OBT at the crossroads: where next?
The king is dead. Long live the king.
But first, the good news. The kingdom itself is holding off the barbarian hordes—at least, for now. Dancers are deep in rehearsals for the February 16-23 run of the popular story ballet “Swan Lake.” Fundraisers are punching important numbers on their cell phones, sweet-talking potential donors. And on Thursday evening Oregon Ballet Theatre, confounding a flood of rumors about its viability, threw a small wine-and-showcase party at its Southeast Portland studios to announce its 2013-14 season—a season the most pessimistic dance followers in town thought would never happen. You’d never know it from the packed house at the announcement, where the crowd radiated optimism.
When last we checked in on OBT, back in late November and early December, optimism was the last thing on most people’s minds. The place was in a shambles. After more than nine years as artistic director, Christopher Stowell had resigned abruptly, scant days before the opening of the company’s annual coffer-filler, George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” He would leave, he said, by the end of December—while the current season was in mid-swing, and before the company had made plans for its 2013-14 season.
Stowell’s announcement was a bombshell. He was one of the most prominent arts leaders in town, and part of American regional-ballet royalty: His parents, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, had danced with New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s glory years and were the founding directors of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Christopher Stowell had a storied dancing career at San Francisco Ballet and pretty much knew everyone in the business. His international connections paid big dividends as he rebuilt OBT and expanded its reach and reputation well beyond Oregon.
But underneath the artistic triumphs, the company was bleeding. Just three years after an emergency bailout that raised $900,000 to keep the doors open, OBT was once again in the financial weeds. It had amassed a $300,000 backlog in payments to the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, where it performs, all from missed payments during the 2011-12 season. Board membership had plummeted to just eight people—mostly, vice president Harold Goldstein said on Thursday, because a large contingency wanted to just shut the thing down. That group eventually quit the board. “Those of us who remained said we didn’t want to do that,” Goldstein said. “It was bizarre to me that someone would join the board in order to close it.”
Less than two months later, the supposedly sunken ship is bobbing bravely above the waves. For a company with no executive director, development director, or permanent artistic director, a remarkable sense of passion and purpose appears to have set in, alongside a frank acknowledgement of the deep problems the troupe faces. “Sometimes you have to fix the leaks in the boat before you remodel it,” board president Ken Hick commented.
Indeed, OBT appears to be vigorously fighting back. People are jumping back on board, literally: board membership has more than doubled to 17, and Goldstein said he expects it to be at 20 to 25 by the end of the current season. The hunt for a new artistic director is on. A new season has been designed and approved. The debt to PCPA—$300,357.76, mostly for unpaid staffing and user fees—is being paid off, interest-free, at $5,005.96 a month; Robyn Williams, the arts center’s executive director, said OBT has kept current with the repayment plan. December’s “Nutcracker” sold like gangbusters, and enthusiasm for February’s production of Stowell’s “Swan Lake,” which he’s returned to rehearse, is building. Dancers are busy as usual in the studio, and classes at the school are full.
At least temporarily, an air of tentative calm has been restored. Former company dancer Anne Mueller has taken over as interim artistic director, stepping up from her role as director of artistic operations, and is providing at least a semblance of continuity. She’ll be a leading candidate for the permanent position, although the board is searching far and wide. Whoever is eventually hired, the company will move on.
But to what? Right now, nobody knows. However it plays out, what happens will be significant not just for OBT but for Portland’s entire cultural scene. Reality has sunk in: Stowell’s gone, if far from forgotten, and it’s a new ballgame. Almost certainly the quality and cohesion that he built over nine years is going to drop, or at least change, possibly radically. Someone else is going to have to pick up the pieces and start all over again. OBT is becoming a new, and different, and perhaps smaller company, possibly with shrunken aspirations as well as shrunken assets. Hick says not: “We are absolutely not going to sacrifice on the art. We are absolutely going to do a much better job than we have on the business side.”
