There's a new Cleveland Ballet in town, the moniker's third iteration. Most Clevelanders probably only remember the Cleveland Ballet that jetted off to San Jose full time in 2000 after its finances crumbled. The departure left the city without a homegrown professional classical ballet company, a fact that didn't seem to bother some folks in town. After all, prestigious, world-renowned companies still come to Playhouse Square semi-annually, and there are plenty of other local dance troupes performing around town.
Artistic director Gladisa Guadalupe, who co-founded the new company in 2015, wants people to wake up.
"Every major city needs a professional classical ballet company," says Guadalupe from her Bedford Heights studio last week, pointing out that Cincinnati, Columbus and even Dayton have professional companies.
Cleveland Ballet executive director Michael Krasnyansky, who shares an office with Guadalupe, explains the situation like this: "Would you want to get rid of the Cavs with the promise that every few months there would be an exhibition game here? Would you want to see the Pistons or the Knicks play in Cleveland? Or do you want your own professional team? Of course you do."
Guadalupe, a Puerto Rico native and principal dancer and teacher with the previous Cleveland Ballet, and Krasnyansky, a businessman who immigrated from Russia 30 years ago, started the non-profit Cleveland Ballet with their own capital. They say that no one was willing to help finance the new company through grants or an endowment. Many local arts donors had been burned when the previous troupe left town.
"We had to prove ourselves from the beginning," Guadalupe says. "We're still proving ourselves."
But somehow, in a time when many national ballet companies are folding and audiences are graying, the new Cleveland Ballet is working. Through each season, the company has expanded its roster of paid dancers, blooming to 14 this year. Its board and donor lists have grown. And last season's performances of Alice and The Nutcracker were completely sold out, culminating in an invitation to become the resident ballet company at Playhouse Square earlier this year. That means more marketing, and first dibs on scheduling higher-profile marketing, greater access to rehearsal space and priority in scheduling.
"Unfortunately, some people in Cleveland still don't know we exist," Guadalupe says. "We don't have a $6- or $8-million budget, we're a below-million-dollar budget company. To be honest, it's a miracle. I don't know how we did this. How did we do it?"
But as their fourth season kicks off next month with a performance called Fall Collection, most of which Guadalupe choreographed, it's apparent that this new company has learned from the past.
First, the School of Cleveland Ballet, which Guadalupe has run since 2000, is a separate nonprofit organization from Cleveland Ballet, making each company more stable. Second, while other companies spend profusely on sets, Cleveland's ballets are sparse, and the costumes, while still intricate and beautiful, aren't all sewn by an in-house designer, which saves money. As they work toward their goal of a $3-million budget, a number still far below that of other Ohio ballet companies, the quality of the dancing is the highest priority.
"Even if I had the budget of other cities, I'd put that money into doing more performances and hiring more dancers," Guadalupe says.
Down the hall in a mirror-lined room, the company's willowy dancers are running the upcoming performance's first 20-minute number, set to Felix Mendelssohn's "Piano Concerto No. 1." Not all the moves are effortless yet, it's still just practice. But seeing it all up close with the sweat dripping and the pounding of the pointe shoes shows athleticism at its finest.
As Guadalupe knows, these dancers are the magic. They are the thing that brings people through the door. With dancers from all over the world now in the company, ranging in ages from 15 to 29, Guadalupe is ceaselessly excited to work with her artists and finesse their craft. Most of all she wants to create a company culture that feels like a family.
"We have great dancers who care about this," Guadalupe says. "It is a startup company yes, but we have a great product already."
Guadalupe and Krasnyansky know their dreams are massive, but there's nothing they'd rather be doing. The goal is to get Cleveland back on the map in the dance world.
"You know what I said when they took the LeBron banner down downtown?" Krasnyansky recalls of telling a Cleveland Ballet board member. "I said, 'Why not put Cleveland Ballet up there? We're not leaving, he came and left. We're not leaving.'"
Fall Collection will be performed Oct. 19 and 20, produced by Cleveland Ballet at the Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave. Tickets are $20-$79 at 216-241-6000, or playhousesquare.org.