After years of performing for free, Central West Ballet dancers are looking for some compensation.
The company wants community donors to give the performers paychecks. Ballet leaders made the pitch to some 150 supporters at a swanky fund-raising dinner in September at Steve and Ann Endsley's Modesto estate.
No one to date has provided the needed cash, but the ballet still believes it is a worthy and attainable goal.
"It's going to be an educational process getting people on board with the concept," said Ann Endsley, who serves on the ballet's board of directors.
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"I would hope that the community would recognize the fact that we have talented dancers in the community. The key is they want to stay in Modesto."
Founded 22 years ago as a youth organization, Central West Ballet is a resident company at the Gallo Center for the Arts. The group will perform five major shows this season, including "The Nutcracker" in December and "The Sleeping Beauty" in April.
All the other Gallo Center resident companies pay at least some of their artists. The Modesto Symphony Orchestra and the Modesto Community Concert Association pay all of their performers. Townsend Opera Players pays its soloists and the orchestra. The Youth Entertainment Stage Company pays the orchestra, though not its young actors.
The ballet operates on a budget of $700,000, a bit more than Townsend Opera Players' $650,000 budget. The Modesto Symphony Orchestra is the Gallo Center's richest resident company with a $1.7 million budget.
Aside from providing minimal financial help for toe shoes, Central West Ballet gives no money to its dancers.
Joseph Adkins, a 19-year-old principal dancer, said he and his colleagues rehearse six to seven hours each day to produce the performances that audiences love.
"You can't live and dance on nothing," he said. "We want to build careers out of dance."
$500 a week
Artistic Director René Daveluy, who gets a salary, said he would like to start the dancers with a 24-week contract that would give them perhaps $500 a week. The ballet would ask every potential donor to commit to a plan to support a salaried position that would be renewable every year.
"Ballet, like symphony and opera, is a high art," he said. "Classical art is expensive, but it's worth it because of the payback."
He contends that his top dancers are comparable to professional ballet dancers in other companies around the country. Central West Ballet used to routinely hire out-of-town dancers to perform lead roles, but now it relies solely on local talent.
The details of how the salaries would be allocated to the company's 30 dancers haven't been decided. One option is to pay just two or three dancers if that's the only money available at first. Another option is to pay all the dancers a smaller stipend.
Endsley said who gets paid would be determined by competence. For example, an 18-year-old might get paid and a 20-year-old might not if the 18-year-old is better.
The ballet has slowly started raising the idea of paying dancers with money raised through appeals to businesses for sponsorships. The board recognizes that the poor economy doesn't make this an optimal time to ask for donations, but it is moving forward with the request.
"You've got to start somewhere," Endsley said. "We're talking about a baby step toward becoming a professional company."
Some dancers have left
Some former company members have left to pursue careers elsewhere -- Zachary Prentice took a job with the Houston Ballet. Those who remain have made sacrifices to continue their art in Modesto.
Alyssa Milano, 21, is a sen-ior business major at California State University, Stanislaus, and balances two jobs as a restaurant hostess and as a staff member at the Gallo Center for the Arts box office.
"I love it so much," she said. "I don't want to stop. That's the next step."
Milano said she doesn't know how much longer she will be able to dance with no compensation.
The big ballets the community enjoys take a lot of effort. The performers rehearse nearly every day and have spent thousands of dollars on lessons, shoes and clothing. The dancers believe they have paid their dues and are as good as other professionals in surrounding areas.
Nicole Firpo, a 21-year-old company member, said the ballet has raised its standards dramatically since Daveluy and ballet mistress Leslie Ann Larson arrived in 2004. The group still rehearses at Juline School of Dance, but it is no longer a youth program.
Firpo, who works with Milano at the Gallo Center box office, said she is dismayed to see touring Russian ballet companies get higher ticket sales than Central West Ballet.
"What the community has is an outstanding ballet company," she said. "They see us as children."
Modesto Performing Arts, which stages musicals in the summer, experienced a similar transition when it broke away from Modesto City Schools in the 1970s and became a community arts group.
At that time, it started paying performers and behind-the-scenes crew. Today, lead Actors Equity union performers, usually from out of town, get $5,000 or more for a show with a three-week run, said founding director Paul Tischer.
Now in its 79th season, the Modesto Symphony Orchestra went through growing pains in the 1970s when it made the transition from an amateur, volunteer organization, to a salaried group with auditions.
"As our product is increasing in its quality, and the donors like that, it is not an issue that we pay our musicians," said Caroline Nickel, the orchestra's director of marketing and public relations.
"We are always trying to choose the highest quality attainable for our orchestra in this region. If you want professional musicians, you have to pay them. They want the caliber of the professional product."
Matt Buckman, executive director of Townsend Opera Players, said his group recently raised its rates for artists in an attempt to attract better singers.
"What we've found in the last couple of years as we've sought to engage a higher level of artist, we've seen our donor base get excited about it because they're hearing a higher level of talent than they have in the past," he said.
Wally Lang, 29, a Central West Ballet dancer who also works as a bartender and does odd jobs, said he hopes the group's donors come to feel that way about his group.
"I can't keep going on," he said. "I'm at the end of my rope. I want to live to see a dancer be able to make it as a career."
To find out more about Central West Ballet, go to www.centralwestballet.com or call 576-8957.