In his time at OBT, Stowell steadily built the company’s repertoire and skills, lifting it to a level of national prominence it hadn’t known before. At the same time, his reshaping of the company as a vigorous small-major rooted in neoclassicism represented a gamble: If you build it, they will come—with their wallets open. But while the art got better and better, the money didn’t follow. Over the years contributed income remained relatively flat, which meant a loss in actual buying power. And the company was never able to establish what, financially, it really needed: a reasonable contingency fund to ease it over the hump when emergencies inevitably arose.
In everyday terms, OBT has been living from paycheck to paycheck, and scrambling to keep up with the credit card payments. Now, the board has decided, the time has come to spend less. And complicating matters is the fear of falling into a circle of diminishing returns—that if you spend less, you will also make less, and the gap between spending and income will stay roughly the same.
In the past several weeks I’ve talked with about 30 people—insiders and outsiders, board members and staff, former and current dancers, musicians, other arts people in town—about what happened and where OBT might be headed. Some spoke on the record, many didn’t. In a way it’s been like interviewing the blind men trying to describe the elephant: everyone’s touched a different part of the beast, so everyone has a different story about what it’s like.
No one will ever know the full truth of how the Great Divorce between the company and its artistic director came to be. The important thing now is to understand that the future means more than the past. It might be helpful to look at the situation, like the elephant, from several discrete viewpoints, understanding that there is considerable lapover and that no one way of looking at the thing can provide an overarching truth. What follows is, more than anything else, an attempt simply to sort things out.
THE NEW SEASON
Christopher Stowell wasn’t in the room for the announcement party, but his spirit hovered over the place. “Tributes,” the 2013-14 season is called, and the tribute is mostly to Stowell himself, with remountings of his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Adin,” plus a new piece he’ll create. The season’s also stuffed with repertory works that Stowell commissioned, by choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon, Nicolo Fonte, and Matjash Mrozewski.
Designed by Anne Mueller, the new season sends reassuring signals to OBT fans worried about big changes. Relax, it says. We’re the same company. We’ve got continuity. It’s a pragmatic season, with its eye firmly on projecting an assured public image. Contrary to rumors that Mueller would choreograph a new and cheaper “Nutcracker,” the Balanchine version that Stowell installed is returning for 15 performances. Mueller will choreograph a new short work on the fall program, and a spot on the Spring 2014 program has been reserved for a piece choreographed or chosen by a new artistic director, when the position is filled.
Some criticism has already begun to stir about the season’s familiarity, but it’s clearly designed to project an air of stability. And it underscores one very important point: Stowell is allowing OBT to continue to produce his work, something that his predecessor, James Canfield, was loath to do. The season does have a few new works, and the remounts will allow the dancers to deepen their experience with pieces they’ve done before.
The new season will have only four main programs (including “The Nutcracker”), down one from previous years. A fifth, add-on program, called “In the Works,” will end the season in May 2014. In the tradition of Canfield’s old “Moving Signatures” programs but more scaled back, “In the Works” will feature new pieces by in-house and other local choreographers, and will be performed on the intimate stage of the BodyVox Dance Center.
“It’s a financially conservative season, but it’s a good season,” said board member Dean Richardson, who knows the dance world well. “It’s prudent, and the foundations like that.”
Board president Hick pegged the season budget at a shade over $5 million, down from about $6 million this season. Look for a complete listing at the bottom of this story.
“That was a shock,” Hick said shortly after Stowell resigned. “We didn’t see this coming. And that’s only made things more complex.”
“Complex” is a nice word for it. What’s happened at Oregon’s most prominent dance company, just three years after the fiscal crisis of 2009 that almost killed it, feels very much like déjà vu all over again—with the key difference that in addition to its financial difficulties, the company now finds itself rudderless artistically. How did this happen— again?
Many side issues were involved, but in simple terms, Hick and other budget-minded board leaders thought they were making fixes to a long-damaged financial and administrative system. Stowell believed that process inevitably would mean shrinking and therefore significantly changing the company, and he didn’t want to be a part of that: It was not, he said, what he was hired to do. So he bailed.
