Ballet San Jose | A ballet company on the edge

December 14, 2011

Breaking Ballet News

Ballet San Jose | A ballet company losing it’s direction

Dennis Nahat portrait
Dennis Nahat Photograph : John Gerbetz

Ballet San Jose (BSJ), a well-respected non-profit charity and the second largest ballet company in California, performs three or more repertory programmes per season (October-May) as well as Artistic Director Dennis Nahat’s The Nutcracker which has a run of only ten shows this December (four less than last year). There are 6 Principal dancers, 9 Soloists and 18 Corps de Ballet dancers currently listed on the company’s website and 120 ballets in the company repertory, of which the majority contain choreography belonging to Nahat. Describing the company in a video overview in September 2009, Nahat said “it’s alive and it’s human and it brings out the best in our community.” Sarah Lenigan worked in their costume department for two seasons and says “Ballet San Jose was a wonderful place to work. I loved the striking diversity of the company and the sense of family I felt there.” And yet the company has announced no season beyond December, Nahat has had all artistic decisions taken away from him, is in the dark as to what will happen next, and amid stalled & endlessly protracted contract negotiations over several years there are fears for his job and that of his dancers.

So what’s going on ?

For the past two years a gradual shift of power has apparently been taking place which has seen the Chairman of the Board, John Fry (co-founder of family firm Fry’s Electronics), take over all administrative and artistic decisions, including choosing dancers and their rank, casting, and planning future productions, despite apparently knowing little about ballet. Nahat can only rehearse the ballets and hasn’t even been told what the repertory for the next season is, or even if there is another season. The San Francisco Chronicle speculates that those close to the company believe that Fry is the force behind these changes. It is believed that other Board members have gradually left and taken their dollars with them, leaving Fry as the only substantial donor. Corporate America writ large. On the other hand, it’s been suggested to me that the company needs change. But if so, is this the way ?

Ballet contract negotiations

Stephanie Ziesel, Executive Director of the company was quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle on December 13th saying that “there is always tension between the artistic and business sides of a performing arts organisation. This is usually not news,” and she is right on both counts. Moves to oust individual members of staff and related dramas come and go in ballet companies around the world and are largely unreported. What makes this particular situation newsworthy is the way in which these tensions are being handled.

As it stands today, the company has not announced a season beyond the current run of The Nutcracker which will end in 10 days time, and has consistently refused requests for more information, both from myself and others. Lee Kopp, the company’s Marketing Director and Publicist told me, “we will announce our season soon, but we are not giving individual statements about the season or our plans. Just concentrating on NUTCRACKER right now which is selling very well and looking great.” Indeed, Nahat is reported to have said in a recent interview that ticket sales for The Nutcracker are around $25,000 per day. Ziesel stated in the same article The San Francisco Chronicle referenced above that “nothing has been decided at the organizational level.” Which is odd, given the timescale.  Marketing & sales alone, never mind the dancers crucial rehearsal time, are usually planned months in advance and it is irregular to have nothing at all announced for the coming months (so no advance ticket sales) and for the dancers to have no idea at all what they might be working on in the New Year or whether they will have a job after Christmas.

Both Fry and Ziesel have close links with San Francisco Ballet, (Fry is a well-known philanthropist and Ziesel used to work there as Associate Director of Development) and there has also been talk among those concerned about the future of the company of a possible collaboration with San Francisco Ballet in a bid to provide immediate programmes and more prestige. Since nothing has been officially confirmed or denied, it remains an option, as mooted by The San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week.

American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA)

Adding to the concern and confusion, Ziesel refused to guarantee to the American Guild of Musical Artists Union (AGMA) representative Nora Heiber that the dancers would dance the repertory that they were shown earlier this year, nor was there any guarantee that Nahat would be the Artistic Director. Neither has it been possible for the Union to be able to confirm whether BSJ currently has an active Board of Directors beyond Fry and a couple of others also connected to Fry’s Electronics.

Factor in the protracted and sometimes stalled contract negotiations over the 10/11 contract leading to the appointment of a mediator, continuing into the 11/12 season where the dancer’s contract was ratified by the Union on 12th December 2011. Include a proposed change to the economic model for successor contracts (including the removal of seniority pay along with the removal of exit and severance pay) which have been stalled and the situation looks worryingly unstable.

