOKS TO POINTE SHOES, BALLET FLORIDA HAS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE." - NY TIMES
THE HISTORY OF THE ORIGINAL BALLET FLORIDA: 1986 - 2009
FROM 1986 TO 2009, BALLET FLORIDA HAD INCREDIBLE HISTORY SHARING DANCE WITH THE WORLD!
As the 80’s decade began, Marie Hale and Lynda Swiadon Bucheck had already developed a very important and successful school of dance. From an Artistic viewpoint, The School of Ballet Arts was producing incredibly dedicated and talented students. The performing company known as Ballet Arts Theatre was very well known for highly professional performances , which filled a missing niche for dance performances in South Florida. As the decade progressed, it became clear that the time had come to create a fully professional resident dance company for Palm Beach County.
In 1986 Director Marie Hale founded Ballet Florida. It was not to be another “museum” company presenting only classical work, as the mission of the Company was also to present innovative and new works by both renowned choreographers of the 20th Century and emerging new talents.
Starting out, there was only a small handful of staff. Lynda Swaidon Bucheck, Joseph J. Bucheck III, Claudia Cravey, Janet Mackey, Jamie Medalie Longhurst, Diane Oslund, Mitchell Sulivan, and volunteer Muriel Wolinski helped run the day to day business - from classes and rehearsals to ticket sales, development and marketing, and even cleaning the building. This new fully professional ballet Company began to forge ahead!
From the beginning, Ballet Florida’s impressive and eclectic repertoire started to take shape, along with a corps of talented dancers from around the world. Former ballerina and star Claudia Cravey became the Company’s Ballet Mistress.
In the Inaugural Year, one of the Company’s first commissions was Romeo and Juliet choreographed by Vicente Nebrada, the world-renowned Director and Choreographer of the National Ballet of Caracas. He became great friends with Mrs. Hale and the Company. Throughout the years, Ballet Florida performed several incredible ballets by Mr. Nebrada, many of which were commissioned especially for the company.
Ballet Florida had also had begun to build a substantial subscription series while presenting three different shows, along with The Nutcracker, within its first year. Donations started to come in and the Company also appeared in several cities. It was evident that Palm Beach County now had its first and only full-time resident ballet company, and the public was ecstatic!
THE COMPANY GROWS
Over the following years, under the directorship and watchful eye of Marie Hale, Ballet Florida continued to develop as an incredible and recognized company. Exceptional artists from all over the world auditioned to be a part of the company whose reputation preceded it around the globe. They wanted to have an opportunity to work with incredible creators of dance! Mrs. Hale had also assembled a superior artistic staff, many of whom remained with the Company until the day it closed in 2009.
The Company presented phenomenal works created by the world’s most celebrated dancemakers. Mrs. Hale had developed and/or maintained an extensive list of long-time friendships with respected choreographers like Lou Conte, Ben Stevenson O.B.E., Mauricio Wainrot, William Soleau, Thierry Malandain, Val Caniparoli, Robert Davis, Sean Lavery and John Butler, along with many others. These friendships allowed other choreographers to feel comfortable allowing the Company to perform yet more incredible work.
Prominent set, costume and lighting designers came from all over the world to help create moods and visuals for what choreographers placed on the stage. They all worked with other major dance companies, Broadway shows and plays.
As the repertoire continued to grow, the Company’s incredible reputation expanded. Over the years, audiences packed the Royal Poinciana Playhouse, West Palm Beach Auditorium, Duncan Theatre at Palm Beach State College (Lake Worth Beach) and the Eissey Theatre at Palm Beach State College (Palm Beach Gardens).
The word of the Company’s reputation for excellence spread like wildfire!
THE ENTIRE WORLD SAW BALLET FLORIDA
Between 1986 and 2009, Ballet Florida embarked on major tours throughout 48 States. The Company was presented by many dance festivals across the county. In 1999, and 2001, Ballet Florida was invited to participate at the International Dance Festival in Biarritz, and the week-long engagement at the Joyce Theatre in 2002 was made it a benchmark year!
