Battered ballet company trying to regroup
As the Charleston Ballet Theatre concludes its 2011-12 season, it is coping with the aftermath of a mass resignation of board members, dancers' allegations of mistreatment and a tenuous financial predicament.
Fiscal year 2012: $875,000
Fiscal year 2011: $917,000
Fiscal year 2010: $1,093,000
This series of blows is threatening to undo the ballet organization, a cornerstone of the city's cultural landscape for 25 years whose respected dance school has taught generations of Lowcountry children.
The ballet enterprise that would become the Charleston Ballet Theatre was started in 1966 by Charleston native Don Cantwell, a former dancer with the Atlanta Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet and Ballet Russe School. In 1977 he married Patricia Strang, a ballerina who had performed with the Savannah Ballet, Southern Ballet and Atlanta Ballet.
In 1987 they hired Jill Eathorne-Bahr as resident choreographer, launching a new era of dance in the city. In the years since, Bahr has gained a national reputation for her distinctive choreography, and she has built a repertoire that includes a number of classic ballets.
For years the CBT has offered the community's children premier dance schooling that includes classical ballet, jazz and modern dance, training children as young as 3.
Major donors either have fallen away or chosen to withhold money because of the ballet's uncertain status. Seven directors resigned last month, citing financial mismanagement and questioning the essential purpose of the board, which has been left decimated and nonfunctional.
These developments have some members of the arts community wondering if the Charleston Ballet -- its performance company and its school -- can recover.
On March 6, the independent Charleston Ballet Guild, a group of volunteer fundraisers, elected to dissolve because of "resignations by the majority of the executive committee members of the Charleston Ballet Theatre's Board, coupled with recent negative occurrences by the management of CBT toward the Guild."
The straw that broke the camel's back was an email Dec. 6 from the ballet's artistic director, Patricia Cantwell, that was copied to guild president Roberta Barrett criticizing the guild for failing to raise enough money.
"I just wish they would figure out how to make their 'fun raisers' raise more funds," Cantwell wrote. "It is lots of work for so little return and it is very hard on the dancers, in the busiest time of our season to go work for another three hours after a full day. Selling cookies and hosting parties to people for nearly free is not my idea of smart fundraising."
Barrett said the December fundraiser netted about $2,000 for the ballet, and that about $8,000 had been handed over so far this fiscal year. Typically, the guild provides about $10,000 a year, she said.
The email berating the guild for not doing enough came as a shock, Barrett said. "It's not a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you."
Jill Eathorne-Bahr, resident choreographer and CEO of the Charleston Ballet, said the organization plans to rebuild the board and restructure the company.
"CBT has made important steps in its progress since this problem surfaced in the media," Bahr wrote in an email responding to specific questions about its corporate status, finances, dancers and donors.
"First and foremost, Patty (Cantwell), Don (Cantwell) and I felt that it was in the company's best interest to continue to work through dancer contracts and scheduled performances. That goal was accomplished at the magnificent performance of the company on Saturday night" -- a gala finale held March 17 at the Charleston Music Hall.
She said the next eight weeks will be spent meeting with supporters and donors.
"Over the summer we will restructure the board with the help of (Charleston) Mayor (Joe) Riley and other key supporters who can guide us toward a more financially stable and sustainable organization," Bahr wrote.
"Patrick Wamsley, CFO of the MUSC (and former treasurer of the ballet), is assisting with a four-year financial plan for the company, at the request of Mayor Riley. Meetings have taken place with board members that have resigned and in most instances all will be offering help to the company through the restructuring period."
In the meantime, some funding sources have dried up, at least temporarily.
The Coastal Community Foundation, which manages endowments and coordinates charitable giving in the Lowcountry, sends about $10,000 a year to the ballet. But the nonfunctional ballet board "creates a very strange situation for the organization," said George Stevens, the foundation's president and CEO.
"We can no longer distribute grants or checks to the ballet because there is no governing body," he said. "The Community Foundation can no longer support the ballet until they resolve the issue of the minimum board size."
The recent resignations left the board with fewer than the minimum of 21 required by the organization's bylaws and no quorum, or minimum number of members needed to conduct business, making it impossible for the ballet to vote in new members, amend the bylaws or make other critical governing decisions.
A nonfunctioning board also puts the group's nonprofit status in question since 501(c)(3) corporations, such as the ballet, require a governing body.
The city of Charleston distributes funds to arts organizations drawn from the municipal accommodations tax. Soon after last month's resignations, Bahr met with Riley to discuss the need for continued funding. Riley "assured Bahr the money was available and would be given to the ballet," he said.
This fiscal year, $50,000 was earmarked for the ballet, according to its financial records and city officials. The ballet recorded in its Jan. 17 profit and loss statement that it had received half; another $12,500 was delivered in January, city Chief Financial Officer Steve Bedard said.
