Originally created 07/25/99

Planting hope for the future



Native Augustan Louis Hrabovsky is giving up the helm at North Carolina's premier dance company for greener pastures -- literally.

Mr. Hrabovsky, who becomes the Augusta Ballet's new executive director on Aug. 2, will be living full-time on his 126-acre farm near Hephzibah.

While working for the Charlotte-based North Carolina Dance Theatre, Mr. Hrabosky spent many weekends traveling to Augusta to tend his land.

When he's not working and taking in fine arts performances, the 1962 graduate of Richmond Academy enjoys fishing and relaxing on his bucolic spread near Pop's Country Store.

Having the farm and family (mother and two sisters) in Augusta made leaving a company with a $2.6 million budget to run a $600,000-a-year ballet company a little bit easer. The new job will mean a "slight" pay cut in his $96,000-a-year salary, but Mr. Hrabovsky believes he'll wind up better off without the costs of traveling and maintaining two residences.

He graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor's degree in music. Before joining the North Carolina Dance Theatre in 1995, Mr. Hrabovsky spent 10 years as director of development for the Brevard Music Center in western North Carolina.

He is credited with stabilizing the once shaky Charlotte company and increasing its budget by $1 million in four years.

As executive director of the Augusta Ballet, Mr. Hrabovsky wants to increase its operating budget and transform the semiprofessional troupe into a full-time professional company.

Mr. Hrabovsky, 54, met recently with The Augusta Chronicle to discuss his vision of the Augusta Ballet over lunch at the King George Pub.

Here are excerpts from the session:

Q: You said in a statement released by the Augusta Ballet that you look forward to collaborating with other arts organizations. Can you expound upon that?

A: Well, my background is actually more in music than in dance -- a college degree in music. And I played in the Augusta Symphony as a teen.

The other thing that all of us at the ballet -- surely the artistic directors -- want to do is to start adding live music to our performances. The Nutcracker to me is not complete without live music. It needs the total experience. There needs to be a live orchestra in the pit playing. And that's one area we're going to work on.

Q: Would that necessarily mean the Augusta Symphony or would it mean an Augusta Ballet orchestra?

A: I think it would be a long time before the ballet has its own orchestra. I would think that the Augusta Symphony would be the orchestra that we would want to collaborate with. That will be something I look forward to working closely with the symphony on.

Years ago when I was a teen-ager growing up in Augusta and came to see performances like The Nutcracker, the Augusta Symphony was playing. That was in the old music hall at Bell Auditorium. It was the Augusta Symphony playing live music, and that's the way it was intended to be.

The ballet, I understand, does collaborate with the opera when they need dancers for Carmen and things like that. But I think chamber music on stage with live dance, putting music and dance together on stage might be something we'd look at.

I don't think we'd rule out anything. We want to involve more things, surely with the public schools. We do a huge outreach program, called New Visions, that reaches about 20,000 students. That's a wonderful sight of all those yellow buses lined up for the shows.

One of the first things I'll be doing is calling on the people and the directors of other (arts)

organizations and say: "What can we do together? Can we perform in your space? Can you join us in our space? Can we swap ideas? Can we do joint fund-raisers? Can we do joint performances?" And I think that's a win-win situation for everybody.

Q: Speaking of other arts groups, sometimes Augusta's arts organizations have been known to be territorial. How will you work to alleviate turf wars?

A: Well it's not just in Augusta. I come from a city with huge organizations that were sometimes territorial. But when the pickings are slim, everybody gets very territorial.

I think it will be my goal, and I'm sure it's the goal of other arts executive directors, to be more collaborative, to open our doors to each other, to share more, to make the arts more part of the fabric of this community so that the money is more plentiful for everybody.

The first time I visited the ballet offices (in Sacred Heart Cultural Center, where many of the city's arts groups are headquartered), I asked, "Why is this door closed?" The other doors were all closed. It's a beautiful facility, and you don't bump into people much. That could be the first thing I do my first day there, is to open the door and hope everybody does the same.

Q: During your time at North Carolina Dance Theatre the company's budget increased from $1.6 million to $2.6 million. What are your expectations for increasing Augusta Ballet's 600,000 budget?

A: The ballet made that move actually before I came on board by hiring a superb development person, Susan Nicholson, who's the perfect person for the job.

The other thing we've done is hire a marketing person. When they asked me to come in and do some consulting in the fall, they were looking at hiring an executive director. And after spending some time here knowing the ballet, and knowing (former artist director) Ron and (artistic director) Zanne Colton for many years, my observation was: Don't worry about an executive director for a while. You need to put butts in seats, and you need to raise money. Let's worry about that first.

The second thing is, you're not really attractive right now to the kind of executive director you want. And at that point, I had no thoughts of myself coming here. It was the farthest from my mind.

Build up a support staff. Let a person look at your numbers and say, "Wow, look what they're doing. They're really selling tickets. They're really raising money. This is an organization I want to be a part of."

Don't just go out and hire an executive director who would have no one to help him and wouldn't know where the money was. Go out and hire somebody who knows where every dollar in this community is, and that's what they did. That was my recommendation, and they followed it. So the ballet is going to make a good case that the ballet is good business for this community, too.

My background is development/fund-raising. I spent 10 years at the Brevard Music Center as director of development. We were raising $1 million a year. I will also be very actively involved in the development here.

Q: Do you have a dollar expectation for increasing the ballet's budget?

A: I would hope that the ballet's budget would grow two to three hundred thousand dollars a year, each year until the $1.2 million to $1.5 stage, which will be in say, two to three years, at which time the ballet would consider going to fully professional status.

Q: What will it take, and how long will it take to make Augusta Ballet a fully professional company?

A: Money (laughs). And time to raise the money.

The first thing I want to do is find out if that is really what Augusta wants. Does Augusta want something as unique -- and it would be unique for a city the size of Augusta -- as having a full-time professional (company)?

That differs in what we have now in the fact that we have professional dancers, but they are hired for a limited number of weeks and they are not paid enough that they can only dedicate their lives to ballet. So you're juggling schedules -- you know he can't come tomorrow 'cause he's doing something else. We'll be able to say, "OK, we're going to hire you for 35 weeks a year and we're going to rehearse all day five days a week. This is it, buddy."

Kent Kimes covers arts and entertainment for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3626 or feature@augustachronicle.com.