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After Disastrous Year, Ballet Tries to Regain Balance

 
Ballet San Jose performed only one show last season, and its 2012 schedule was just revised

Ballet San Jose NutcrackerLike a dancer careening wildly to the edge of the stage, Ballet San Jose, one of the most respected arts institutions in Silicon Valley, was on the brink of chaos last year.

Although 2012 is only a week old, the year has already brought more upheaval. Contract negotiations, which have been historically easy for this 26-year-old company and its dancers, stalled last year, resulting in acrimonious disputes about compensation. After the ballet announced a truncated fall schedule in which only “The Nutcracker” would be performed, news-media accounts painted a distinctly negative picture of the local institution’s leadership.

The biggest headlines came from the increasingly tense relationship between Dennis Nahat, the founding artistic director known for original work like the Elvis Presley-inspired “Blue Suede Shoes” in the late ’90s, and the governing board, led by John Fry, a wealthy businessman whose company, Fry’s Electronics, has supported the nonprofit Ballet San Jose with more than $20 million since 2003.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this, except at the movies,” said Nora Heiber, national dance representative for the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the company’s 34 dancers. “It’s a better script than ‘Black Swan.’”

In late December, the ballet, led by Stephanie Ziesel, the executive director who was hired in 2009, tried to reverse the tide of bad news with a major announcement — that the iconic American Ballet Theater in New York would become a partner to Ballet San Jose, a well-regarded regional dance company and school. Ballet San Jose would have access to the bigger company’s teaching curriculum, coaches, sets, costumes and more.

The organizations are not merging; Ziesel said that her ballet would not become a triple-A farm team for the American Ballet Theater but would have access to the bigger group’s “toolbox and Rolodex.”

“What’s happening at Ballet San Jose is overwhelmingly positive,” Ziesel said. “American Ballet Theater represents excellence.”

The company just informed the dancers of the revised 2012 spring-season program this week. The public announcement of the lineup, which Ziesel said would include “Cinderella,” is expected soon.

In addition to the seemingly shaky plans for this year, Ziesel said that there were big changes in the governing board. Fry, the organization’s principal benefactor, is resigning from his official duties, and three new members will join the five-person board.

Fry’s resignation will not diminish his company’s support, Ziesel said — but it remains to be seen how the company will function without his leadership. The company, whose operating budget tops $8 million, had a surplus last year but has had deficits in excess of $1 million in other recent years.

Another pressing issue is the status of the company’s founder, Nahat. Lee Kopp, the ballet’s spokesman, could not say what Nahat’s role would be this year. Ziesel said she hoped that the ballet would come to an agreement with Nahat soon.

Nahat, who is in China, did not respond to emailed questions.

This tumult is new to the ballet, which has enjoyed a sterling reputation locally for decades. According to Kerry Adams Hapner, San Jose’s director of cultural affairs, it is “the pre-eminent dance company in the South Bay.” Nahat, a former dancer, founded the company in 1985 in Cleveland, moving west a year later to establish a dual-city venture. That existed until 2000, when it became a San Jose-only organization.

The company’s defining feature in recent years has been its connection to Fry, the group’s major donor and most recent board chairman. Many have heralded Fry’s commitment to the arts, but Heiber, the union representative, said he had held too much sway over the ballet’s business affairs.

“The decision-making has been shifting. In the last two contract negotiations, we’ve been dealing directly with John Fry,” said Heiber. According to her, Fry’s much-needed support of the organization was used as leverage in demanding contract concessions from dancers. Two grievances, involving the hiring of a nonunion dancer and delayed notice of schedules, have been filed by the union as a result of last year’s rocky negotiations, which eventually led to a contract; they will be heard on Jan. 18. And Alan Gordon, the national executive director of the dancers’ union, sent a letter to Ziesel, laying out two other problems that may or may not go to arbitration.

Ziesel denied that any laws or rules had been broken, saying that the company would deal with those issues through the grievance procedure. She emphasized that she was excited about the collaboration with American Ballet Theater, as were her employees.

“I believe this is a new day for Ballet San Jose,” she said.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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