Update, 4/14: Pacific Northwest Ballet announced Monday that its upcoming repertory program “PITE-THARP-LIANG,” scheduled to run May 29 through June 7, has been canceled, as has the Season Encore (June 7), the Next Step choreographers’ showcase (June 12), and the 39th annual PNB School Performances (June 13). For more information: pnb.org
Pacific Northwest Ballet, after canceling two programs and closing both branches of its school due to the coronavirus pandemic, stands to lose approximately $3 million through the end of April, according to executive director Ellen Walker. The company has currently furloughed many of its employees, including all of its dancers and musicians; those who are furloughed are unpaid, but continue to receive health benefits. Of the small operating staff still working (less than 40), most are on reduced salaries.
One of the Northwest’s largest arts organizations, PNB normally employs more than 300 people in full- or part-time positions, and several hundred more on an occasional basis.
Walker, in a telephone interview Monday, added that subscription sales for the upcoming 2020/2021 season, which begins in September, are down 30 percent from where they would typically be at this point. It’s no mystery why: “Everybody is experiencing this differently, and lots of people’s personal financial situations have changed so much,” she said. “Donors are also, of course, feeling the pinch at this time.”
After the March repertory program, “One Thousand Pieces,” was canceled, PNB announced an emergency relief fund. “It was just letting people know we’re still here, we’re still paying people, and we’re really very, very vulnerable at this time. We have so little revenue coming in,” Walker said. The fund is primarily being used to cover health-plan premiums, which Walker said currently cover 182 employees at a cost of about $95,000 per month.
“We have about $200,000 currently in the relief fund; that pays for two months of medical coverage,” she said. “It’s just unthinkable for me to take away people’s health care right now, especially in a health care crisis.”
The company is hoping that many ticket holders to the canceled “One Thousand Pieces” and “Giselle” performances will consider donating their ticket cost back to PNB, rather than requesting credit or refunds. Walker said that so far, about a third seem to have done so, which she greatly appreciates. Also helping: PNB has been given two months’ free rent on their headquarters, the Phelps Center (part of Seattle Center, it’s owned by the city), and is in talks for possible relief on user fees paid to McCaw Hall.
But it’s not clear when the company can dance again. The company’s final repertory of the season was due to open May 29; to do that, Walker says, dancers would need to be in the studio by May 4 to start rehearsing. “Is it safe for them to do that? We have all these questions and all this uncertainty.” Also uncertain: the company’s season finale performance on June 7, and a planned tour to New York in late June.
An additional and crucial question mark is potential government relief funds, to help maintain the company and school until it’s possible to reopen. “Whether that comes from the county, the state or the Fed, we’re just trying to be at every table that we can possibly be at, to understand how we might apply for that funding,” Walker said.
In a statement sent later, Walker added, “Our ability to weather this crisis depends on cutting as much expense as we can while maintaining a bare-bones operation, as well as applying for relief funds and appealing to donors to support the organization at this critical time. Planning for PNB’s future hinges entirely on the question of when we can bring dancers back to rehearse, hold PNB School classes for our 1500 students, and then perform again at McCaw Hall. There’s also the question of when audiences will feel confident enough to gather again in public venues. There’s so much beyond our control.”
In the meantime, as dancers try to maintain their technique while isolated at home, uncertainty will continue. “I keep trying to make a plan,” said Walker, “and the ability to plan just keeps eroding under our feet, every day.”