Portland Ballet has received four gifts worth nearly $300,000 over three years, signaling a new level of financial support for the dance company and school.

Supporters hope the gifts strengthen Portland Ballet and increase its presence in the Portland arts scene, as it transitions from the long-term leadership of a founding director.

The gifts will enable Portland Ballet to better compensate its dancers and staff, pursue collaborations with other arts organizations and create new programming, said Michael Greer, the dance company’s executive director. He replaced founding director Eugenia O’Brien, who retired last spring.

“Portland Ballet punches way above its weight, as does its home city,” said Stephanie Cotsirilos, a former interim executive director at the dance company and school, who donated money through her family foundation. “They depend on each other and deserve to thrive together. When they do, they produce the kind of city I want to live in.”

Eugenia O’Brien, seen in one of the dance studios, announced her retirement as executive and artistic director of the Portland Ballet in Portland. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Eugenia O’Brien, seen in one of the dance studios, announced her retirement as executive and artistic director of the Portland Ballet in Portland. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Other donors are board members Jim Shaffer and Melissa Lin, and Donald and Linda Zillman. The Zillman gift creates fellowships to compensate artists and staff, said Donald Zillman, a former University of Maine Law School dean who advised Portland Ballet in its search for a new executive director. Linda Zillman is a former dancer, and the couple decided to “join with several other movers and shakers” to invest in Portland Ballet to help the organization expand its reach and influence, he said.

The fellowships represent direct compensation to artists. “That’s how you recruit good people,” he said. “We want to see as much additional money as possible go directly into the hands of the dancers themselves.”

The gifts, which average about $100,000 a year for three years, represent a significant boost in funding at a critical time for the dance company. O’Brien retired in 2015 after directing Portland Ballet for 35 years. It’s difficult for an arts organization to move from a founding director to a successor, Zillman said. Portland Ballet loses the institutional knowledge that O’Brien takes with her and has to adjust to new financial realities.

O’Brien was “a near volunteer, who did it for the love of it. We were not going to find another Genie who would do it for next to nothing,” Zillman said. Hiring a full-time executive director at a competitive salary requires a different budget, necessitating more fundraising.

Shaffer said he and his wife, Lynn, hope the gifts generate more donations. “We’ve got these four gifts to anchor things, but we will definitely have to raise more money,” he said.

Portland Ballet has an annual budget of about $500,000 and raises $75,000 to $200,000 yearly to support its operations, according to its most recent tax reports. It has a professional company of 15 dancers and a school with 130 students, as well as a 75-seat black box theater at its studios on Forest Avenue.

Cotsirilos said her experience as interim executive director gave her insight into the strengths and needs of Portland Ballet. With a new director in place, she and her peers talked about ensuring a smooth transition. “We said to one another, ‘This is our chance to make a difference. Our city, our artists, our families and our staff need us.’ People stepped up,” she said.

Lin said she and her husband, Aaron Hoffman, decided to increase their donation to Portland Ballet to “essentially secure the future of dance in Maine” and because of the growth and potential of the dance company. She compared the quality of the work of the dancers and choreographers at Portland Ballet to that of larger regional companies. “We love the performing arts, and we realize the value it brings to the community,” she said.