A tour was booked years in advance. Strategic planning involving bookings, hotel accommodations, transportation logistics of sets, costumes, scenery and staff, and daily scheduling while on the road was always a group effort. It included Company Manager and Co-Founder Lynda Swiadon Bucheck, Production Staff Albert Mathers and A. George Cripps and Company Tour Manager Joseph J. Bucheck III. When the tour was by bus, the Company Manager and Tour Managers would always have a meeting with bus driver to go over everything concerning the tour!
While on the road, whether by bus or plane the entourage would include Artistic Director Marie Hale, Ballet Master Steven Hoff, and occasionally a member of the production staff who wanted to take to take a break from the trucks, sometimes press and guests, and always the Company Manager to make sure everyone was there and arrived on time!
In 1991, major milestones began to happen. Thanks to board members and major donors such as Leslie Claydon White, Ferris Ellis, J. David Veselsky, Albert Firestone, Dom and Susan Telesco, Colin Wright and Dr. Edward Sandall, Ballet Florida moved out of its old building and into a fully renovated large studio and office space in the heart of the business district of Downtown West Palm Beach located at 500 Fern Street. The new location was dedicated by Queen Silvia of Sweden at a major event attended by local, regional and National notables and politicians while being covered by the international press.
Ballet Florida quickly became a catalyst for other businesses to move into the center of the city. Within a few years, Quadrille Boulevard was built followed by the Rosemary Square development (then called City Place). In years to come, the Ballet Florida building became one of the few buildings in Downtown West Palm Beach to adorned with a major mural on the largest exterior wall.
The Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, finishing construction in 1992, became the Resident Home Theater of Ballet Florida, where the Company programmed four major productions a year including SOLD OUT performances of Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker.
The Company also held three other productions at the venue a Season!
Within a few years, Ballet Florida introduced The Eissey Series at the new Eissey Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens, thus increasing attendance by approximately 4,800 audience members a year above the people who were already attending the Company’s performances in other established venues.
The year the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts opened, Mare Hale premiered her incredible production of Marie Hale's The Nutcracker in Dreyfoos Hall. With astonishing sets, beautiful consumes and dazzling special effects, it immediately became the hallmark of the Company. It was the “must-see event” of the winter holidays! Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker was originally created as a $1.2million production. However, each year Mrs. Hale would add something to keep it fresh. Over the years, the production assured audiences an experience they would want to attend over and over again!
MORE FIRSTS AND INNOVATIONS
The Company was the first non-profit performing arts organization in South Florida to have its box office completely computerized, including ticket printers. Director of Audience Services Joseph J. Bucheck III always strived for the best technology. He also secured a very large donation by Norm Hazel, of the most up-to-date computers (monitors and printers) for each staff member in the building. Mr. Hazels donations also included technology to every office in the building!
The company was also one of the few arts organizations in the country to start using social media platforms. It started with Myspace and then, the new Facebook. The Director of Marketing, and Audience Services Joseph J. Bucheck III (also website creator/administrator) said, “between all the inquiries from Ballet Florida’s website and social media it would sometimes take me up to an hour to an hour and a half a day just to respond.”
Ballet Florida also had a wonderful reputation with subscribers and single-ticket buyers giving them unsurpassed customer service and consumer satisfaction. During the busiest times of the year Ballet Florida always tried to make sure there were enough staff to help anyone who called or came to the studio Box Office, in a timely and courteous fashion!
Ballet Florida’s incredible production staff Albert Mathers and A. George Cripps always used the best and most up-to-date theatrical equipment from lighting instruments, recording devices and special effects, including pyro techniques. They were always known to bring in a production below budget without risking the integrity of a show and always ensuring the safety of everyone backstage!
Thousands of people who attended Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker will remember that it actually snowed in the audience chamber after the First Act. Ballet Florida was the very first company to do this!
