After 30 years, a new generation of leadership has stepped into the shoes of the organization’s original founders, with ambitious plans to put this former horse farm on the cultural map.
Who could have predicted that in August 2020 it would be a singularly unique experience to attend a live dance performance? But after more than four months of complete shutdown of live arts and entertainment throughout New York State, the Hudson Valley had entered stage four of reopening, and outdoor gatherings of 50 or fewer were now allowed. When Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli announced its festival of free outdoor performances, the nine weekends “sold out” immediately.
With stringent social-distancing protocols in place, and contactless admission instructions and program brochure delivered via email, guests entered a rustic barn to a light-and-sound installation of poetry and images. From there, the barn door opened to a majestic sweep of lush greenery—153 acres that were once a horse farm where Eleanor Roosevelt spent her childhood summers. On a newly built raised stage in the meadow on the third weekend of the series, Robbie Fairchild and Claudia Rahardjanoto tap danced together, Tamisha Guy & Lloyd Knight and Emily Kikta & Peter Walker performed duets, and Christopher Wheeldon, the host, presented a lyrical pas de deux for Fairchild and Chris Jarosz. It was a perfect antidote for the long months of anxious uncertainty.
The Summer Festival was the brainchild of the new generation of leadership at Kaatsbaan. Hired in December 2018, Sonja Kostich is the organization’s first fully dedicated executive director after 30 years of operation under the original founders. Former ABT star Stella Abrera joined her at the helm as artistic director in January 2020. Together they are committed to putting Kaatsbaan on the cultural map as the year-round arts center its founders envisioned long ago.
Founded by Dancers, for Dancers
Founded in 1990 to be a respite from urban life for dance artists and a home for a world-class summer ballet intensive, Kaatsbaan was run for 30 years by two of its original founders: former dancer Gregory Cary, who served as artistic/executive director until 2020, and, as president, Bentley Roton, who was once a company manager of American Ballet Theatre. The two other founders are also connected with ABT—the ballerina Martine van Hamel, who until this year directed the Kaatsbaan summer ballet intensive, and ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. All four continue to serve as trustees and van Hamel is now a principal ballet teacher.
The informal ABT affiliation continued in the selection of Kostich as executive director—she began her career in the ABT corps de ballet. Kostich landed the job entirely under her own power, though. In fact, she’d barely even heard of Kaatsbaan when she applied.
After she and her partner bought property nearby, Kostich started poking around for employment that would support a full-time move to the Hudson Valley and came upon a one-year-old newspaper article that mentioned Kaatsbaan was ready to hire the next generation of leadership. She assumed it was too late, but reached out anyway with an offer to help as needed. They invited her for an interview, and soon the job was hers.
Kostich came to the position with a master’s degree in arts administration, after a stint as finance manager for Mark Morris Dance Group and another as program manager for New York City Center, as well as two years at Goldman Sachs. She had also founded and managed her own dance company, OtherShore, for six years. It’s a resumé cocktail that uniquely prepared her for the challenges at Kaatsbaan.
Abrera had been working for several years as associate director of the summer ballet intensive alongside Van Hamel when she was appointed to the artistic director position this past January, six months before her anticipated final bow as principal dancer with ABT in June. But she’s been preparing for her career transition for several years. In 2018, she took part in Crossover Into Business, a special semester at Harvard Business School for pro-athletes . “I had spent most of my career focused on being a ballet dancer,” she says. “Shifting to how an arts organization presents that product was an eye-opener.” She was assigned to work weekly with HBS student mentors to review complex case studies and make plausible business-plan recommendations. And in January, Abrera attended the DanceEast Rural Retreat in Ipswich, England, a think tank for dance leaders. For a week she was part of a group of aspiring leaders, a cohort that continues to meet informally every month.
Though Abrera and Kostich have discrete responsibilities, they are in close communication. “We consult each other on everything,” Abrera says. “Our staff is small. It requires all hands on deck, with everyone being game and with positive energy.” In fact, during a rain break at the Summer Festival, the audience was surprised to see Abrera and Wheeldon hop onstage to help the production crew mop it down. “We knew what it meant for artists to be part of this summer festival,” she says. “If it meant wiping down a stage with a towel for two minutes…?” She was more than willing to do that.
Picking Up Where the Founders Left Off
Since Kostich’s arrival, she has been quietly building the staff, board, funding resources and business plan necessary to move the organization forward. In her first 18 months, she brought in five new board members, and made four hires to bring the staff total to seven, including Brandi Norton, a dance educator and former member of Trisha Brown Dance Company, as director of development, education and community engagement.
With three dance studios, the Dancers’ Inn for 32 guests, and a 160-seat black-box theater with a performance floor as large as the Metropolitan Opera stage in Manhattan, the job of managing the grounds and facilities alone can devour considerable resources. In non-COVID-19 times, Kaatsbaan operates year-round with a budget that hovers around $1 million.
