Cash-strapped after years of dwindling ticket sales, Ballet Oklahoma is nearly bankrupt and has suspended its fall season, a board member said last week.
Organizers with the historic ballet company, which has its roots in the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet, founded in 1963 by legendary American Indian ballerina Yvonne Chouteau, presented the bleak situation to a group of community leaders and potential donors at OKC’s Beacon Club July 15, board member Phil Clayton said in an interview last week.
“Financially, we’re almost at zero,” Clayton said. “The last few weeks we have just been struggling to pay off our debts.”
Creative director Bryan Pitts, who guided the company for more than 20 years, is no longer with Ballet Oklahoma, Clayton said.
Neither Clayton nor board member Eric Groves would clarify if Pitts resigned or was ousted by the board. Pitts could not be reached for comment by press time.
“Bryan was the ballet,” Clayton said, noting that Pitts readily assumed management and company financial responsibilities well beyond those of most creative directors.
“The fact that he was able to keep it running in the black for so many years is just Herculean,” Clayton said.
MAKING THE CASE
Robert Mills, an eight-year veteran dancer with Ballet Oklahoma, made the case at the Beacon Club meeting that he should take over creative direction of Ballet Oklahoma and proposed a plan for performances this fall.
Mills has served as the artistic director of Denver’s Ballet Nouveau Colorado and performed with several dance companies, including Pennsylvania Ballet, Tulsa Ballet and the Kansas City Ballet.
Also attending Tuesday’s meeting were representatives from Tulsa Ballet, which proposed merging the two entities into a statewide ballet company, Tulsa Ballet spokesman Todd Cunningham confirmed in a telephone interview.
Tulsa Ballet started staging performances in the metro two years ago, Cunningham said, with wildly successful productions of “The Great Gatsby,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Swan Lake” and “Celebrate Oklahoma!,” which Cunningham said was endorsed by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Clayton said capacity audiences at Tulsa Ballet performances in the OKC metro just prove there is an untapped dance market that hasn’t been inspired by recent Ballet Oklahoma performances.
“There is a sophisticated audience out there who wants to see good ballet,” Clayton said. “We just haven’t been creative enough. We need to step up and engage them.”
At the Beacon Club, informal ballots were handed out to the invitees, which Clayton said would help gauge interest in the proposed plans from Mills and Tulsa Ballet. Clayton said the board is also considering a third option to cease Ballet Oklahoma operations altogether.
If Ballet Oklahoma doesn’t fold, Clayton said Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp., has agreed to buy Ballet Oklahoma’s building, 7421 N. Classen Blvd., allowing the company to operate rent-free for three years as they reorganize.
Clayton said Ballet Oklahoma’s board of directors met July 21 to make a decision on the direction of the company. “Joe Wertz