As Ballet Florida grew, so did support from generous philanthropists, donors and loyal subscribers. Ballet Florida was also very fortunate to receive support from the National Endowment for the Arts, The State of Florida, Palm Beach County, City of West Palm Beach, Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, MacArthur Foundation, Firestone Foundation, Bingham Foundation, Marlin Foundation, Rush Philanthropic Foundation, Pepsico, Tommy Hilfiger, Tiffany and Company, Van Clef and Arpel, Cartier, Richters, Target, Public Charities, The Breakers, PGA Golf Resort, The Chesterfield Palm Beach, Hampton Inn, Sheraton, Hotel, Palm Beach Post, Slimfast, Redkin, US Air, Air France, Delta Airlines, Alamo, Avis, John C. Cassidy Air Conditioning, Bucheck Construction, I.A.T.S.E Locals 500 and 623, to name a few. As a testament to Ballet Florida and Marie Hale, several Company members also made donations. Some dancers also organized fundraising parties and events.
FUNDRAISING AND YEARLY EVENTS
Like every other major arts organization in the world, Ballet Florida constantly had to fundraise during the season, including yearly special events. These events were always necessary to help with the Company’s ongoing success.
The Annual Galas were major fundraising opportunities. They gathered the “who’s who” of the social world for glamorous evenings of mingling, cocktails, dining and dancing - also featuring raffles and huge silent auctions with phenomenal items of fine art work, jewelry, European or Caribbean vacations and cruises.
The Tommy Hilfiger Golf Tournament was a three-day event. At the time, Tommy Hilfiger only lent his name and brand to two organizations in the entire nation. The Tournament was held at an exclusive private golf course/country club and attended by golfers of all levels. It also allowed many of these sportsmen an opportunity to play a course they otherwise could not access. Attendees could also expect to receive a huge gift bag filled with Hilfiger merchandise like shirts, watches, golf balls and tees, towels and face cloths, skin care products and more. With a cocktail reception on Friday evening, golfers would take to the course on Saturday. Sunday evening was the Awards Banquet featuring the awards ceremony and of course, an evening of mingling, cocktails and dining with dancing - and also featured raffles and a huge silent auction.
The Golden Circle was comprised of subscribers (paying premium prices) who attended Ballet Florida’s Open Nights at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. They always sat in the best Center Orchestra and Grand Tier seats. There also included Ballet Florida’s major donors. Because most Golden Circle subscribers were also “founders” and donors of The Kravis Center, there was always a reception in the Founders’ Room before each Opening Night Performance, where members could also enjoy cocktails and hors d'oeuvres during intermission. Following the performance, Golden Circle subscribers would attend a major reception where they could meet and talk with the dancers.
Ballet Florida held fundraising events at the studio on a regular basis. Donors and guests, and often press would come and watch rehearsals. Afterwards, they would have lunch or if it was late afternoon, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. They would always be able to meet and talk with the dancers and staff!
It’s very important to mention Karen Martins, the Director of Development at the time. Many of these events were major and complex events which needed her highly organizational abilities and panache.
Each year Ballet Florida also held its Annual Fundraising Drive for donations. Since the mailing list was so huge, this was an arduous and time-consuming project. From preparation to mailing, the drive would take over a week. After personalized letters were prepared, Joseph J. Bucheck III would assemble at least fifteen volunteers to
assist in the stuffing, sealing and applying stamps to the appropriate addressees.
Each person who attended any performance could expect to find a self-mailer donation envelope in their program. These envelopes brought in additional and the always much needed funds.
Any ballet company will admit how important it is to have a boutique, both in-studio and especially at the theatre during performances. Ballet Florida was very fortunate to one that was always stocked with a fabulous array of items like opera glasses, umbrellas, t-shirts, hats, mugs, dolls, autographed pointe shoes and photographs, and more! During the run of Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker, Ballet Florida’s Boutique looked like a large Christmas store.
Volunteer Laura Hollywood managed the inventory and also worked behind the counter. It was run like a well-oiled machine. While just getting ready for shows, including Marie Hale's The Nutcracker, she would use her vacation time from her real job to get ready.
Ballet Florida’s Boutique made thousands and thousands of dollars a year. This income help offset many costs including the year’s productions.
