Don’t tell the dancers at Ballet Theatre of Indiana what they can’t do.
They don’t have an endowment, a full-time support staff, or even their own studio, but that hasn’t slowed them down. Two years ago, with a shoestring budget, a skeleton crew, and borrowed space, director Stirling Matheson and his small team launched what has become Indy’s only resident ballet company.
They’ve sold every ticket this season, and just last month, they pulled off a complete Nutcracker with only 10 core dancers—a feat that required an entirely new wardrobe and a built-from-scratch set. Their story is a testament to the power of creative collaboration and stubborn persistence. I sat down with Stirling this week to find out how he and his dancers do it.
“We’re ambitious, I guess.” Stirling shrugs. He’s sitting in Hubbard and Cravens, forking a frittata as he describes BTI’s first production, La Sylphide. For the performance, he and his dancers built a full stage set, including a 40-by-8-foot wall, a 10-foot window, and a 10-foot faux stone fireplace.
Ambitious is an understatement. A single ballet production, let alone a full season, is an enormous undertaking. It requires not only dancers but also costumers, set designers, marketers, musicians, and choreographers. Oh, and financial backing.
Stirling and his wife Sabrina (also a dancer) had virtually none of those things as they started work on La Sylphide. But the couple, both Butler grads, shared a deep conviction that Indianapolis needed a resident company in addition to its existing ballet schools and visiting performers.
“Basically every major city has a resident ballet company,” Stirling says, his tone passionate. “I got tired of waiting for someone else to do it so I could go audition.”
So when Ron Morgan of Performer’s Edge offered to let them use his studio for free, the Mathesons took the leap. They recruited dancers from across the nation, seeking out artists who could multitask. One ballerina had experience with grant-writing, another had studied public relations, and a third had apprenticed in set-building.
“She was just really excited about the chance to play with power tools,” Stirling says.
Together, the company members improvised with a small budget and a limited timeline. The dancers pieced together elaborate costumes with “weird cheap stuff from Amazon,” as Stirling puts it, and he made a large cauldron by spray-painting a flower pot from Lowe’s. He laughs as he describes it, saying, “There are no YouTube tutorials for any of this.”
Stirling looks back on that first performance with incredulity, shaking his head as he says, “I can’t believe [La Sylphide] was a first show.” But when the date arrived, the curtains came up, the dancers came out, and the show went on. “We joked that was our ballet bomb. We put on a full-length ballet from the repertoire as a [way of saying], ‘We’re here!’”
Their next show, Beer & Ballet, attracted an even bigger crowd. “We reworked our entire second season around how well that worked,” Stirling explains. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Sun King Brewing sponsored the event, but ticket sales to other BTI events confirm people love more than the craft beer. The company sold more tickets to Macabre, the first performance of their second season, than they had in their entire first season.
Stirling balks at the notion that younger audiences are uninterested in ballet. “It’s obvious that our generation likes dance. There are dance shows on television. I can’t go anywhere without seeing photos of Misty Copeland in Under Armour,” he says, adding, “People want to consume art. That hasn’t changed.”
What has changed, according to Stirling, is how and why people consume art. The company looks for ways to draw people outside the traditional ballet audience. Their shows offer offer something for everyone, from the hardcore ballet lovers to the complete newbies.
Stirling says of last year’s Macabre performance, “Some people came because they loved Edgar Allan Poe, and it was a new way for them to experience one of their favorite authors. Some people love ballet, and they thought the theme was cool. Some people just wanted something Halloween-y to do.”
Whether audience members are going for the ballet, the beer, the stories, or the excitement of something new, it’s clear Ballet Theatre of Indiana is doing something right. And Stirling has bold ambitions for the company’s future.
“Looking at what we’ve managed to do with very little money, I’m really excited to think about the kind of ballets we could do—huge ballets that I know we could pull off—with more dancers and just a little bit more money.”
If their first two season are any indication, BTI has big things in store.
See BTI perform at its second annual Beer & Ballet on February 12 and 13, or support the ballet by attending Benefit at the Barre, with food, drinks, and a silent auction, on March 6. For more information and tickets, visit btindiana.org.