Brent Belsher, arts impresario | BCBusiness

Brent Belsher, arts impresario | BCBusiness
Brent Belsher enjoys the calm before the performance at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

Margins are razor-thin for arts promoters, but most say bringing world-class performers to the masses is a reward in itself – and there just might be a profit in it.

From the moment the house lights dim, casting a hush over the matinee crowd, the Cuban National Ballet has us eating out of the palm of its hand. A few gasps punctuate the orchestra’s swell as the prima ballerina appears on stage, unfolding one strong and slender leg in a gravity-defying développé. Throughout all three acts of the company’s production of Don Quixote, we are rapt and willing followers along the journey of this timeless tale.

It’s not every day, or even every decade, that Vancouver audiences have a chance to take in a performance of the calibre of the Cuban National Ballet’s four shows in Vancouver last February. Led by 91-year-old choreographic legend Alicia Alonso, the Cuban ballet troupe is among the top-tier dance companies in the world.

There’s a reason why performances of such world renown are a rare event in Vancouver. Actually, there are several. Ignore, for a moment, the logistics involved in presenting foreign artists: the booking of flights, arranging domestic transportation, finding accommodation and securing theatre rentals, all of which must be paid for upfront. Other potential pitfalls include: arranging the work visas; negotiating artists’ fees; filing the paperwork for tax waivers; and dealing with advertisers, corporate sponsors and private donors. No matter how organized you are, there are still endless ways the project can go off the rails. When it comes to presenting live art, particularly art involving unknown quantities hailing from far-off lands, return on investment is far from guaranteed.

Of course, money is only part of the reason presenters get into this line of work. The prospect of sharing great art with new audiences is, in itself, payment of sorts. “The thing is, great art is a wonderful thing and it costs money to do these sorts of things,” says Brent Belsher, neophyte impresario and the man responsible for bringing international classical ballet to Vancouver for the first time in nearly 20 years.

When we sit down for a chat, it’s three weeks before the Cubans are due to take the stage in Vancouver. Belsher appears a tad frenetic, as if he’s embodied all the over-caffeinated frenzy of the Yaletown coffee shop where we meet. In just a few days, he’ll meet half the company in Victoria for a 10-day tour through B.C. and Banff, Alberta, then rendezvous with the full company of 70 in Vancouver for a four-show run at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

“I keep calling it Whack-A-Mole, like the game at the fair, because you’re troubleshooting all the time,” he says in a rapid-fire cadence that reveals his stress. In pulling off this almost million-dollar affair there are endless wildcards he could be dealt. The lead story in the day’s newspaper warns of one: two Cuban soccer players in town for a women’s Olympic qualifying tournament have just defected to the U.S.

Belsher chuckles, but admits he can’t discount the possibility of something similar happening on his watch. “It is a real concern,” he says. “Basically, this company is providing some of the greatest dancers in the world right now, and all of them that have left have left through defections.”

Whether all the dancers eventually return to Cuba, however, is nothing compared to the tragic curveball he’s already fielded in getting them here. Two years ago, when Belsher began this journey, he’d been under the tutelage of veteran impresario David Y.H. Lui, one of Vancouver’s most ardent supporters of the arts. Belsher was something of a trainee impresario, learning the art of presentation from his close friend, an Order of Canada recipient and founding member of such cultural institutions as Ballet BC, the BC Arts Council and the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

It was Lui who put Vancouver on the map as a destination for touring dance artists in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. So when he died suddenly, in September last year, Belsher was left halfway up the mountain without a guide. It was the one contingency they hadn’t planned for. “We’d started a corporation together. We’d worried about what happens if Alicia Alonso passes away, what happens if Fidel Castro dies, but never what happens if you die or I die,” he says. “We never even went down that path.”

Though, Belsher wasn’t entirely unprepared. He’d worked with Lui before, in 1994, managing the American Ballet Theatre during their Vancouver presentation of Swan Lake. It was Belsher’s entrée into the world of arts management, which he parlayed into a career working as a consultant and manager with companies like Ballet BC, Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM and the National Ballet of Canada. It was also, it turned out, Lui’s last presentation of a foreign classical dance company.