Carlos Acosta

Sources close to the company fear that an announcement due in early January, possibly the 3rd, will herald the dismissal of Nahat and the installation of company Principal dancer Alexsandra Meijer as the new Artistic Director. Meijer is romantically linked to John Fry; indeed in recent years Fry has brought in several guest artists specifically to dance with her, including Principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, Tiit Helimets, and Royal Ballet Principal Guest Artist Carlos Acosta. This at a time when the company dancers were facing cuts to their work hours and their pay frozen. World-renowned ballet superstar Acosta, declared a National Treasure in his native Cuba, danced two performances of Swan Lake with Meijer on 25th and 26th February this year. Subsequently, AGMA filed a grievance against BSJ for several violations of the CBA in their hire of Carlos Acosta, regarding engaging him without a union contract, and there is a pending arbitration on January 18th 2012. AGMA was told that Acosta volunteered to dance these shows with BSJ but the suggestion has since been made by those close to the company that Acosta was in fact paid a significant sum for these appearances, believed to be in the region of $50,000. There is a lot of evidence to support the fact that Acosta was not at BSJ on a work visa, beginning with the fact that such a visa would have had to have been approved through AGMA and that approval was never sought. In addition, AGMA has filed a grievance against BSJ for failure to give the dancers their employment dates. These dates were contractually required by March 1st and the dancers did not get them until August 4th. This violation will also be arbitrated on the same date.

A ballet company on the edge

The snoflakes in The Nutcracker ballet
Dennis Nahat’s The Nutcracker Photograph : John Gerbetz

Nahat gave me this exclusive statement yesterday. “This supposed take over has not been officially announced, if it is at all… Therefore, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, I’m not upset at the rumors flying about – yet, because they are just that, rumors.  If no official announcement has been made, one can only speculate.  Word has come to me from many professionals from throughout the United States.  Others may know more than I do… One thing is for sure, I have not been allowed to rehearse anything but THE NUTCRACKER since October 18th.  All indications are pointing to what rumors are.  I can only say that nothing being announced creates these uncertainties and I cannot do anything about that.  I do not control anyone’s thoughts, reason, or opinion.  What is happening here is unprofessional and back-handed and is not the way I conduct my business.  That is what I do not appreciate and am upset about.  I’ve prided in the professional approaches and treatment of employees this company has demonstrated since its inception in 1972.  The way I’m being treated is shameful and disrespectful, not to mention the dancers, all employees and the community at large.

I am still the Founding Artistic Director at work each day.  I should be able to plan and rehearse as needed for the repertory selected.  However, because this is no longer the case – as told me on October 17th and later, through a memorandum delivered to my home on November 4th – I cannot even begin to prepare the company and its future performances.  Selection of repertory, artists and employees is now a matter taken out of my hands.  I have not been given information in any manner of speaking.  We are told an announcement will be made public January 3rd and the artists will hear shortly before that.  I presume I’m one of the artists that will hear what the plan is in the future.  Until then, we are performing and the company looks terrific!”

Reporting on such matters as these, which deeply affect both the dancers and those working to keep the company together and successful, including the subscribers and supporters of the ballet is at once sobering and saddening. How is it that the Board appear to have chosen this path instead of dealing with any issues promptly and professionally as you’d expect ?

The dancers are heart-broken and very afraid : they have, for some time, paralysed mainly out of fear, watched the company being torn apart. Many of the dancers are extremely loyal to Nahat who they feel has given them chances beyond their dreams. In highlighting this destabilising influence I hope that those long-held and cherished dreams are not needlessly or carelessly shattered and that the New Year brings new hope for this much-loved ballet company.

And one other thing – BSJ has an official school – the San Jose Ballet School currently with around 400 students.  As an official feeder into the company, what will become of those ballet students after many years of rigorous training if the company collapses or is amalgamated into another ?

The Nutcracker runs until December 23rd and you can show your support of Ballet San Jose if you want to by booking tickets.

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7 Responses to “Ballet San Jose | A ballet company on the edge”

  1. Ellen Cartsonis Says:

    It makes me wonder about the art we’ve never seen because the people holding the purse strings didn’t allow it to be created…so sad!!!

  2. Cafe Fashionista Says:

    I would love to see some of their dream performances come into play! 🙂

  3. Jackie H. Says:

    Dennis Nahat IS Ballet San Jose, and even if he were to be replaced, I believe this is not the correct way.
    Sad to see how money can ruin art.

  4. Jennifer W Says:

    A season ticket holder of over 20 years, it has been heartbreaking to not have tickets this season. I have performed with the company, studied under Dennis and agree with Jackie H, he IS BSJ. His creativity is amazing, Blue Suede Shoes is enough to prove he understands how to take Ballet to a larger population.

  5. Ballet News Says:

    thanks everyone for your comments.

    Ellen – you raise a very good question; it’s not an easy one to answer! What you’ve read here is more detail than anyone else has publicly stated (at the time of writing this comement) and yet it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to know what you can do when it appears that one person is controlling every aspect of the company. You can support the dancers by attending the shows of course – but there aren’t many Nutcrackers left and I think they are alsready sold out (which is a good thing for the company). I’d have though that more donors coming forward would help – but again if the control is with one person then philanthropists may not find it an attractive proposition. Hopefully a clearer picture will emerge as soon as the company makes this planned announcement on 3rd (if not before – that would be good for all concerned).

  6. Marian Says:

    Just returned from Ballet San Jose’s Nutcracker. What a wonderful performance and a supportive audience. There are two more shows this weekend, and 4 more next week. Some are close to being sold out but there are still tickets available. Go and support the dancers and staff of Ballet San Jose!