Milwaukee Ballet Company

Click the image to learn more. Debuted in 1977, the Milwaukee Ballet Company's annual performance of "The Nutcracker" remains a community favorite. This photograph is from the 2017 season.

The Milwaukee Ballet Company formed in 1970, joining several other resident performing arts groups and rounding out Milwaukee’s cultural repertoire.[1] The idea for a professional local company originated with Roberta Boorse.[2] Boorse, a former guest dancer for the ballet and part-time instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, ran her own dance academy in West Allis and was frustrated with the lack of opportunities for local dance students to pursue following their graduation. With the Performing Arts Center opening in 1969 and the world famous ballerina Lupe Serrano residing in Milwaukee, she saw an opportunity to create a professional local company. Boorse presented the idea to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Dance Department, where she found strong support.[3]

Professors in the Dance Department and the Dean of the School of Fine Arts, Adolph Suppan, recognized this same gap in Milwaukee’s professional dance scene.[4] Though the department was in its infancy, they had recently added a ballet instructor, Jury Gotshalks, and employed Lupe Serrano as a part-time instructor.[5] Boorse and the department agreed that the University would help support the company’s premiere. Thereafter, the troupe became an independent company, retaining an association with the school. Gotshalks became the company’s first artistic director, Serrano served as artistic advisor, and UW-Milwaukee Department of Dance chairman Myron Nadel took the role of resident choreographer.[6]

Once the company incorporated in late 1969, it quickly prepared for its premiere. Since they could not afford an all-professional troop, they held county-wide auditions.[7] The University chorus and orchestra provided music for opening night, which was hosted at the school’s Fine Arts Theater.[8] On April 24, 1970, the company was well-received by its first full-capacity crowd. In addition to featuring local talent, the star dancers from the American Ballet Theater, Lupe Serrano and Ted Kivitt, wowed the audience.[9]

The company expanded and flourished in the 1970s but experienced a number of financial difficulties typical to the arts community in the 1980s. In 1974, they opened the Milwaukee Ballet School, drawing talent from around the country. In 1977, they began their annual performance of “The Nutcracker,” which continues to be an audience favorite.[10] By 1980, however, the company neared bankruptcy and was losing donors. They lacked adequate studio space, had an increasing number of injuries, and relationships between the dancers and the board soured.[11] To salvage the operation, the board named Ted Kivitt artistic director.[12] He gambled financially by increasing company expenses to bring big-budget classics to Milwaukee, and audiences approved. Kivitt also invested his energies in strengthening relationships with donors, securing a new training headquarters, and developing the school to bring consistency to the company’s style.[13]

In spite of the company’s changes, financial difficulties lingered into the late 1980s. In 1987, the board of directors tried to fix such problems through a joint venture with the Pennsylvania ballet. The new company allowed dancers from both companies to perform year-round but failed to solve the problem of financial support. The partnership was dissolved after the 1988-1989 season, debt was renegotiated, and emergency fundraisers were held to save the company.[14] By 1990, the company reported earnings in the black for the first time in its twenty-one year history.[15] Though it has since seen a number of different artistic directors, the Milwaukee Ballet Company has firmly established itself as an integral part of Milwaukee’s cultural scene.

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ “Donation Program,” box 1, folder 38, UW-Milwaukee Department of Dance Records, 1962-1989, Mss 30, Archives Department, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, p. 1.
  2. ^ Violet E. Dewey, “Mrs. Boorse: The Woman behind the Ballet Company,” The Milwaukee Journal, March 26, 1970, p. 8.
  3. ^ Dewey, “Mrs. Boorse,” 8.
  4. ^ Dewey, “Mrs. Boorse,” 8. They also sought an opportunity to create new scholarships that would draw local and national talent to the University.
  5. ^ Myron Nadel, “A City Builds a Company,” (article sent to Milwaukee Magazine with hopes that it would become a feature piece), June 23, 1970. Gotshalks had been hired as a professor in the UWM Dance Department in 1969. He was very receptive to Boorse’s proposal for the University to support the development of a professional company. Gotshalks proved invaluable to the project, as he had been involved with the early development of the National Ballet of Canada, and had started his own company in Halifax.
  6. ^ “Donation Program,” p. 2.
  7. ^ Myron Nadel, “A City Builds a Company,” p. 3. The original company was made up of UW-Milwaukee students, part-time faculty members, and a number of the area’s professional dancers.
  8. ^ Nadel, “A City Builds a Company,” p. 3. The Ballet premiered on April 24, 1970, just four months after it was officially established.
  9. ^ Walter Monfried, “Ballet Impressive in Debut at UW,” The Milwaukee Journal, April 25, 1970, p. 10. Serrano was married to Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who directed the music for her number with Kivitt.
  10. ^ “Milwaukee Ballet Celebrates Its 40th Season,” Footlights, October 29, 2009,, last accessed 2013.
  11. ^ Bruce Murphy, “The Glamour Gamble,” Milwaukee Magazine 8, no. 2 (March 1983), 13.
  12. ^ Murphy, “The Glamour Gamble,” 13. Kivitt had been a guest dancer with the company in its premiere. He had since suffered a knee injury that took him away from dancing and put him on the other side of the productions. He was hired in August 1980.
  13. ^ Murphy, “The Glamour Gamble,” 14-16. Under Kivitt, the school was developing a reputation as one of the best in the region, and it drew students from around the country. Unlike his predecessor, Jean-Paul Comelin, Kivitt also left the choreography to internationally-known guest choreographers and his ballet masters—Robert Rodham and Basil Thompson.
  14. ^ Jay Joslyn, “Ballet Recovers from Downturn and Now Is Soaring Financially,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, April 6, 1993, p. 1D. The community’s lack of enthusiasm for a Pennsylvania-Milwaukee Ballet Company revealed Milwaukee’s desire to have their own ballet and their willingness to financially support it. Once the situation stabilized, former Nashville director Dane LaFontsee became artistic director, and within his first season the debt was paid off.
  15. ^ “Ballet Ends Fiscal Year in the Black,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 25, 1990, [no page number].

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