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.
"Dance Theatre of Harlem has never had the consistent, strong administrative management that Arthur deserves," says Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser. "The company is so important that it deserves the highest quality, most experienced arts managers."
Mitchell "really is Dance Theatre of Harlem," says Virginia Johnson, former prima ballerina of the company. "But there needs to be some sharing of responsibility. He has a very particular way of seeing how the company can work. But you need to be able to collaborate and he's never been able to do that."
Former board member Anna Carbonell praises Mitchell's artistic vision but cites an accountability issue. "The arts has lost a lot of funding over the years, so you really have to depend on your sponsors and your patrons. And the patrons have to believe in the work and in the direction and management," says Carbonell, a vice president at WNBC who recently resigned from the dance company's board. "People have to believe that each challenge is being handled properly."
Along with an executive director, Mitchell says he needs $2.5 million to retire the debt and another $2.5 million "to build the infrastructure, get the right people, keep the dancers working and get new repertoire."
"I have a 24-karat gold product but I don't have the infrastructure to support it," Mitchell said yesterday. "That's what we have to have. I don't mean a grant of just enough money to fail. People want to give me $100,000. But what are you going to do with $100,000 in today's economy? But we turn out a product that looks like a trillion dollars."
In March, Mitchell asked New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs for $3 million. "We are very interested in the ongoing vitality of this organization," says Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin. "We've asked for information that would better help us understand the needs of the organization and we're waiting for answers."
She adds, however, that the city "does not have emergency funds."
Arts organizations across the country have suffered from the downturn in donations following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At Mitchell's company, contributions had dwindled to less than $1 million for the current fiscal year, says Ed Schoelwer, the company's former general manager and a 13-year veteran of Mitchell's staff. The decline in donations amounted to an almost 50 percent bite out of the company's budget, which is generally around $10 million, Schoelwer says. One problem, he says, is that for the past year and a half, Dance Theatre has relied on an outside firm to do its fundraising. Mitchell says his development staff resigned after Littles left.
When asked if the financial problems stem from his governing of the organization, Mitchell replies by recalling his troupe's beginnings.
"You couldn't even get qualified staff" to come up to Harlem and work in 1969, let alone attract financial backers, Mitchell says. "They thought it was a little storefront tap dance school." He and the late Karel Shook, the company's co-founder, had no choice but to forge their original core group of two dancers and 30 untrained children into a world-class organization largely on their own.
"Everyone keeps saying it's Arthur Mitchell" who is to blame, he continues. "Yes, I am strong, and if I wasn't strong Dance Theatre wouldn't exist."
Unlike other prominent ballet companies that were aided by wealthy patrons at the outset (New York City Ballet, with Lincoln Kirstein bankrolling founder George Balanchine, for example), Mitchell got the company started with his own $25,000. He has continued to open his pockets whenever the company couldn't make its payroll or needed a new ballet, says Fabian Barnes, a former DTH soloist who went on to found the Dance Institute of Washington following Mitchell's example.
"People don't talk about that," Barnes said yesterday. "He's not a pussycat; he's very demanding, but his heart has always been in the right place."
Mitchell sold his mother's house and took out a second mortgage on his own apartment to help finance "St. Louis Woman," which the company will perform here June 11-13. Mitchell and his supporters had hoped that this ballet, inspired by the Broadway musical of the same name, would become a profitmaking touring vehicle.
"We had plans to develop it into a commercial project," Schoelwer says. One million dollars was poured into the hourlong ballet -- by dance standards, a very large sum for a short, untested work.
"That was a calculated risk," Schoelwer says, "but it hasn't materialized fast enough."
Plenty of ballet companies have failed in the past. But observers agree that Dance Theatre of Harlem is a special case. As the only thoroughly integrated classical ballet company in the country, it symbolizes an ideal of racial equality. This ideal, that ballet is not just the province of the white elite, has proved to be distressingly fragile. Despite the company's artistic achievements, little has changed in the makeup of the major ballet companies since Mitchell became the first prominent black member of City Ballet in the 1950s.
"I was one of the dancers told, 'Well, maybe not ballet, dear, maybe jazz,' " recalls Johnson, the former ballerina. "In many ways that hasn't changed. But aside from that, as an artistic organization, the kind of dancing you see there you can't see anyplace else. It's what classical ballet needs in the 21st century as a form."
Schoelwer calls the formation of the troupe "one of the best ideas of the 20th century."
Mitchell acknowledges that the effort to keep his creation afloat has been "exhausting." But his confidence has never waned, he says.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we'll get" the needed money, Mitchell says. "Already some of the foundations have come forward."
What's at stake, he says, is not only his own pride, but national pride. "How would America feel around the rest of the world if the one and only prominent African American ballet company went under? You know how the Japanese say 'lose face'? Imagine. We are still the only one in the world, 35 years later.
"Not only would this be a loss to America," he says, "it's a loss to the world."