That’s the more or less official story, and in its effect it’s true. But it also pulls a discreet cloth over some nagging problems. Several insiders noted that Stowell had become increasingly tired of dealing with the annual budget restraints, and that he’d been considering parting ways with the company since the crisis of 2009. The job is all-consuming, and as he noted in a recent interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” radio show, he’d been turning down opportunities to do freelance work elsewhere. He was fatigued from the battles in Portland, and at the same time eager to test himself elsewhere.
Other tensions existed. Several people said off the record that Stowell and executive director Diane Syrcle had an uncomfortable working relationship. And some believe at least part of the board wanted to nudge Stowell out and start over fresh, hiring someone willing to work with a smaller company and a smaller budget. Stowell told “Think Out Loud” that a turning point may have come last spring, when renegotiated terms of the termination clause in the contracts of both the artistic director and the executive director shortened termination notification time for either side from 6 months to 30 days.
That change, Stowell told OPB, “allowed me to feel OK about severing the ties.” Syrcle, meanwhile, left OBT in late spring to take an executive post with the Oregon Symphony. Her position remains unfilled.
OBT’s approach to its new season indicates it understands it has a big public relations problem. It looks like a company in crisis, and no matter what it does to try to reassure the public and potential donors, the perception that it’s in trouble persists.
That matters. Other than the artistic product itself, two things are supremely important to any arts organization. The first is stability. The second is the appearance of stability. Maintaining the appearance, even if an organization is unstable, can actually lead to stability. And seeming unstable, even if at core your problems are minor and manageable, can lead to actual instability. In bald terms, nobody wants to give money to a loser—and if you look like a loser, even if you aren’t, suddenly you’re in danger of becoming one.
That’s why groups go to great lengths to keep their internal troubles out of the headlines and safely behind the scenes. And that’s why the abruptness of Stowell’s departure creates such difficult problems: It makes it look as if things are falling apart.
It’s easy to imagine an alternative scenario for the way things came down. Suppose that Stowell and the board reached an impasse: neither side willing to capitulate, and both agreeing only that the party was over. These things happen, frequently. So, in November, Stowell and the board release a joint statement: After almost 10 years at OBT, Stowell feels he’s accomplished what he set out to accomplish and is eager to go on to new challenges and opportunities in the ballet world. He’s announcing his resignation effective at the end of the current season, and will see the company through the season and planning for the 2013-14 season. OBT has begun an immediate international search for his replacement and hopes to announce his successor by early summer of 2013.
That approach would have accomplished three things. First, it would have given the impression of a reassuringly orderly transition. Second, even with Stowell as a lame duck, it would have avoided the scramble into crisis mode to finish the current season and plan for the next. Third, it would have avoided bringing up fresh memories of OBT’s last crisis, in 2009, when an emergency fund-raising drive and gala performance raised $900,000 and kept the company from going under. Another crisis in confidence was the last thing OBT could afford.
But Stowell clearly had no stomach for the revised task the board had presented him. For whatever reason—the revised termination clause, pressure to unbuild part of what he’d built, a nudge from an impatient board, simply a very private conviction that he was done—he stepped down. As uncomfortable as it might have been for some people internally, a semblance of order would have protected OBT’s public image if he’d stayed through the season. That didn’t happen.
Fortunately, Mueller was at the company and willing to bridge the gap. More fortunately, she has an even longer history with OBT than Stowell, and when she retired in May of 2011 she was one of the company’s most popular and ebullient dancers: Audiences loved her, and identified closely with her. She spent most of her career in Portland, joining OBT from Alabama Ballet in 1996, when co-founder Canfield was still artistic director, and went directly into administration after retiring from the stage.
More fortunately yet, she’s practical and bright and knows the managerial and financial side of the business intimately, both from her experience at OBT and as co-founder and managing director of the small but high-quality and widely known dance troupe The Trey McIntyre Project. She’s made budgets, negotiated contracts with dancers, immersed herself in the nitty-gritty of the business side of things. And as a former dancer, she understands that the business exists to make the art possible.