Out of proportion
All further payments are on hold. The city will release the rest, and continue to support the ballet in the future, only once it can determine that the nonprofit adheres to legal requirements, Riley and Bedard said.
"We've got to make sure the organization is in a status where we can do that," Riley said, pledging his support. "I am committed in any way I possibly can to help them not only successfully conclude this year but get ready for next year."
The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation provides financial grants to the ballet, the last of which was a three-year award of $165,000, mostly disbursed.
John Sands, director of the Donnelley Foundation's Lowcountry Program, said he must understand the ballet's status better before deciding his group's next steps.
"We're certainly concerned. We don't know what the situation is," Sands said. "We have supported the ballet actively over the past years and continue to be concerned that there be a healthy organization providing ballet in the city. But we would be constrained, as other funding sources would be constrained, to provide grants to functioning organizations."
Bahr said the trouble has been blown out of proportion.
"The harsh reality is that certain individuals continue to generate this negative press through social media and the Internet," she wrote in her email. "I find it ironic that I have just spent time consulting with 78 dance companies on board structure, artistic presentation, and staff development -- the exact issues that plague CBT at this time.
"I was honored with the appointment but am sad to note that CBT has failed at developing the type of board structure needed with respect (to) the artistic product and artists and financial stability that I preach to every other company I visit."
The losses are mounting.
The ballet's administrative director, Kyle Barnette, resigned this month to assume the role of executive director of the Charleston Horticultural Society. In an email, he called the move "a natural progression for my career goals."
Turnover of dancers appears to be above average for a regional ballet company, according to some former employees, who have complained about a toxic environment, low morale, excessive physical strain and fear-mongering.
"You never really knew what to expect," a former dancer said.
Dancers' concerns prompted the formation of a board committee to assess the problems and recommend solutions.
In January, board members Mark Fava, Al Votaw and Kit Whitely cited "discontent with the style of management" and "a perception that laws are not adhered to and that plagiarism has occurred."
The committee also listed as issues erratic scheduling and excessive work hours, intolerance for sick days, inadequate supplies of pointe shoes, disrespectful treatment of dancers and risks of injury.
"Dancers are sometimes pushed to work when injured or when an injury is imminent," the report states.
Votaw, who was among the board members to resign last month, expressed regret that the committee report appears to have prompted little corrective action.
"I am concerned about the dancers and their livelihood," he said. "They are the ballet company. One of my goals was to have them be treated (better), to help them do the best they can do."
Bahr said the organization has taken dancers' concerns seriously.
"(The dancers) are aware of the subcommittee report to the board and we discussed it as a group the week the Board of Directors resigned. The dancers staff and administration, if anything, have gotten closer as we worked to present this 25th Anniversary Gala performance."
Power and debt
But it is the ballet's finances and restraints imposed by its bylaws that have many observers concerned.
The departure of board members was prompted in part because of money worries and in part because of their limited authority, according to Votaw and Barrett, who was an appointed, nonvoting member of the board.
The ballet's bylaws grant board members the responsibility "to formulate and implement policies," "approve all fund-raising projects," "monitor management of all business and property of CBT," "establish appropriate personnel policies" and "supervise the CBT CEO."
The bylaws also grant the CEO -- Bahr -- the responsibility to "manage all activities and finances," including properties and personnel. "The CEO shall have ultimate responsibility for all official documents and financial records of CBT."
This rule casts doubt among board members about what authority, if any, they have to determine fiscal policies, four former directors said.
Yet directors are personally responsible for certain financial obligations, including any nonpayment of state and federal taxes, according to IRS rules.
As of Jan. 17, the ballet was more than 90 days late in paying $20,491.98 to the S.C. Employment Security Commission, and $25,964.81 in arrears to the IRS ($13,254.01 of which was more than 90 days late), according to the ballet's Aging Summary statement.
When asked, Bahr did not say whether the ballet had caught up on its past-due tax payments.
"I'm concerned about how the ballet organization is going to be able to pull itself through this," Votaw said, adding that the community wants and deserves a fine dance company.
The sentiment was echoed by several others.
Stevens, of the Coastal Community Foundation, said there is plenty of proof that the Charleston area can support a ballet. "There's an interest in ballet," he said. "Donors are generous to the ballet. So clearly there's a need."
Former Guild President Roberta Barrett complimented the dancers and said she hopes the ballet can find a way to restore itself to health.
Sands, of the Donnelley Foundation, called the ballet an essential component to Charleston's arts scene. "Our interest is in a healthy arts org and vital arts community in the region," he said.
Riley was the most effusive.
"The Charleston Ballet Theatre is a treasured artistic resource of our community and the city, and I have strongly supported them, and do. It's very important that this great community, city and this region have a fine ballet company. Patty Cantwell, Don Cantwell and Jill Bahr and their dancers have given us just that."
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902, or on Facebook at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.