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Jeff Melanson: How ballet and an MBA make beautiful music Add to ...

From its beginnings in European courts, ballet was supposed to be an outlet for political expression and playing out the human dramas of love, social status and betrayal.

Take this centuries-old practice and talk about it to a group of nine-year-olds raised on YouTube videos and personal blogs, and you can begin to see the challenges facing Jeff Melanson, executive director and co-chief executive of Canada's National Ballet School.



Mr. Melanson's peers hail him as the new generation of artistic directors. At just 36 years old, he had a highly-acclaimed tenure as dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music's community school, adding world music to its curriculum and helping underprivileged kids take its classes.



In his four years with the ballet school, he's helped push up revenues 30 per cent - both achievements due in no small part to the MBA he earned a decade ago from Wilfrid Laurier University.



"I think it was a help early on," said Mr. Melanson, in an interview in his high-ceilinged office on Toronto's Jarvis Street.



"I was really brought in from a business perspective, to ensure the [ballet school]was sustainable and growing as it should."



Mr. Melanson loved being on the stage as a young man. Professionally, he sang opera, performed Russian arts tunes and also learned the careful art of conducting.



Once he was on the stage long enough to go through a few booms and busts, he began to see a pattern in how arts organizations manage their finances during a recession.



"Sometimes there is a real lack of creativity in how arts organizations are managed," Mr. Melanson said.



"When an organization is in trouble, in an attempt to reel in costs you cut the marketing and the training programs. The reality is, though, that if it's not the best artists performing, gradually people don't want to buy it, and if you don't market it, people who don't know about will never learn about it."



He deliberately chose an MBA program that doesn't focus on the arts. When it came to location, he spotted a certain hum of entrepreneurship surrounding Waterloo and an up-and-coming organization called Research in Motion.



"I remember those clunky BlackBerries, the entrepreneurial spirit, the sense of the possible," Mr. Melanson said.



Yet there were assumptions that his artistically trained mind needed to overcome.



For instance, most pro performers have a say in who they sing and dance with. In his MBA classes, though, Mr. Melanson struggled to figure out teamwork with partners he wasn't allowed to pick.



He says the Laurier program taught him to make the best of whatever situation was thrown at him, an asset also noted by Michele Maheux, managing director of the Toronto International Film Festival.



"Twenty years ago, you could grow and bring people up to speed in an organization, but now you almost have to hit the ground running," she said.



That's what Mr. Melanson had to do upon arriving at the National Ballet School in 2006. It was running a significant deficit as it worked to complete badly-needed renovations to its residences.



Plus, its directors wanted to make ballet more accessible to the community through enhanced public classes, which required a significant investment in time, money and effort.



As Royal Conservatory president Peter Simon points out, Mr. Melanson had to be tough going into the ballet school. The national music organization Mr. Melanson had just come from raises very little money from grants and donors.



"We do receive some support from the two levels of government, provincial and federal, but in terms of overall revenues it's less than 10 per cent," Mr. Simon said. "So for the conservatory, it's important to have an organization that's market-driven, because so much of our organization relies on that."



At the ballet school, Mr. Melanson buckled down. He reached out to donors and talked to government for grants.



He also looked at the ballet organization's sources of revenue and identified the parts most in need of attention - the classes and performances that generate revenue without the help of outside influences.



Going forward, Mr. Melanson said arts organizations will need to think sustainably, especially considering the echoes of the recession still reverberating around discretionary spending.



"The way we are trained as artists, the arts are the antidote to business. The arts are the opposite of business. But that is not true. Economics underlies everything."



As he takes in beginners' ballet classes at the school he oversees, he also thinks about new ways of presenting the medium to students raised on social media.



With three preteens filling his household, he surmises the next generation of teaching could come from YouTube videos and Wii games, letting children and adults access ballet without needing to leave the house.



"The MBA has given me a lot of skills," he said. "I now notice the connection between the artistic and business sides, but most importantly, the principle of conductivity - of looking for the best direction for people's successes."



Special to The Globe and Mail



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