The Charleston Ballet Theatre, its status now in question after a series of crippling blows, has been coping with internal strife and questionable finances for years, former dancers and board members say.
And now, at the close of its 25th anniversary, the ballet company appears to have reached a make-or-break moment.
Contracted dancers expecting to receive a final paycheck on March 30 didn’t get it for lack of funds when the city of Charleston held up its quarterly grant payment of $12,500.
In an April 1 email, ballet CEO Jill Eathorne-Bahr updated dancers about their wages.
“The City of Charleston will not release the City ATAX (accommodations tax) monies in time for you to receive your March 30th paycheck,” she wrote. “With the board resignations we must enlarge the board in order to make any adjustments to our bylaws.”
A meeting was scheduled to discuss the issue, the email states. “Everyone will work as swiftly as possible, but in reality I have no solid idea how long this process will take.”
On Friday, Bahr said that progress is being made, and that soon there could be a “large announcement.” The ballet is restructuring its board, programming Piccolo Spoleto Festival performances and planning the 2012-13 season, she said, adding that she could not provide specifics.
“Outside staff” is helping with the transition; the group is in discussions with city officials; and new donors are beginning to come forward, she said. Nonprofit arts groups face a difficult challenge when striving to balance fiscal prudence with artistic expression, she said.
“There has to be a great director of operations that keeps that side going, and there has to be an artistic director.”
Bahr is CEO and resident choreographer. Patricia Caldwell is artistic director, focused mostly on running the school.
Asked about dancers’ complaints and a recently filed slander suit, Bahr declined to comment. “Anything to do with dancers and social media, I can’t talk about,” she said.
The recent report produced in January by a board subcommittee cited longstanding dancer concerns, including “discontent with the style of management” and “a perception that laws are not adhered to and that plagiarism has occurred.”
The report also listed such issues as 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 stated.
Stephanie Bussell, who danced with the company for eight years until August 2011, said CBT dancers tend to form a tight-knit group to defend against the organization’s dysfunction. “In the last couple of years, things got so out of control,” Bussell said.
She left the company when she was compelled to continue rehearsing immediately after injuring her back and shoulder. The extra strain exacerbated a bulging neck disk and torn muscles, requiring medical intervention, she said.
Early this month, the Charleston Ballet sued an anonymous critic for slander, citing an email containing what the suit calls “defamatory statements and disparaging remarks.” The short email, distributed Feb. 17, claimed that “things at Charleston Ballet Theatre are not what they seem. More and more members of the board resign every day due to the abusive treatment of dancers and the mismanaging of funds.”
Roberta Barrett, former board member and ex-president of the now-defunct Ballet Guild, said concerns about the ballet’s governance and finances have lingered for years but became acute last summer, after allegations of plagiarism and copyright infringement surfaced.
Soon after, she said, board members began to question their ability to determine fiduciary policy and oversee the CEO, duties spelled out in the organization’s bylaws.
At a Dec. 14 board meeting, then-president Charles Patrick distributed copies of an article from The Nonprofit Quarterly titled “Not Paying Your Taxes? Your Board Could Be Personally Liable,” according to the meeting minutes.
“Charles wanted to make clear that the board understood the IRS’s position,” the minutes state. “In a nutshell, the IRS will pursue not only a charity’s assets but also the personal assets of individuals who were directly or indirectly associated with a nonpayment of taxes.”
The ballet was known to have a balance due to the IRS of $23,612.67 at the time, according to the minutes. Asked several times if the ballet had caught up on its overdue taxes, Bahr provided no answer.
George Stevens, president and CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation, which manages endowments and grants for area nonprofits, including the ballet, said the recent resignations of seven CBT board members and unresolved governance issues affect more than the ballet.
Nonprofit boards have a duty not only to the organization they serve, he said. “The board is supposed to represent the interests of the community,” to act as an intermediary between the arts group (its management and employees) and their patrons and supporters.
“So what’s breaking down here is the relationship between society at large and the nonprofit organization,” Stevens said.
Barrett said that board members have for years inadvertently enabled the mismanagement of the ballet — until last fall when serious questions arose.
“There has to come a time when you have to face up to this situation,” she said.
Steve Bedard, chief financial officer for the city of Charleston, said his office is maintaining a hold on quarterly payments to the ballet until a city-designated lawyer can verify that the ballet is legally constituted.
Once a payment is made, it can be used by the ballet according to the rules of the grant, which include salary payments, Bedard said.
Stevens, too, said any future distributions to the ballet can be made only if it has a functioning board and viable corporate status.
Norbert Nirewicz, a freelance dancer who performed with the Charleston Ballet in 2006, said it’s a shame the ballet is embroiled in controversy. Its dancers are extraordinary and underappreciated, he said.
“People like stuff that is imported. They don’t appreciate what they have here. It’s automatically better if it’s from the other side of the lake.”
Yet Charleston is a magnet for artists, Nirewicz added.
“I know for a fact that if we had proper management, both on the financial as well as the artistic side, Charleston could have an awesome ballet company.”
A tough, rewarding life
“Dancers are insecure as it is,” said Stephanie Bussell. “They are constantly under a microscope.”Bussell would know. She danced eight years with the Charleston Ballet Theatre and has worked for at least four other companies during her career.Dancers, especially female dancers, are a dime a dozen, she said. Full-time positions are very difficult to land. She had 25 auditions before securing a position with CBT.“Jill (Eathorne-Bahr, CBT’s resident choreographer) gave me an opportunity,” Bussell said. “She saw something in me, she took a chance on me.”Choreographers look for certain ideal bodies and abilities: a small head, long neck, long limbs, lots of flexibility, a natural rotation of the hips.By the time a dancer is 30, her career is usually starting to ebb, Bussell said.“So if you get a job, you hang on to it.”Even if the pay is lousy. Even if the working environment is tough. Bussell earned $250 a week from the Lexington Ballet in 2003.A decent dancer contract might offer 30 weeks of employment and wages, she said. Men often are paid more, sometimes much more, because they are in such demand.Many dancers decide to pursue ballet at a young age, because they were mesmerized by a production of “The Nutcracker” or developed fantasies of becoming a famous ballerina, Bussell said.Puberty can be cruel; it can change your body and make you ineligible to continue.Injuries are common, though Bussell avoided them until she was 29. Typically, dancers fight their way through the pain.“Dancers never want to admit they’re injured,” she said. “They don’t want to stop because their careers are so short.”In their attempts to stay thin, many female dancers develop eating disorders — ”or at least disordered eating,” Bussell said. They objectify their bodies, think of them as instruments that must be managed through denial and discipline, she said. Norbert Nirewicz, a freelance dancer who worked for the Charleston Ballet in 2006, said the life of a dancer is one of “sweat, blood and tears.”“The ultimate tool is your body. It has to work perfectly,” Nirewicz said. “A broken toe, a bruised wrist, you’re done.”The dancer functions in two zones: the real world of work and strain, and the make-believe world of the stage.On stage, “the craziness falls away,” he said.It’s all about the exhileration of dance. Only after the performance do worries about rent, gas, food, love, family and life’s other concerns return.What motivates a dancer, besides the thrill? “It’s always the pipe dream of fame that drives us,” Nirewicz said. That’s why dancers tolerate constant auditioning, constant travel, constant angst.“It’s a passion, a calling, a difficult, difficult life,” he said. “It’s the life of a butterfly: You sit in this cocoon forever and ever and ever, then you turn into this butterfly for five minutes, then, boom, you’re dead.”