Some things get better with age: wine, cheese, savings bonds-and the arts. At the time I write this, Peoria Ballet still has a month to go before our 40th Anniversary Gala Performance, "Follow Our Feet: From Beginning to Balanchine." The company officially began in April 1965, so this marks the beginning of our 40th year. Our "foolish youth" has passed, and middle age has arrived. With it comes richness only time can bring-abundance of experience, maturity, and insightful, focused creativity.

We were recently in the news; the largest single dance publication, Dance Magazine, published an article about us in its April edition. The headline was "Aging Gracefully." That's an interesting angle. As gracefully as we can, I'd like to see this company head into the next chapter with our eyes wide open. Some things to strive for would be more equitable pay for the professional dancers so we're better able to compete with national standards and keep top professionals in our community, an administrative staff double in number to what we have in dancers, a larger facility to accommodate more classes, and expanded theater time-at least two shows per production.

In a time where the city of Peoria strives to find ways to entice research and biotech ventures into the area and the community grapples with the closing of theater and opera productions, funding museums, and hiring new directors and outreach staff, Peoria Ballet has managed to maintain solvency and experience continued growth. In the last five years, the ballet audience has flourished appreciably so that we can now justify three productions a year in addition to a well-received experiment we tried this year, an in-house production of new choreography by our own dancers entitled Inscapes. Our community seems to have a thirst for up-to-the-minute choreography from the perspective of the young and hip set-our average dancer's age is 22-and they embraced what Peoria Ballet dancers had to offer. As our advertisement promised: not a tutu in sight.

The fact that a vibrant arts scene-one that includes traditional performing arts like symphony, opera, ballet, and theater, as well as a contemporary arts component that "pushes the envelope"-adds exponentially to the financial bottom line of a city is well documented. It's been found that businesses and corporations thrive in a highly artistic, tolerant, and creative atmosphere; places like San Francisco, Austin, Atlanta, Seattle, Miami, and Boston are good examples of cities with this liberal minded thinking.

But the arts first need people who want to see/hear/experience the aesthetics they provide; it's no good boasting about having a first-rate symphony if you never go. It's a losing proposition to have arts for purely economic reasons because, in reality, the arts aren't a moneymaking machine. Culturally educated people understand this terrible paradox and invest their money anyway. Why? Some do because they simply like the arts-they love that exceptional performance of Carmen, are thrilled by the athleticism and grace of ballet dancers, and get a high from the quirky new exhibit of modern art at the museum. Others donate money because, in an atmosphere highly charged with people creating and presenting and experimenting and living the aesthetic life, there come new ideas, cutting-edge concepts, the next generation of thinking, and exciting, valuable commodities that, in time, produce capital. It's highly likely a thriving corporate climate is a byproduct of a sophisticated, diverse, creatively colorful community-not the other way around.

Artists don't succeed on their ability to market their creative vision to corporate sponsors in a logical and cohesive manner, but rather by producing good art. A lot of people think artists live an immature, irresponsible lifestyle, pursuing ephemeral things that aren't somehow "grown up," economically viable, or of quantifiable worth. It's impossible to explain to the empirically minded person the value of a magnificent sunset, a Beethoven symphony, a Picasso painting, or a Balanchine ballet. They may logically understand that they should like these things, but if they find no personal connection to them, the arts remain a distant, elusive, and useless mystery. Arts are experiential-not cerebral. And because they're forged out of the deepest of human experiences by flawed human hands intended to reach seeking human hearts, the arts are our greatest, most essential common bond.

This truth sounds like highbrow claptrap or adolescent daydreaming to most people. Talk about food for the soul or the human heart, and people squirm uncomfortably in their seat. "Come on," they think, "Get real! The arts aren't that important. We're dealing with real issues like family, jobs, illness, economics, and global warming. Don't waste our time with frivolous art!" It is, however, a surprising fact that every culture turns to and employs the arts to mark significant life events such as weddings, funerals, or births; to celebrate public holidays or state occasions; and to express ceremonial praise or worship. No one can convince a community of the need for performing arts; the aggregate personality of a city either wants them or doesn't.

As Peoria Ballet moves into middle age, I hope we can continue to "age gracefully," and I hope our community will fall in love with us even more. AA!