The Charleston Ballet Theatre is celebrating the launch of its 25th season, a major milestone for a company that's struggled with budget cuts in recent years. They're touting a shining silver anniversary season and a fresh new home in Mt. Pleasant, yet out of the public eye, the company has been dealing with claims of improper use of copyrighted material by international choreographers Eddy Toussaint and Jiri Kylian.
Resident Choreographer and CEO Jill Eathorne Bahr and the CBT's board of directors say the issues have been resolved. According to a statement released in August, "The board of directors was made aware that some dances used at our events contained works for which we did not have licenses to perform or for which the original owner disputed the terms of licensing agreements. The events happened months ago and were dealt with appropriately at the time. We understood at the time that the owner of the original material and all parties involved were satisfied with the action that was taken to remedy the situation." Yet a number of current and former dancers have stood up to complain about poor management and improper handling of the issues.
David "Trey" Mauldwin, who worked for the CBT from 2007-'09, says he frequently bumped heads with Bahr and ballet master Stephen Gabriel before being let go from the company. Mauldwin says that he recognized some material in the CBT's spring 2011 Golden Oscar performance, which touted original pieces based on Oscar-nominated films like Black Swan, The King's Speech, and 127 Hours. He attributed the pieces to Netherlands-based choreographer Jiri Kylian and contacted the Kylian Foundation with a video of CBT's Black Swan performance. Originally posted online by the CBT, presumably as a promotional tool, the video has since been removed. In the e-mail, Mauldwin also claimed that a 2009 piece inspired by The Dark Knight used Kylian's choreography.
"Kylian has such a distinct sort of flavor to his movement quality, his choreography, and there are some steps and some positions that he created that are hallmarks. They're almost his signature in the works, like a handwritten signature in the way he positions the body in this one pose," says Mauldwin, now a student at the University of North Carolina's School of Dance. "It's not necessarily repeated in every work, but it shows up a lot, and you just know that it's Kylian by looking at it. You can always tell an original Kylian because it's so unique and significantly him."
Mauldwin says that after he contacted the Kylian Foundation, they got in touch with the CBT. Bahr says the issue, which she had been previously unaware of, was promptly addressed. "In regards to the Kylian, a ballet should never be utilized without permission, and when this instance happened in my company, I immediately called the Kylian Foundation and asked them, because I had no idea what was going on," Bahr says. "I addressed that problem and felt that I took care of it to the best of my ability. The person was reprimanded. There was a discussion about it. At the point when it happened, I felt that I made the choice to not move forward and make any kind of disciplinary actions."
Mauldwin and former CBT dancer Peter Swan say that ballet master Stephen Gabriel, a longtime member of the company, was responsible for much of the choreography in question. In an interview with City Paper in February, Gabriel explained his inspiration for the Black Swan piece. "When I was coming up with an idea for it, I was kind of like, this is going to stink because, really, they're doing the exact same storyline as the actual ballet," Gabriel said. "I actually told our artistic director I would choreograph Black Swan if I didn't have to put anybody in feathers, because I just thought to myself, every audience member is going to expect some girl up there in feathers flapping her wings, and I just don't want to do that."
But Swan, who recently finished up a two-year stint with the company, says that the Black Swan piece does not appear to be original. "I'm extremely aware of Stephen Gabriel's style, and that first day in rehearsal it was anything but his style, and it actually felt and looked really familiar to me," Swan says. He went home, dug up his DVD of Jiri Kylian's Black and White Ballets, and found two very similar pieces called "No More Play" and "Sarabande." "It was uncanny. It was pretty much the exact same ballet."
In response to Swan's claims, Bahr says, "We have handled the problem with Stephen and he has been reprimanded."
In a brief e-mail response to an interview request, Gabriel wrote, "To my knowledge these issues have been resolved and appropriate measures have been taken. Due to the nature of this topic, I believe any further questions or comments on this matter should be referred to the board president or directors of the company."
Most recently, Eddy Toussaint, founder of Ballet de Montreal Eddy Toussaint, discovered that his works were allegedly being used without his permission. He was alerted via Facebook to the apparent use of his ballet "Souvenance" as part of CBT's Piccolo Spoleto lineup. Thinking that he hadn't given permission for the piece to be used, he contacted Bahr.
"It was inappropriate for them to use that ballet without even calling me, so I called her and I said, 'I'm sorry, you have to pay a license fee like anybody else,' " Toussaint says. He says he asked for the full amount of money for the license fee and they set up a payment schedule. However, when the festival was over, he says Bahr stopped making payments, claiming that the CBT did not have enough money. He then demanded the full amount, threatening a lawsuit.
"You should respect the work of people," he says. "One thing that really pissed me off is that I saw the video she sent to me and my ballet is not what it's supposed to be. One whole section is off music. She cut a big section and said, 'It was stopped there because they didn't know how to do it.' Well, don't do the ballet if they cannot do it."
Bahr says the issue was a simple misunderstanding between old friends stemming from a prior agreement. She says in the past they had traded ballets, which was how they had the licensing rights for the piece. "He and I had a disagreement in June, and he started to say he was going to have a lawsuit for the ballet," Bahr says. "Since that time, everything has been taken care of. He has his way that he thinks it is, I have the way that I agree we don't agree, but we did agree we care enough about each other that we went ahead and signed a new licensing agreement. He gave me two of his ballets for the price of one." Toussaint says he sold the rights for both for $12,000 with a three-year payment plan, wrapping up in September 2013.
Swan, who now serves as co-artistic director of Georgia's Covington Regional Ballet after turning down a renewal contract with the CBT, says these incidents reflect a lack of growth in the company.
"I think CBT is in a bubble," Swan says. "They're not very current. They're not very aware of what is out there right now, is what it seems like, and I guess that leads them to believe that the rest of the company, who comes from all across the country and the world, are ignorant to other dance forms. That's insulting to us, to think that we don't look to other companies and other teachers and we aren't influenced and moved by other peoples' works."
Bahr contends that both Swan and Mauldwin were "troublemakers" during their time with the CBT.
While the company has managed to keep most of the recent disagreements under wraps, their departure from their King Street theater been more public, raising questions about their financial status. However, our sources agree that overall it's a positive move for the company. Their rehearsal space is now in Mt. Pleasant, while they'll use various performance venues for the next few years. Bahr says it was time for a change.
"If anything, the ballet company has been perplexed about being in that space for a while," she says. "The ceilings are way too low. If we do big ballets we cannot space them out correctly ... We felt that for the space we were getting more bang for our buck to be able to give the dancers a better working environment with larger facilities over here. I'm miserable about leaving King Street, I love being downtown, but there are enough performance venues for us to be in for us to be able to move from theater to theater as we get into this strategic, five-year plan of where we're going to be."
The CBT kicks off its 25th season with Bahr's original staging of Don Quixote Oct. 15-16. Based on the board's statement, the company is eager to move past recent controversies. "The future for CBT is looking bright," the statement proclaims. "We have an exciting new season celebrating our 25th anniversary and have made some positive changes to accommodate the growing company."