Knight Foundation gift benefits dancers, dancemakers, audiences

Think of it not as a love triangle, but a love rectangle.

Dancers love to work longer seasons. Brilliant choreographers love to be paid on a level suited to their skill. Connoisseurs love to complement their diet of classics with modern masterworks. And the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation must surely love N.C. Dance Theatre, because a new $1.1 million grant will help to make those things happen.

The Knight Foundation has been kind to NCDT over the past two decades: It has given almost $15 million to various Charlotte arts organizations, and more than one dollar in five has gone to the company based at 701 N. Tryon St.

Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the foundation, came from Miami to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance on Thursday to announce the gift.

“When you think about Dance Theatre, you think first of artistic excellence,” he said in an earlier interview. “It’s one of the great dance companies in America. That’s one reason we have been so focused on that company and so interested in making sure it’s able to operate at the highest level.

“We try not to be prescriptive when we fund. We survey the community and grantee and ask what the community needs more of from them. Time and time again, we kept hearing ... people were responding to new dance opportunities. At one concert in their new space” – the 701 N. Tryon Theater at the center – “they had a guy hanging from the ceiling, playing the cello. To us, that’s where it’s at; that’s how artistic courage is displayed.”

Courage and cash at the box office don’t always go together, of course. So the gift will be welcome on two fronts.

First, $100,000 will go into the Sustaining Star Fund, which was created to guarantee dancers four more weeks of pay annually for five years. The rest will create an endowment to let NCDT acquire prominent contemporary pieces or acknowledged masterworks for its five-production season.

Doug Singleton, NCDT’s executive director, did a peer analysis through the national organization Dance USA. He learned dancers’ salaries are about average here, but the company fell short on the number of weeks. The average was 34 to 36; NCDT was paying for 28 in Charlotte and four at Chautauqua, N.Y.

An anonymous donor offered a challenge grant to cover two weeks of extra work for the dancers for the next five years, if the company could match it. The Knight Foundation’s gift covers a third week, and Singleton estimates he’s 60 percent of the way to that fourth week through private gifts. The average dancer’s salary under that 36-week program will be $27,500.

NCDT has built an arsenal of family ballets – “Nutcracker,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Peter Pan” – to boost revenue. It has also occasionally found money in its $5 million budget for expensive imports: It’ll do “Forgotten Land” by Jiri Kylian, who’s on anyone’s list of great living choreographers, in April. Even if the company uses only the interest from the new endowment, a 5 percent rate of return would provide an extra $50,000 a year to spend.

“Family ballets drive (audience) growth,” Singleton said. “Few people take the risk of going to Innovative Works if they don’t know us. If they see ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Nutcracker,’ they’re going to come back, and that’s where we grow.

“It’s Jean-Pierre’s passion to have great modern choreographers in our repertoire: Kylian and Nacho Duato and William Forsythe. We haven’t been able to afford some of those, with the artistic budget for the big ballets where it has needed to be. Now we can do that.”