Getting the Israel Ballet Back on Its Toes

While she has had relatively little experience in the cultural realm, Lea Lavie, the new general manager of the Israel Ballet, has considerable business expertise and big plans for the company.

Things are beginning to move at the Israel Ballet, just four months after new general manager Lea Lavie assumed her post. Lavie, whose management experience includes working for tycoon Lev Leviev and the Likud party, has replaced Hillel Markman, who directed the company since he and Berta Yampolsky founded it in 1967. The new developments are part of an overall reorganization plan aimed at extracting the troupe from an accumulated deficit of NIS 6.4 million.

Creation and implementation of the new plan, after other such initiatives flopped, was essentially the condition for funding of the Israel Ballet by the Culture and Sports Ministry, within a special framework for failing public institutions. As reported in Haaretz last week, the company is to receive a grant of NIS 3.25 million - a respectable sum, which is close to what it usually receives as its usual budget (which was NIS 3.57 million in 2011 ), and constitutes more than one-tenth of the entire annual allocation for dance by the ministry (NIS 29 million in 2011 ).

Lea Lavie - Noa Yafe - 12032012
Noa Yafe

Lavie, who rose to the general manager's position after two years as second in command, was born in Petah Tikveh in 1962, where she still lives. She acquired most of her management experience working for billionaire investor Lev Leviev. In the 1990s she worked for a company that joined forces with Leviev in establishing a communications infrastructure in Novosibirsk; she was later appointed general manager of his Tenderprice Internet trading company. When it ceased to function two years later and she lost her job, Lavie sued the company for NIS 5.3 million; in the end, she won only NIS 150,000.

The new general manager arrived at the Israel Ballet almost by accident. She had run the Likud headquarters in her hometown during the last two elections, and one of the party activists, the ballet's financial manager, told her about the job that was opening up. Lavie thus became assistant manager in March 2010, replacing Dan Rudolf who had held the position since 2005, after 15 years managing the Kibbutz Dance Company.

"The moment I entered the gates, in terms of atmosphere and feeling, I said, 'This is it,'" Lavie told Haaretz last week. "I arrived and fell in love on the spot."

While Lavie has no professional experience in the cultural realm per se, and does not describe herself as a so-called consumer of culture - she doesn't see this as problematic.

"You can acquire this knowledge," she says. "What the ballet needs is management skills. The manager of a cultural institution has to have a financial and business orientation to create a climate that enables artistic growth. After all, we are dealing with money. The responsibility of the institution is twofold, because we are dealing with publicly funded bodies: Dance companies have to have artistic directors, but the general manager has the responsibility to maintain a balanced budget and develop the business side."

Says Yampolsky, the company's veteran artistic director: "Someone must also manage the money, which is most important these days, and Lea knows how to do that very well."

Yampolsky also believes that cultural knowledge can be acquired, and says that Lavie "is a sharp and wise woman, and it won't take her long ... We are very happy about the appointment and think she is completely suited to the job. We get along great, we love her and she'll succeed."

Dr. Dan Ronen, chairman of the ballet's board of directors, which approved the appointment, says that "in her role as assistant to the general manager, Lea Lavie proved that her management skills are based on experience and understanding of working with other people, advancing plans, acquiring funding and solving problems. She has the ability to direct an institution with problems of many years' standing."

Why didn't you publicize a tender to choose a new general manager?

Ronen: "There was tension, the manager had to leave, and it was a period of crisis in which we had to find solutions [quickly]. We saw other candidates and then it was suggested that Lea become general manager. Of course, we were not completely certain that she would succeed, but the chances seemed good. We decided to take a risk that worked; she is leading the ballet today."

If there had been a tender for the post, it may be assumed that Lavie would not have won it, for the rather technical reason that she lacks a college degree (usually a requisite in such cases ). Even though the group is publicly funded, Ronen does not think that this is a problem. "A degree is just one criterion, and in this case, the decisive considerations were ability, experience and her personality," he said.

According to Lavie, "there are many people whose experience is worth more than a higher education. Two years in the system show whether a person is suitable or not. I think my success speaks for itself."

Income increases

In recent years Lavie has mainly sought to come up with ways to meet the criteria for ministerial support of the troupe, which, she observes, do not always suit the nature of a classical ballet company. Meanwhile, marketing efforts have already borne fruit, she notes: "Before I entered the job, in 2009, the income from performances in the country was less than NIS 2 million. In 2010, it rose to NIS 2.8 million, and in 2011, to NIS 3.9 million. That's a lot of marketing and we did it."

The increase is surely not due only to marketing.

Lavie: "True, it is the result of the right kind of work by the staff, the right choices of venues and material, and although the repertoire is determined by the artistic division, it is carried out today with much more cooperation [with management] than in the past."

What else would you like to improve?