For people wanting reassurance that the baby and the bathwater aren’t being thrown out, Mueller is an ideal figure. She’s widely known and widely admired, an emblem of continuity with the prospect of change. In a wide-ranging talk recently she spoke openly about the challenges and realities the company faces. Yes, the budget will be smaller. Yes, that’ll require some rethinking. Yes, cost-cutting is tricky: If you cut your production budget in certain ways you also cut your potential income, risking a lesser artistic product and no savings on the bottom line. And no, she said, the idea tossed out by one board member of hiring dancers on a per-show basis instead of on a seasonal contract is “unworkable.” Mueller has a strong sense of how a season goes together, how it’s balanced between the familiar and innovative, the popular and challenging, the box-office sure bet and the risky project.
A big part of any artistic director’s role, of course, is creating dances, and although Mueller has done some choreography (including a new piece for BodyVox’s next show) she’s not hugely experienced at making dances. Then again, neither was Stowell when he was hired, and his dancemaking skills grew considerably.
Mueller’s a classically trained dancer steeped in the sort of neoclassical style that Stowell embraced, but her impulses both in music and dance may be a little broader, embracing the popular as well as the classical worlds. As a dancer she was known for her sharp comic style, a personality trait that would no doubt find its way into her work in the studio. She believes that having a variety of approaches—including a healthy mix of choreographers—is crucial.
How much choreographing should an artistic director do? Enough so the audience knows your style, she said, but not so much that it gets sick of you. Whether she can inspire dancers in the studio as well as Stowell does, and whether she can teach as well as he does, are open questions. But she clearly has the administrative chops. “It’s important that an artistic director also understands how the business is run,” one board member commented. “And Anne knows that. She’s already done it. She managed Trey McIntrye’s company.”
Change is coming, and a huge one has already been announced: Yuka Iino, the wonderful Japanese principal dancer who’s been a centerpiece of the company through the Stowell years, is retiring after this month’s performances of “Swan Lake.” Retirements happen all the time, of course. Dancers are like athletes, and their bodies have only so many top-flight years. But Iino has been special, and she’ll be crucially missed.
This season’s company includes 26 dancers plus six apprentices. It won’t be that big next season. And there could be some other big changes in the top echelons. Between retirement and moving on to more stable companies—several prominent dancers have their resumes out and are looking to audition elsewhere—the company almost certainly will look very different next season. Just how different will depend on who is hired as permanent artistic director and how the budget figures finally come down. The “new reality” being thrown around is a company of 20 dancers, but right now that’s only an educated guess.
Size matters, especially when you’re dealing with story ballets. Certain classic ballets simply require a lot of dancers. Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” for instance, stuffs the stage with performers, although many are children and younger performers who can be drawn from the ranks of the school. A lot of other big-cast story ballets don’t have that advantage. Nobody’s going to not do “The Nutcracker”: it’s the great American money machine of dances. But a change in company size could affect the repertory in other ways.
Despite the suggestion floated in early December, it would have been shocking if the company system itself had been scrapped. Its advantages are too significant, and switching to show-by-show hiring would fundamentally weaken OBT’s professional status. It’s not as if the dancers here are striking it rich. Base pay is about $700 a week, and assuming a 30-week season, that’s just $21,000 a year. Still, it’s a steady paycheck, and it’s enough to attract a lot of very good dancers into relocating. Right now the company includes dancers from Europe, Asia, and across the United States. Switching to pickup status would limit hiring essentially to dancers already in town, and just as significantly, would prevent development of the ensemble style that is at the heart of any ballet company that expects to be taken seriously. The board and the staff now seem to understand that.
