Charleston Ballet Theatre no longer operating; years of legal, financial, administrative challenges catch up with company

After 26 years, the Charleston Ballet Theatre, a cornerstone of the city’s arts community, has stopped functioning.

It has reached this point incrementally as its management and dancers have contended with allegations of plagiarism, tax indebtedness, two mass board resignations, dancer contracts that could not be honored and fundraising difficulties.

Last weekend, Resident Choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr and Artistic Directors Don and Patricia Cantwell presented “Snow White,” originally part of the Children’s Series. Due to lack of funds, the ballet was mounted by the CBT Center for Dance Education, a separate entity that predates the professional company, and dancers were promised a share of ticket revenue.

Bahr said the school expects to offer “The Wizard of Oz” on March 23 and 24. Professional dancers might participate on a freelance basis, she said. The rest of the season is likely canceled, including a Gershwin show and the Latin-themed “Road to Rio.”

Though trouble was brewing for a while, the shutdown nevertheless came as a surprise, dancer Gwyneth Kelly said.

“It’s hard to lose a job so quickly and unexpectedly,” she said.

Dancers had hoped for enough community support to see them through the season, but now they are concerned about whether they can remain in the area.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot we’re waiting to go back to,” Kelly said. Dancers are scrambling to secure income and figure out their futures, she said. “It’s a hard thing. Everyone who’s here wants to stay here. We love the city.”

It’s likely that at least some in the company will move on, according to dancer Matthew McKinney, who has taken a job as a part-time bouncer.

“With no company here, there’s no reason for dancers to stay here, really.”

He said he and his colleagues are looking for studio space in which to stay fit and mentally sharp, a requirement for the auditions to come.

Bahr said the dancers are bearing the brunt of the crisis, and their situation has not been fully appreciated by the media or ballet patrons.

“I’m surprised the community hasn’t rallied around the dancers,” she said. “We were their livelihood.”

Bahr too is now unemployed, she said. Since the new board of directors was put in place last spring, she relinquished her CEO title, though not her seat on the board. She said her authority over business matters had been passed entirely to the board.

“I’m happy to say I had nothing to do with how the organization was run this fall,” Bahr said, adding that she resigned from the board in January, along with the last remaining members.

The Charleston Ballet Theatre, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has been coping with ongoing state and federal tax debt. The taxes for 2012 were paid, but prior taxes, which add up to more than $40,000, remain unpaid, according to former board president O’Neal Compton.

Asked about the tax liability, Bahr said she could not know what will happen. “I’m not running the organization,” she said.

Compton said the problems were systemic. Some former board members questioned how the company and the school had been separated, and how income was being reported to the government.

He said board members had tried to secure director’s insurance, a common financial product that protects individuals from liability issues, but tax liens against the organization made them ineligible. This was a contributing factor in the mass resignation of the new board, he said.

The corporate status of the non-operational Charleston Ballet is now in question. Bankruptcy would allow it to restructure and manage its debt, but there is no governing body to vote on that.

It is possible that a phoenix can rise from the ashes, or that a different professional ballet company will emerge.

Bahr said this idea is on her mind, though it’s best to let the dust settle.

“I’ve done some thinking about starting from scratch something new,” she said. “I mean, I have no intention of going anywhere.”

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