OBT: More questions than answers

In the wake of the ballet company's abrupt split with artistic leader Kevin Irving, much remains unexplained.

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In June, Oregon Ballet Theatre announced the resignation of Kevin Irving, its artistic director of eight years. When I spoke with Board of Trustees President ​​Allison Lane Lyneham at the time, she said, “Kevin let us know that he needed to resign from OBT,” but would not give any further explanation.

In a separate letter emailed that Friday to friends and supporters, Irving said the board asked for his resignation. “I was informed on Wednesday of this week that the board has decided to go a different direction in the AD role and that my resignation was required by [the end of the day]. This was an unexpected development. Having lost the confidence of the board, and given the alternatives available to me, my only choice was to accede to their request that I resign – albeit with a heavy heart.” 

These are two completely different stories. Together, they create both confusion and many questions. Why would the board ask for Irving’s resignation after he successfully directed the company for eight years? What happened? What exactly is this new direction that the board wants to go in? Was the company going in the wrong direction? What does that even mean? And what does this mean for the new AD? (Former company principal dancer Peter Franc has taken over as interim artistic director.) I would feel a little nervous as the incoming AD walking into this situation. I would like answers, and as it happens, so do other folks in the community. 

OBT’s former artistic director, Kevin Irving, rehearsing the company in Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero” in 2013. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On Monday, Willamette Week revealed that it had obtained a copy of a letter written by White Bird co-founders Walter Jaffe and Paul King and BodyVox co-founders Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland to OBT Board Chair Lyneham and Executive Director Thomas Bruner. The letter expressed their support for Irving and concern over his departure from OBT.

“The precipitous dismissal of Kevin and the inadequate explanation on the part of the Board of OBT has led the public to assume the worst about all participants involved,” read the letter. “This has been damaging to the stature of the organization in the eyes of donors, supporting foundations, and the public.”

I agree. 

OBT is a nonprofit organization, which means that it is accountable to its donors, funders, volunteers, dancers, audience members, and the public. Key characteristics of a nonprofit according to Wikipedia, “are accountability, trustworthiness, honesty, and openness. The success of a nonprofit depends on the public’s confidence in the organization.”

OBT’s original 2021-2022 season included three works by OBT Resident Choreographer Nicolo Fonte: Rhapsody in Blue, Bolero, and Beautiful Decay. It was to be a celebration of his five years as resident choreographer with the company. But Fonte is also Irving’s life partner, and after Irving resigned, so did Fonte. In his resignation letter to the board, Fonte requested that his name be removed from the staff list and all published materials that refer to him as the resident choreographer. 

Then OBT sent out a new email with an updated season that still included Bolero, essentially selling tickets to a season that isn’t going to happen. 

Last week, OBT sent out a new email with a revised season that didn’t include any of Fonte’s works. When I asked Bruner, OBT’s executive director, what happened, he said, “When Nicolo resigned, he directed us to negotiate with his agent, which we did, and we were unable to come to terms for the use of his work.”

In one way, at least, the new program represents a slight improvement over the one it replaces: It includes the works of five white men, one man of color, three women of color, and two white women. The original program included work by four white men, one male POC, one female POC, and one white woman. Why are these numbers significant? Because white men have historically dominated the world of ballet while women and POC artists have been notably denied access to artistic leadership roles, choreographic commissions, and resident choreographer positions.

According to a Dance Data Project® report on the gender distribution of choreographers whose works were presented in the 2019-2020 seasons of the fifty largest ballet companies in the United States:

  • 72% of works in the 2019-2020 seasons are choreographed by men. 
  • 62% of programs in the 2019-2020 seasons featured work choreographed exclusively by men.  
  • 55% of world premieres in the 2019-2020 seasons are choreographed by men. 
  • 83% of full-length world premieres in the 2019-2020 seasons are choreographed by men. 
  • 53% of mixed-bill world premieres in the 2019-2020 seasons are choreographed by men.
  • 60% of main stage and 48% of non-main stage world premieres in the 2019- 2020 seasons are choreographed by men.

The Dance Data Project was founded and established by Elizabeth Yntema in 2015 as an independent project researching the lack of new female choreographic works. The project has grown and now promotes equity in all aspects of classical ballet by providing a metrics-based analysis through its database while showcasing women-led companies, festivals, competitions, venues, special programs, and initiatives. 

I recently spoke with OBT’s Bruner to see if I could get some insight into what happened between Irving and the ballet company. 

He told me he could not speak to the situation beyond what OBT had previously stated. So instead, I asked him why OBT’s board of directors was making artistic choices for the company. 