The hoped-for administrative stability that seemed necessary following OBT’s 2009 near-death experience has never taken hold: administrators have come and gone, some staying barely long enough to hang their coats in the closet and grab a cup of coffee. In relatively swift succession, executive director Diane Syrcle departed in May for the Oregon Symphony, marketing and communications director Trisha Mead left for an architecture firm, and Joanne Van Ness Menashe, hired in September 2012 as vice president of development and marketing, resigned. Menashe was part of an administrative restructuring that raised eyebrows when it was announced. Instead of hiring a new executive director to replace Syrcle, the board created two vice-presidencies: Menashe’s, and a vice presidency for finance and administration that has only recently been filled with the hiring of Diane O’Malley. Both were to report to Stowell, who in turn reported to the board.
Development, so obviously an area of deep need for many years, has often been an orphan in the company structure, with rapid turnover and sometimes long gaps between appointments. (Mueller noted that Syrcle came to the company with a strong development background, and it was expected that development would be a major part of her task as executive director.) Board members have expressed the belief that the town’s deep pockets have essentially been tapped out, and the company has reached a ceiling on the amount of money it can expect to raise each year. That might be true, others argue, but without a solid development structure, how can you know? What if the problem isn’t with the givers but with the askers?
What’s more, some insiders say, the board and staff have never come to full agreement on what the development director’s job should be: someone to raise the big bucks, or someone to develop a strategy that would help the board raise the big bucks.
Hick, who took over as board president this season, is convinced that the company can do a much better job of raising money than it has. He’s been looking at how other companies do it, and trying to find ways to do things smarter. The challenge, he says, isn’t so much cutting the budget—although that’s been done—as it is gaining new revenue. And he’s excited about the possibilities of what he calls “second-tier” fund-raising: not ticket sales or donations but previously untapped sources. For instance, he says, San Francisco Ballet makes $600,000 a year on its boutique concessions. That’s no substitute for a strong donor base. But it certainly helps.
In the meantime, board and staff are working in overdrive as OBT hunts for both an artistic director and an executive director. Richardson, who’s involved in the searches, says some very good resumes have emerged for both positions. Whoever is eventually hired, it’ll be crucial that both be able to work well together.
Stowell believed that live music was an essential element of top-level ballet: ballet is live performance, created in the moment, and the music is a crucial aspect of the experience. Ballet companies can and do use recorded music, especially on more contemporary pieces, but live music heightens the experience, and most dancers love it because it intensifies their focus. In brief, it’s a crucial part of the art form.
Over the years, music director Niel DePonte has built a very good orchestra, and a lot of freelance musicians in Portland have come to rely on the ballet to provide a chunk of their yearly workload. Some dances, of course, can be performed well with non-orchestral live music—a chamber quartet, or a violin and piano. Still, for certain kinds of ballet there’s no substitute for a good, full ballet orchestra. And when a company’s in cost-cutting mode, the orchestra is often a tempting target to cut. It’s a dangerous game, though, because for a significant slice of the audience, a full live orchestra is a big part of the attraction to ballet. Keep your eyes open to see what happens here.
The ballet company’s school serves a lot of roles, not just for OBT but also for the city. Economically, it’s a solid source of money, both from tuitions paid by students and in teaching income for staff, some of whom are former OBT dancers. Students are good sources of auxiliary help onstage when a company show needs it (think “Nutcracker”) and the school caters to students who want to take classes for enjoyment as well as students with more serious aspirations: It’s been a feeder of talent to performing companies and top schools elsewhere.
The school has built a good reputation under the direction of Damara Bennett, Stowell’s hand-picked choice, who followed him to Portland from San Francisco. But the OBT school is also hemmed in. It’s tough to expand because OBT’s studio spaces are limited. Original plans for the studio building called for adding a second story that would significantly expand the possibilities, but money has never emerged to follow through on that. And unlike schools attached to the ballet company in some other cities, OBT’s school isn’t the only game in town. There’s healthy competition on several fronts, including the Portland Ballet in the Hillsdale neighborhood and two locations (Cedar Mill, Lake Oswego) of the Sultanov Russian Ballet Company, run by former OBT principal dancer Artur Sultanov. Meanwhile, continuity is also a question. Will Bennett stay now that Stowell’s gone? Stay tuned.