Belsher says his friend had grown tired of dealing with the razor-thin margins and substantial financial risk. “The thing with a presenter – the impresario that he was – you make a million dollars, you lose a million dollars. You’re always right on the edge. It’s such a risky thing,” Belsher says. “When the shows do well then you do well. But for every one that does, there’s nine that don’t.”

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Cuban-Ballet_Don-Quixote_1.jpg
Image: Jacques Moatti
The Cuban Ballet performs Don Quixote.

Given the odds, it’s not surprising that when Lui pulled back from the impresario game no one else stepped in to fill the void. That is, until Belsher signed on as a partner in the Cuban endeavour, ironically, something of a bucket-list wish for Lui. They’d raised about 20 per cent of the money from private donors, a group of individuals dubbed Friends of Classical Ballet. Another 20 per cent came from corporate sponsors and 10 per cent from Belsher’s personal finances. The rest would be contingent on ticket sales. Any prospect of Belsher breaking even, much less making a profit, hinged on the belief that, after 18 years, there was still a market in Vancouver for international classical ballet. “It’s a big question,” he tells me in January, “because we just don’t know.”

Even people who do the job successfully admit that becoming an impresario defies logic. Just ask Sherrie Johnson, an independent producer, presenter and agent for more than 25 years. She’s the first to admit the career path is not one for the faint of heart, or even the sound of mind. “Well, how do you think you would make money doing it?” she exclaims on the phone from her home in Toronto.

Johnson has found the answer in working diligently across provinces and disciplines in dance, theatre, film and interdisciplinary art to carve a niche for herself and the artists she represents. Since 2006, she’s been senior curator with Vancouver’s annual PuSh Festival, which regularly presents dozens of international, national and local artists across many platforms.

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Image: PuSh Festival
The PuSh Festival's presentation of
Almighty Voice and His Wife.

While Belsher and Lui’s “build it and they will come” approach is one way to test the market for international acts, Johnson’s tack has been much more methodical. Knowing your market for each and every show, she says, is key. “The first step is research, really knowing each market and territory in relation to the kind of work that you’re making. I feel that every show, every artist, every idea has a home; it’s just, what’s the right fit?”

Partnering with existing companies or festivals to bring in international artists helps offset the risks by sharing the financial and logistical burden, says Johnson, a pro at networking. Establishing annual events, such as Vancouver’s PuSh Festival, also helps create stability because the financials are much easier to predict: there’s an established audience, a set budget and at least a ballpark figure for your expected return.

Still, live performance art is a slippery beast. Unlike with international sporting events or the latest concert from a pop-culture phenom, people don’t buy their tickets in advance. That hesitancy leaves planned performances vulnerable to a host of factors. In Vancouver, as little as a flake or two of snow or a few drops of rain can undermine the box office for an entire run.

That is, of course, assuming all your artists make it across the border in time for the curtain to go up. In putting PuSh together, Johnson regularly deals with multiple artists from multiple countries, requiring a sophisticated understanding of international tax law and immigration protocol. She’s become deft at negotiating with Canada Revenue Agency to waive the automatic 15-per-cent holdback on artists’ fees. Similarly, she’s lost count of the number of times she’s been on the phone with foreign embassies or Canada Border Services Agency to secure a visa, mere hours before an artist is due to arrive. “Basically, if you’re going to be a producer, you have to be an accountant and a lawyer as well,” she says. “If they get stuck, you’re lobbying, you’re on the phone. It’s all in a day’s work.”

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Image: Adam Blasberg
As artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival,
Linda Tanaka's mandate is to select artists who
reflect the current state of world affairs.

Of course, sometimes the lobbying efforts are unsuccessful. Linda Tanaka, artistic director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, is no stranger to last-minute cancellations when her artists get held up at the border. Music, particularly when attached to a marquee event like the folk festival, is an easier sell to the general public than dance or theatre. But selling border guards on letting musicians with a strong political stance into the country is another matter. Though world music has long been her passion, only about 10 of the 60 or so artists Tanaka will bring in for the festival will come from overseas, simply because of the time and effort involved in coordinating their appearances.