So it’s no small feat for the two founders to have managed Kaatsbaan for so long, acknowledges Kostich. The first 10 years were given over to securing financing and building the physical structures. For the past 20 years Kaatsbaan has operated with spring and fall seasons of residencies and performances, and a nine-week ballet intensive in the summer.
“I don’t think much changed,” Kostich says. “They found their groove and they went with that. So when I arrived I did feel that it needed a little shake up, which I think is often hard for people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to their child. It was a little challenging.” For instance, not much marketing had been done, and the website design was 20 years old.
“I came in wanting to fully fulfill the founders’ mission,” Kostich says. “I believe that the four founders always envisioned Kaatsbaan to be a cultural park. What that means is that things would happen on our 153 acres. Not just inside one building. For whatever reason, that never happened.”
The Vision for Kaatsbaan’s Future
Kostich had an early success with targeted marketing for summer intensive enrollment for 2020 that brought a 136 percent increase in what has historically been the organization’s largest revenue generator. The additional tuition would have put them firmly in the black at year’s end. But with the shutdown, the summer program was reduced from nine weeks to six and delivered online, and there was a significant loss of revenue.
Nevertheless, Kostich considers this a good sign. “It signals to me that there is room for growth, and we can make it happen,” she says. “It’s not that everything’s been tried and can’t. We have options.”
The key to future growth is development of the structures on the property. Already, the new outdoor stage will allow them to increase programming. Additional housing will also allow more dancers to participate on-site. “When we can develop housing, more studios, more performance spaces, then we can start having multiple layers of programming instead of one layer at a time. All of that feeds into the revenue,” she says. She also points out that it’s a more efficient way to operate. “Historically Kaatsbaan has been open year-round, which means you are incurring many expenses regardless of whether people are here or not. So it’s important that we have something going on all year around.”
But raising money for expansion doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “In order to raise funds, we need people to know about the place. In order for people to know, you need a marketing program. I want to have great programming, but the great artists won’t come if there’s no money,” she says. “Everything is connected. It’s like a dancer. You’re not going to just use your legs. You use your entire body. This organization is a living, breathing body, and everything has to be functioning. We want it functioning at the highest level.”
Kaatsbaan performances have traditionally been associated with on-site residencies of artists and dance companies. But Kostich and Abrera are rethinking that model, which Kostich says isn’t financially viable. She’s begun to introduce more stand-alone performances: Paul Taylor Dance Company and Taylor 2 graced the Kaatsbaan stage in 2019, and in collaboration with New York City Center, Kostich arranged to commission a work by Sonya Tayeh that premiered at Kaatsbaan’s first New York City fundraiser and then at City Center’s 2019 Fall for Dance. And during COVID-19 times, it seems a Kaatsbaan residency is more necessary than ever. Just recently, Dance Theatre of Harlem traveled to Kaatsbaan for a three weeks, in an official COVID-19 “bubble.”
Though dance was always intended to be primary, the new programming vision is to embrace a broader range of arts. The original mission and business plan included other projects (like a costume shop) that never came to fruition, most likely, Kostich says, because the founders had their hands full with daily management tasks. But with more staff and funding, she sees an opportunity to combine the performing arts with fine arts, theater, music, poetry and film.
The Summer Festival, for instance, included musicians from nearby Bard Conservatory, and Brandon Stirling Baker co-curated the sound and light projections in the barn that featured the artwork of two Alvin Ailey stars, Jamar Roberts (illustrations) and Hope Boykin (poetry), among others. The third-weekend program featured vocalists Ali Ewoldt, Tamar Greene and Rob Berman performing Broadway repertoire.
The Free Summer Festival Was a Harbinger
In late June, just as the Hudson Valley reached phase three of reopening, Kostich and Abrera returned to their office. “It was just the two of us on 153 acres,” says Kostich. “And we’re like ‘We’ve got to do something, right?’ Not being able to have our summer intensive on-site allowed us to look at Kaatsbaan with new eyes and a new perspective.”
The resulting Summer Festival was Kaatsbaan’s very first outdoor program, and the first step in realizing a long-held vision. An example of Kostich’s astute leadership is the decision to make festival admission free. With the audience capped at 50, maximum projected revenue would hardly have begun to cover the $50,000 budget, anyway. Over 100 artists were involved and while they worked at greatly reduced rates, there was also the expense of building the outdoor stage. “If you want to look purely from the business side,” says Kostich, “you can raise more money via fundraising and donations than you can on ticket sales.” Indeed, by the third weekend, donations from enthusiastic audiences and sponsorships had already nearly covered the budget in full, providing a striking example of what’s possible.
“We didn’t invent the wheel or come up with anything extraordinary,” says Kostich on the recognition the festival received. “We just took what we had and were able to do something at a time most people can’t do anything. We still have so far to go, but had we got the spotlight on us before, it might not quite have been ready for the attention.”
Karen Hildebrand served as editor in chief of Dance Teacher for 11 years and co-founded Dance Business Weekly in 2019.