Advertising for Ballet Florida was all-encompassing. Even if one didn’t attend a performance, consumers at least knew about Ballet Florida.
Print ads for Ballet Florida were seen in the Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Daily News, Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, The New York Times, Palm Beach Illustrated, Palm Beach Life, Palm Beach Society, Boca Magazine, Palm Beach Cultural Magazine, Charity Social Register, Dance Magazine, as well as various Parenting, Latin, and LGBTQ publications.
While on tour, ads were also seen in various cities before the Company arrived to perform. The Company also produced lavish brochures, and rack and post cards for the season and for individual productions. They were distributed and individually mailed all over South Florida including airports, performance venues, libraries and even up and down the Florida Turnpike, and major tourist attractions throughout the State.
Ballet Florida also advertised strategically on the radio and television. When the Palm Beach Post and Sun Sentinel started their digital formats, Ballet Florida was one of the first to jump on board to be seen online.
Ads were original and beautiful, custom created by Carolyn von Feilitzsch, the arts director for the Palm Beach Post. After she retired ad creation and rack cards were taken over with the same inspiration by A. George Cripps and by Joseph J. Bucheck III.
All Season Brochures were exquisite and created by A. George Cripps. All photos used always captured by world renowned dance photographers Steven Caras and Janine Harris.
Ballet Florida always felt the responsibility it owed to the community. Reaching far into the community of Palm Beach County, Ballet Florida’s City Dance Outreach Program (a part of the Academy of Ballet Florida and organized and originally overseen by Christine O’Shea) provided dance classes and dance wear to underserved communities. While being one of the first programs of its kind, it became a National model for several other dance companies wanting to expand their outreach programs.
Another first was the innovative program was Visions in Movement. Offering classes to the visually impaired, it was funded by the Jewish Guild for the Blind. The Guild sent Outreach Director Christine O’Shea to New York for her to better understand the needs of these students so she could formulate the new program.
The company always tried to partake in City events. Every December, Ballet Florida felt it was very important to participate in the West Palm Beach Annual Mayor’s Holiday and Tree Lighting. Flyers, brochures, coloring books, peppermints, photo-ops with the Mouse King, The Nutcracker, and the Sugar Plum Fairy, and coupons with drastically reduced ticket prices were always available.
The biggest of all was the Special Performance of Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker. Free tickets were offered to Palm Beach County’s underserved communities. 35,000 to 42,000 children were able to attend this performance over the years.
There was also a free or discounted ticket program throughout the season, for special populations of the community including senior citizens. Throughout a Season, Ballet Florida also donated hundreds of tickets to other non-profit organizations and charities to help with their fundraising needs and charity events.
Having the best backstage crew is always important. Ballet Florida’s very own Production Staff; Albert Mathers, A. George Cripps and Wardrobe Mistress Jennifer Conrad were always well respected while in the Company’s home theatres, as well as on tour.
Ballet Florida was also very fortunate to have the finest in the Country! They all were very considerate of everyone’s safety. Always working very hard, each man and woman working on the backstage crew went far and beyond what was ever asked of them. Ballet Florida’s dancers and staff always considered that they were part of the family.
Volunteers were also needed backstage during the run of Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker to help with students in the childrens’ roles. Volunteers were also used when students were needed in some children’s roles for Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet.
Barbra Kaplan was one of the longest backstage volunteers of Ballet Florida’s history. She never missed a performance. If something needed to be done, Barbra could and would do it!
There isn’t a non-profit organization that to exist without volunteers. Ballet Florida was always immensely grateful to have had an army of them.
Select volunteers were used in the Box Office almost every day. They helped answer the phone, and organize tickets to be mailed. Muriel Wolinski and later in time, Lori Breol came in on a daily basis to offer their much-appreciated services.
For mass the mass mailings of brochures, subscription renewals and reminders, post cards, etc. the “platoons” were always called in to help. During these times, the Ballet Florida board room and/or a small studio was usually filled with extremely busy people who were there to work.