Like Johnson, Tanaka has learned to take on the role of de facto accountant and lawyer. She often has to play diplomat too, trying as best she can to keep track of shifting political landscapes throughout the world. “It’s increasingly difficult for Muslim musicians to tour,” she offers as an example. It’s an inconvenient reality given the folk festival has a mandate of sorts to present artists who reflect the current state of world affairs. This year, Tanaka hopes to put together a program inspired by the Arab Spring, but it’s difficult to predict which artists will be granted entry into Canada. “There’s a lot of political stuff that . . . .” She lets the sentence trail off. “Who knows?” she says, exasperated.

As with the PuSh Festival, the folk festival normally presents artists in tandem with other festivals, easing up on accommodation and travel costs as they make the rounds through the U.S. and Canada. That gets increasingly difficult, however, when immigration officials on opposite ends of the border have different ideas about whether artists pose a political threat.

Last year, Grammy-award winning Malian band Tinariwen had to cancel two planned performances – one at the festival and one at a stand-alone concert later in the fall – after they were denied Canadian visas. Tanaka says she believes the decision was made because its members hail from the Tuareg tribe, a group thought to have possible ties to the late Muammar Gaddafi. But considering the troupe had been allowed to tour in the U.S. and had been in Canada as recently as 2010, the outcome was particularly vexing.

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Image: Ken Eisner
Alpha Yaya Diallo performs at 2011's
Vancouver Folk Music Festival.


Another group, Staff Benda Bilili from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was able to get their Canadian visas, but wasn’t able to get into the U.S. They ended up cancelling their tour because, without the American leg, the costs were prohibitive. In that case Tanaka had taken the rare step of booking a one-off concert for the group, simply because she felt their music was something Vancouverites should hear. Their cancellation left her about $7,000 in the hole.

And it’s not just politics that will keep musicians from making their dates. Sometimes their recreational histories will show up to haunt them at the border. Tanaka snorts when thinking of the times she’s pleaded with border officials to let something like a 30-year-old drug charge slide for the sake of a musical engagement. “Don’t bother; it’s no use,” she says.

While it might make financial sense not to take the risk on acts that could be held up at the border, Tanaka doesn’t let that influence her decision-making. First and foremost, her job is to present the music she wants her audience to hear, to keep them happy and coming back year after year. But a close second is the philanthropic angle in presenting foreign artists, many of whom come from developing countries and desperately need the money she’ll pay them; fees from $10,000 to $50,000 for an extremely well-known act. “These are artists that aren’t getting paid a lot, and they’re trying to take money home,” she says. If they can’t make it to their destination? “Well, we lose.”

Walking that fine line between business and philanthropy was another draw for Brent Belsher in bringing the Cubans to Canada. No matter where they’re from, professional dancers are highly unlikely to rank among the top earners, but particularly when they hail from a country where doctors and lawyers make a pittance compared to their capitalist counterparts.

Belsher can’t help but pull out all the stops. “I spoil dancers; that’s kind of my thing,” he says, when I catch up with him backstage on the last day of the Cubans’ tenure in Canada. A buffet of sandwiches has been vanquished by the hungry cast, which has shed tutus and tights for jeans and sweaters for a few hours between matinee and evening shows. One dancer is getting her ankle cared for by the physiotherapist whom Belsher’s made sure to have on hand. Though he’s paying the dancers a $70 per diem, Belsher has made sure to supply plenty of food so they can save that money to bring back to their families, or perhaps buy a few luxuries in the stores downtown. So far, there’s no sign of any defectors.

He’s almost at the finish line, but the producer still seems on edge. The tour through B.C. sold out and, like the Vancouver performances, met with standing ovations and appreciative audiences. Belsher gave a curtain speech before every performance, dedicating it to the memory of David Y.H. Lui. “It felt like he was there with us,” he says.

But he won’t know for days yet that the box office in Vancouver averaged about 70 per cent capacity. It’ll be enough for him to make his money back, and even a small profit, though not enough to start the endowment he’d hoped to establish in Lui’s memory. The fund would have been earmarked to bring more artists to Vancouver.

Yet Belsher says he’s seen enough to know there likely is a market in Vancouver for this kind of grandiose presentation. He’s already in talks with the Cubans to bring them back again. And he seems inspired by Lui’s legacy and the response of the audience members who, Belsher says, took a risk in their own right just by coming to see something new.

“Now those people might be willing to take a risk on something else and go see another dance show because they’ll be moved by it and see that beauty on stage,” he says.

It seems that this risky business is addicting.