Bruner disagreed that the board was making artistic choices. So I asked him to break down what a board does. 

“The board’s job is to govern. They hire and direct and evaluate the AD and ED. They look at policies that guide the organization. They help develop and oversee the annual budget. They steward our assets, including community and brand management. They are ambassadors on behalf of the institution. They make sure that we’re operating not just legally and ethically but in accordance with best practices. Whether it’s accounting, or the way we’re raising money, or the way we are doing [the] human resources thing, so they make sure that we’re operating through best practice. They help raise money for the institution and make sure we have the resources that we need.” 

In other words, it seems, they have a lot of indirect power to make choices that affect the company artistically. 

Who is on the OBT board, and are they artists? The company’s website lists five members of the executive committee, 16 additional trustees, plus Executive Director Bruner and Interim Artistic Director Franc as ex officio members. Company artist Coco Alvarez-Mena is the board’s dancer representative. The board president, Lyneham, is a former dancer. But what about the other board members? If the majority of the board members come from the business world, that mindset will undoubtedly impact the ballet company. This is why ballet is actually as much a part of big business structure as it is a community organization. 

According to the Dance Data Project, “The Largest 50 U.S. Ballet Companies operated with combined expenses of $664,103,510 in Fiscal Year 2019. The Next 50 U.S. Ballet Companies operated with combined expenses of $47,402,102 in Fiscal Year 2019. For context, this is 7% of the aggregate expenses for the Largest 50.

“The structures of ballet companies in the U.S. vary greatly. Many of the larger companies have an endowment, professional company, and school. For some, these operate as independent but affiliated entities. For example, New York City Ballet and its affiliated school, School of American Ballet, are independent organizations. Thus the annual expense data for New York City Ballet does not include the expenses of the School of American Ballet.”

Considering how much money ballet companies bring in, the wage disparity between dancers in the company and the artistic director is huge. I’ve known of OBT dancers who have had to work a second job after dancing all day to make ends meet. 

According to salary.com, the average ballet dancer’s salary in Portland is $33,955 as of July 28, 2021; the salary range typically falls between $27,981 and $41,457. 

Irving’s salary as artistic director, according to OBT’s 990 form for 2019, was $148,032, plus $6,142 in other compensation.

Back to my conversation with Bruner:

Me: So what direction is the board going in?

Thomas: “The Board is in the process of assembling an artistic director search committee. That committee is going to do a national search for the next artistic leader. Before they launch the search, they are going to compile the attributes, the talents, and the gifts they want that person to have. Once they finish that, we’ll be able to clarify this direction.”

In the name of transparency, I asked Bruner if the names of the people on the search committee would be made public once it’s assembled. He assured me that they would. 

About the author

Jamuna Chiarini is a dance artist, producer, curator, and writer, who produces DanceWatch Weekly for Oregon ArtsWatch. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., she studied dance at The School of The Hartford Ballet and Florida State University. She has also trained in Bharatanatyam and is currently studying Odissi. She has performed professionally throughout the United States as a dancer, singer, and actor for dance companies, operas, and in musical theatre productions. Choreography credits include ballets for operas and Kalamandir Dance Company. She received a Regional Arts & Culture Council project grant to create a 30-minute trio called “The Kitchen Sink,” which was performed in November 2017, and was invited to be part of Shawl-Anderson’s Dance Up Close/East Bay in Berkeley, Calif. Jamuna was a scholarship recipient to the Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, “Undoing Racism,” and was a two-year member of CORPUS, a mentoring program directed by Linda K. Johnson. As a producer, she is the co-founder of Co/Mission in Portland, Ore., with Suzanne Chi, a performance project that shifts the paradigm of who initiates the creation process of new choreography by bringing the artistic vision into the hands of the dance performer. She is also the founder of The Outlet Dance Project in Hamilton, N.J.

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4 Responses

  1. to recap:
    OBT is going in a new direction without knowing/discussing said direction (AD search not yet begun), they deceived their patrons, are showing no transparency, and the board overstepped its duties (according to the the ED’s own board duties list).
    Just yet more dysfunction, deception, and lack of integrity for this arts dinosaur…

    1. Umm my dude he says specifically that the Board evaluates the AD and ED. Who do you think is responsible for managing the AD and ED, if not the Board.

  2. A sad situation. As a donor and patron for many years, I’m disappointed in the lack of transparency and poor communication from the organization. So many missteps made.

  3. sound like the board did what its supposed to do – whats the issue? do you expect any organization, even a non profit, to publicly disclose why someone was let go….? that would be squarely against labor and privacy laws.

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