All major events hinged on the dedicated help of volunteers. The complexity could be mind boggling. Volunteers who help to organize, and run posters and signage, clipboards and various sign-in sheets, table cards and silent auction sheets and items to the event. Many would then help run the event and afterwards, help break everything down, and get it all back to the studio!
THE FEELING FOR BALLET FLORIDA DANCERS
While looking at the history of the Company one also has to understand the love and complete respect for all the dancers not only from audiences but from the Artistic Director, as well. Marie Hale always looked out for their well-being. Her devotion towards her talented artists went well above and beyond many directors in the business.
Dancers had a paid straight 42-week contract. They even received their salaries during the break to heal and recuperate after the long, physically and mentally demanding run of Marie Hale's The Nutcracker.
Mrs. Hale always fought for salary increases. Dancers were allowed to be guest artists for other companies and schools when the opportunity arose. Mr's Hales always made sure they still received their paycheck from the Company. She helped the fight to get group insurance for all employees.
Mrs. Hale always gave out of her own pocket, a cash Christmas “bonus” to everyone. If an employee had a child with a birthday or graduation, she tried to make sure to send a cash gift. If an employee had given birth to a baby, there was always a baby item gift from Tiffany’s delivered to their door. She was also known to give non-interest loans to dancers when they were needed. Mrs. Hale always tried to help her dancers in any way she could!
It was always a pleasant place in which to work for the dancers.
ECONOMIC IMPACT IN PALM BEACH COUNTY
As a major arts organization in Palm Beach County, Ballet Florida had a broad economic impact. It employed 20 dancers, six apprentices, 35 staff members and teachers, who all made mortgage payments, owned homes or rented apartments. They purchased cars, auto and home insurance, gasoline, car parts and tires, groceries, clothing and make-up. They dined out, bought furniture, and went to physicians, physical therapists and pharmacies. They attended concerts, movies and other cultural events, as well.
In any given year the Company paid thousands and thousands of dollars in theatre rentals (who also employed their own staff). Throughout each production year, Ballet Florida also hired hundreds of extremely qualified stagehands.
Choreographers and designers where flown in, housed in area hotels, fed and given rental car rentals or other transportation options. Audience members who attended performances also paid valets at theatres, purchased items from the Ballet Florida Boutique, and dined out in local restaurants.
The Company was starting to feel the “crunch” in 2006. Unfortunately, during the real estate market “crash” in 2009 and the economic impact most felt by philanthropists who were victims of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, Ballet Florida was forced to close. The money had run out and the board wasn’t able raise funds to keep the doors open.
That horrible day in April, the dancers and staff were assembled in the main studio and were told that this was their last day. Making it worse, with their optimism, and the love of dance and community along with the love and loyalty to Marie Hale, everyone had already worked several weeks without getting paid.
Contrary to belief and some unsubstantiated reports, the debt, though in the very low millions, wasn’t that big. After several years in bankruptcy court, the building was sold and everything was liquidated. Luckily, dancers, staff, along with the incredible stagehands, and most vendors received compensation.
The Company was founded in 1986 and grew into a major tour-de-force both in Florida and globally. While presenting stellar works created by world-renowned choreographers, Ballet Florida was considered one of the top 20 and most prominent dance companies in the Nation with an International flair and reputation.
Audiences were able to see an astonishing collection dance rarely presented by other major companies. They will always fondly reminisce of the time sitting in their seats to watch grand productions. They will remember being introduced to styles of dance they would have otherwise have ever seen. They will always remember they felt a kind of personal relationship with the beautiful artists who they watched on stage. They will always miss the holiday treasure of Marie Hale’s The Nutcracker.
They will also wonder why no one ever made a plea to ask for their help to save the Company for future generations.
THE DEEP, RICH HISTORY AND VIBRANT HISTORY OF THE ORIGINAL BALLET FLORIDA LEFT A TRUE AND RICH LEGACY OF DANCE AND UNSURPASSED ARTISTRY IN PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA, THE NATION AND THE WORLD!
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MARIE HALE: JANUARY 1933 - AUGUST 2020.