"Now that I've received the role of general manager, I am trying to make the entire system more efficient, as today there are no regular business 'routines.' It isn't easy, it won't happen overnight, but the system has to be reorganized, and to do so it has to be studied from the ground up. Afterward I'll begin to work on business development, strategy, the enlistment of a circle of supporters and contributors, and on different types of cooperative efforts that the ballet has refrained from initiating until now."

The Culture Ministry's special grant will allow the Israel Ballet to cut the heavy debts it acquired over the years in half. The sum was authorized in December, and will be advanced to the company in several stages - and only after the new reorganization plan, prepared by the ministry's controller, is approved. Graduated funding is intended to ensure that the company meets the obligations detailed in the plan, such as arriving at a payment arrangement with creditors and banks, carrying out a sharp spending cut (including reduction in personnel and salaries, but not in the dancers' salaries ), and investing funds in the company's ballet school and community-oriented classes.

Following in the ministry's footsteps, the Tel Aviv municipality has joined the effort to save the Israel Ballet from its difficult financial straits. The city, which contributes to the company every year, is now offering a special five-year grant of NIS 500,000 in installments of NIS 100,000 per year.

Did Lavie's Likud activities and political connections help her obtain the job or perhaps the ministry's generous grant? Lavie reiterates that there is no connection between these factors; her appointment was made by the ballet's board of directors, which is apolitical. About the grant she says, "We applied just like everyone else and we meet the criteria. We are getting sidetracked here by minor matters. The Israel Ballet receives aid because it needs it. People should have been working on this already some time ago."

'Their whole world'

The headquarters of the Israel Ballet, now marking its 45th year, has since 2004 been housed in a large studio and offices complex in north Tel Aviv. It's annual budget stood at NIS 9.3 million in 2011, with NIS 4.3 coming from public funds (the Culture and Sports Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality ); the rest came from the company itself, its dance school and contributions. Today there are 25 dancers, five less than last season, who make from NIS 4,500 to NIS 8,000 per month.

"At the end of the last season some dancers left and no new ones were hired," Lavie says. "We don't perform with only 25, but hire dancers for shows and use dancers in training."

When Lavie assumed her new job, Markman became the group's honorary president, a purely formal designation. But Yampolsky, who has acquired the reputation of a tough and opinionated artistic director over the years, remains in her job. Is she likely to stand in Lavie's way in her efforts to reorganize the company? The new general manager attempts to radiate empathy for the veteran director - mixed with assertiveness.

"Actually it is easier for me with Berta than with Hillel," Lavie says, "because I took his place but Berta remains in her job."

"We conduct a lot of discussions. I am aware of everything that is said and thought about me, about my advantages and disadvantages. We all have these things. I will get around the obstacles I run into on the way, without insulting anyone, and if necessary with great determination, will work for the welfare of the company - which is also Berta's primary interest."

"I try to be sensitive," she adds. "These are two people founded the ballet and kept it going for 45 years, and it is their whole world."

Do you feel they are generous with you and give you credit?

"All in all, yes. I understand their conflict. Suddenly someone has come in and grabbed their baby and is giving orders. This is not a simple problem, especially after so many years. I will say that Hillel really pushed for me to get the appointment."

When asked whether she has thought about adding another choreographer to the company - in addition to Yampolsky or instead of her - Lavie says "all options will be explored." She comments later that one of the demands of the Culture Ministry is an external committee that deals with the repertoire. In any case, she will keep up efforts to market the group abroad. The company visited Salzburg in July, but a tour of Europe at the end of 2011 was cancelled due to political pressure.

"It's a bit difficult to go abroad in light of the way some people 'appreciate' Israel," she explains. "In September we're invited to a festival in Cyprus, and we're examining the possibility of appearing in China this year."

Do foreign audiences think the company is a national one, since it is called the Israel Ballet?

"Yes, certainly. In most of the world where ballet companies are sponsored by governments, it is assumed that Israel's government does too. We are not a national company, but one of our aspirations is to become one, so as to win our proper place and greater support."

What is your opinion of what is happening in Israeli dance today?

"It is flourishing; dance had become an Israeli 'export' and a sort of ambassador all over the world. It is fabulous, but one should note that there are many such entities and modern groups whose place is assured, but there aren't enough involved in classical ballet."

We don't have a classical tradition, but are rich in other areas; this is a young country.

"True, but we should have. One-hundred years ago there was no operatic tradition here, but it has roots now. There is no reason this can't happen with classical ballet, which exposes the audience to great composers and choreographed masterpieces."

The inculcation of opera culture here is the achievement of the Tel Aviv Opera House. In other words, the responsibility for the advancement of classical ballet and its becoming an attraction in Israel is on your shoulders.

"True, I agree. I have terrific shoulders and we will take the Israel Ballet to the place it belongs, I have no doubt."