A Ballet Stretches To the Limit
Famed Harlem Troupe Pursues Financial Security, New Director
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page C01
This ought to have been a banner season for Dance Theatre of Harlem. Since September, the company's 45 dancers have performed more than in any similar period in the past 15 years, far exceeding their guild-guaranteed minimum. Earned income -- money the company made from its performances -- has more than doubled over last season, to a record-breaking $4 million.
The company is just home from a nine-week tour of England and Greece. It wraps up its spring season with a seven-performance run at the Kennedy Center Opera House that opens next Tuesday.
Yet behind the onstage excitement, the maverick black ballet company is in financial tatters. It is $2.5 million in debt. The staff was laid off in March. The board of directors has dwindled to two members aside from company co-founder and artistic director Arthur Mitchell. (The others are soprano Jessye Norman and former Clinton transportation secretary Rodney E. Slater.) Mitchell canceled an October engagement at New York's City Center.
The company spent its $2 million endowment to pay off a loan used to renovate its headquarters on West 152nd Street. Mitchell sold two buildings the dance company owned across the street to help meet expenses. He is relying on volunteers to help manage daily tasks.
But Mitchell insisted in recent interviews that he has no intention of closing down the organization he helped found in a Harlem garage in 1969 as a commitment to the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. Mitchell, a former New York City Ballet star who by many accounts is brilliant at molding dancers but is a poor manager of business affairs, says he is making a major change to ensure his company's survival.
He says he is getting out of the way.
"The most important thing the funders wanted to hear was that I was going to move over," Mitchell says. "And it's not just words, but you'll see it in the process." Mitchell, 70, says he is going to put in place an executive director "who is capable and has the contacts and the know-how to run the administration of the organization and build a proper board so I can devote my time to the artistic."
Mitchell declines to identify the prospective executive, but says, "The person is very well known around the world. She says that you all must stop looking at Dance Theatre as an American company. It is a global company."
According to sources close to the company, the person Mitchell hopes to hire is Janet Boateng, a British arts patron whose husband, Paul, is Britain's chief secretary to the treasury and that nation's first black cabinet minister. Janet Boateng, a former social worker who once chaired a London social services department, accompanied Mitchell to the world premiere of the company's "St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet" at Lincoln Center last year.
Mitchell declined to confirm Boateng as his choice. "It is a promise that was made. . . . This is a very powerful person, not someone who's trying to social-climb."
Efforts to contact Janet Boateng and her husband over the past two days were unsuccessful; a treasury spokesman said they were on vacation and could not be reached.
By any measure, Boateng, who resides in London, would be an unusual choice to manage Dance Theatre of Harlem. She appears to have no previous history of turning around a troubled arts entity. Mitchell himself describes running his organization, which comprises a school and the "Dancing Through Barriers" outreach program in addition to the professional company, as "very hands-on." The level of day-to-day oversight it requires has turned off past executives of the dance company, he says.
"It scares me," said one arts activist when informed of Boateng's likely appointment. "It feels like yet another bizarre iteration, not thought-through or solid." The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed doubts that successful management of the organization -- including hiring new staff and board members, attracting and keeping donors, paying off the debt and planning for future growth -- can happen at an ocean's distance.
Others in the dance community agree that the company has a desperate need for long-term planning and sound financial management. By Mitchell's account, there have been at least a half-dozen executives at Dance Theatre of Harlem in the past (the last one, Ernest Littles, left early last year). The lack of an effective administrator working alongside Mitchell with any degree of consistency has long been recognized as a threat to the company's health.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company