When arts patron Stefanie Kahn and her husband, Douglas,
moved from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina, she
quickly became active in fundraising for Carolina Ballet.
“The feedback we got from some of the patrons was that
they would like to get to know the dancers better,” says
Kahn. For a fundraising auction, she offered a package
of a dinner, cooked by Carolina Ballet principal dancer
Marcelo Martinez (known for making a fierce paella) and
other company dancers, in her home. “Through that, I got
to know Marcelo a little bit and we really hit it off,” she
says. When the opportunity arose for her and her husband
to sponsor a dancer, they immediately chose Martinez.
Now more than ever, ballet companies are searching
for creative ways to build revenue. One tactic has stood
out: patrons choosing to donate via the sponsorship of
a particular dancer. Often implemented by large troupes
like American Ballet Theatre (all of its principals and most
soloists have sponsors), the trend has now reached smaller
companies such as Cincinnati Ballet and Carolina Ballet.
And while the idea of sponsoring a ballerina might initially
seem somewhat indelicate, the cultivation of such benefac-
tors retains solid footing in the dance world.
But what is assumed in the relationship? “Nothing is
expected,” says Lilyan Vigo Ellis, who retired from Caro-
lina Ballet last season after a 20-year career there, six of
which were sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Malcolm Brown.
“We became like family. Every time they came to a show,
they let me know they were coming and we’d go out to
dinner. One year they invited me to their beach house and
I spent a couple of days there. They treat my sons like
grandkids. I wrote a personal note to them that I was retir-
ing, so they were among the first people I notified.”
Some sponsor/dancer relationships create complica-
tions, however. Before joining Carolina Ballet in 2007,
Martinez danced lead roles with another midsized com-
pany. “One sponsor asked for their dancer to be cast in
some ballets for the performance they were attending,”
says Martinez. He also heard about a patron who paid for
a specific ballet and then requested that the male dancer he
sponsored dance the principal role. “It brings up ques-
tions,” he says.
To be clear, patrons almost never pay the dancers’
salaries directly. The donations go to the company, not
to the dancer. “The sponsors give the company money in
honor of me,” says Vigo Ellis. The artistic director and
staff decide where the money goes.
How do companies find sponsors? Cincinnati Ballet, which has had a successful sponsorship program since
the early 2000s, hosts gatherings at the beginning of the
season to introduce new and returning dancers to current
and prospective sponsors. Some patrons are also drawn to
sponsorship through the company website or the program.
Cincinnati Ballet’s minimum sponsorship for 2016–17
The reality of sponsorships—
from both sides of the stage
BY JOSEPH CARMAN
Lilyan Vigo Ellis and
Marcelo Martinez in
Black and White Swan 2 0 / 2