Not too long ago, we started noticing some striking new posters around town advertising the upcoming season of the Charleston Ballet Theatre. Designed by Gil Shuler, one of the city's most talented graphic designers, the posters are bold, stylish, and clever.
Sure, they're just posters, but they represent a new direction for the embattled classical ballet company. In the last two years, they've faced charges of plagiarism, tax evasion, and the abuse of dancers. The majority of the board resigned, many dancers left, funding dwindled, and the company moved out of their longtime black box theater on King Street. It was a dark time for the CBT, but they're working hard to earn back the trust and respect of the community. Hence the posters.
"It's going to take time," says resident choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr. "It's going to take people coming to realize that we're a 26-year-old legacy company that was always doing artistic work, and if there was a bump in the road, we're going to continue to thrive and be great. But I can't not be honest with you that it hasn't been easy since over a year ago. It's just our hope that we keep pushing and pushing."
Changes include many new board members — 19 in all — as well as a new board structure that includes working committees that report to the full board. "Things have been really wonderful with the new board," Bahr says. "They have all been working very hard. They are a different type of board. ... They come from a different sort of background from the people working with us in the past. Be that good or bad, it's interesting. And they are out for making it as good as this can possibly be."
Joe Kelly is serving as the director of artistic operations, and dancers are also more involved in planning, policy decisions, and community involvement. According to Bahr, staff, board members, dancers, and the community are all considered shareholders in the company.
"We have a fantastic new checks and balances systems that Joe Kelly has put into place, and the board makes decisions," she says. "It isn't made by one or two people. It's a very strong organization so that we can be as transparent as possible." Although she formerly served as CEO of the company, Bahr's title is now the resident choreographer.
Bahr says that one of the company's main goals is to get back on its feet financially. Moving their studios to Mt. Pleasant has helped, as has reducing the core company to just 14 dancers. "Our goal is living lean and mean for the next three years, making the community proud of us in our fiscal stability, and to still bring in a fantastic product in the name of a professional ballet company, not a dance ensemble that's doing other things," Bahr says. "We're cleaning shop. We're getting rid of debt. We're pushing forward, so we're going to try to be creative as much as possible."
But although they're shooting for being debt-free in three years, Bahr is reluctant to make any unrealistic promises. "It's going to have to be evaluated, the same way the symphony did after their crippling year. Month by month, quarter by quarter, year by year. You hope for the best, but we're not going to say we're going to do something we can't do."
The upcoming season kicks off Friday with Dracula, which will be performed at the Charleston Music Hall for two nights only. Bahr choreographed the piece, which debuted in Las Vegas in 1999. "It was one of my personal bread and butters when I was a freelance choreographer, getting commissions," she says. "We haven't done it here in 10 years, so it's very special to bring back this sort of resurrection year for us." Principal dancer Alexey Kulpin, featured as One to Watch in City Paper's Fall Arts Guide, stars as Dracula.
"I geared the season around the wonderful dancers and programmed the season around the specific characteristics we have," Bahr says. "I never would have done Dracula had I not had Alexey. He's just the perfect Dracula."
She adds, "He's just an amazing artist. Not only does he apparently have one of the strongest techniques in the Southeast, but probably that the United States has seen in a while."
She adds, "Obviously the ballet is called Dracula, so you know he's going to be on stage 90 percent of the time. And after seeing how incredible he was doing Puck and seeing him in Firebird and really anything that he can sink his teeth into in regard to drama, I knew that he would be absolutely wonderful in it."
The season continues with The Nutcracker (Dec. 15-17), Yes! It's Gershwin (Feb. 9), Wizard of Oz (March 23-24), and Road to Rio (April 19-20).