Keep your ear to the ground and you can hear some surprising whispers in Portland art circles. Who cares whether OBT makes it? goes one recurring argument. The real action’s in the little companies, anyway. Ballet’s a dinosaur.
But the argument overlooks the importance of the major art groups as keepers of artistic tradition, links to the larger art world, and suppliers of talent to the local arts scene: look around the city’s thriving small-dance scene and you’ll see all sorts of connections to OBT, from former dancers to current dancers doing side projects to OBT-trained dancers and even independent dancers who also work in some capacity for OBT. It’s the same sort of relationship that the Oregon Symphony has with many of the city’s chamber and new-music ensembles
Portland celebrates its adventurous little startups, but one reason it’s a small-business town is that there are so few big businesses here. It’s great to have a vibrant small-arts scene. But to think that therefore the big companies don’t matter is simply to think small. Weaken or eliminate OBT, Portland Opera, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Center Stage and the Portland Art Museum and you also weaken or eliminate the vibrant alternative scene that’s grown up around them. Everyone has a stake in the bigs, even if not everyone likes what they do.
Short-term crises and lingering financial trouble make it hard to think ahead, but a healthy company needs to do that. Troupes that stumble from crisis to crisis find themselves continually reinventing themselves, starting over, if not from scratch, at least from a shrunken and defensive position.
But thinking about the future is crucial, and one of OBT’s biggest long-term issues is its performance space. The 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium is far from ideal. The 880-seat Newmark Theatre, where the company usually performs one program per season, is much more congenial, but it isn’t big enough to be a permanent home. Portland Opera, which also performs in the Keller, finds itself in the same spot. Over the years people at both companies have dreamed of a new performing hall small enough to remain intimate but big enough that it can be financially feasible. About 1,800 seats, Mueller said, would be ideal.
With Portland’s economy still dragging, nobody’s about to break ground on a new theater anytime soon. But the idea of a new hall that the ballet and opera companies could share remains alluring and raises other possibilities. Could the companies also combine at least part of their administrative and development functions? What about their orchestras? A number of musicians already perform in both. Could they be combined into a single orchestra that offers its players more guaranteed work? Creating a fused company at whatever level undoubtedly would be painful—mergers always are—but the financial and artistic possibilities are so intriguing that it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Whether the ballet and opera share a lot of functions or only a performance hall, they can only get there if both companies are relatively healthy and willing to work together to make the thing happen. The years 2020 or 2025 seem a long way off, but they’ll be here in blink. And it’s fair for Portland to ask: Can OBT step confidently toward them? Or will it still be playing in crisis mode as the promise of the future slips into just another might-have-been?
Stay tuned. This story isn’t over yet.
“TRIBUTES”: THE 2013-2014 SEASON
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Oct. 12-18, 2013, Keller Auditorium
- “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Felix Mendelssohn/Christopher Stowell
- “Le Corsaire Pas de Deux,” Adolphe Adama/Maurice Petipa
- World premiere work, Anne Mueller
“George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” Dec. 14-24, 2013, Keller Auditorium
- Pyotr Tchaikovsky/George Balanchine
“Bolero,” Feb. 22-March 1, 2014, Keller Auditorium
- “Bolero,” Maurice Ravel/Nicolo Fonte
- “Almost Mozart,” W.A. Mozart/James Kudelka
- “Liturgy,” Aarvo Part/Christopher Wheeldon
- World premiere, Christopher Stowell
“Bold Beginnings,” April 17-26, 2014, Newmark Theatre
- “Adin,” Sergei Rachmaninoff/Christopher Stowell
- “The Lost Dance,” Owen Belton/Matjash Mrozewski
- A new work, selected by the new artistic director
“In the Works,” May 2014, BodyVox Dance Center
- New dances in an intimate space by OBT and other Portland choreographers