Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley performing Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts. Dancers in foreground from left to right: Sarah Stein, Jing Zhang and Amy Marie Briones. (credit: Alejandro Gomez) Dancers in front from left to right: Allison Stroming, Akira Takahashi, Ihosvany Rodriguez and Cindy Huang.

Ballet star Jose Manuel Carreno has often played the role of the hero onstage. But his princely charisma and world-class stature may not be enough to stem the financial crisis threatening to shut down the company he has led for less than two years. Ballet San Jose, a troupe of 32 dancers in the Silicon Valley, will fold if it doesn’t raise $550,000 by March 14, he announced Tuesday.

You might think of Silicon Valley as awash in youthful exuberance and money, enough to keep a medium-size ballet company afloat. Indeed, the challenge of getting young techies excited about works by Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine was what lured Carreno, 46, to San Jose. After retiring from American Ballet Theatre in 2011 and performing as a guest artist around the world—including a stint on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars”—the Cuban-born Carreno was named Ballet San Jose’s artistic director in September 2013.

CEO Alan Hineline, who was hired in 2014, said he and Carreno inherited a “wrecking ball” of debt. Carreno said he knew the troupe had money problems, but grooming dancers and designing imaginative ways to reach the audience was a great draw.
“I always considered it would be a challenge, but was a great opportunity,” Carreno said in a telephone interview from San Jose. “I love the dancers. That’s why I haven’t given up. It’s a joy. I really enjoy what I’m doing, planning programs, rehearsing, teaching, coaching. I feel almost like I’ve still continued dancing.”

Among Carreno’s efforts to reach Silicon Valley’s computer-savvy population is “Bodies of Technology,” planned for March 27-29; the slate of contemporary works includes Jessica Lang’s “Eighty One,” using “gesture-controlled” music, and a world premiere by Amy Seiwert in collaboration with software artist Frieder Weiss.

Ballet San Jose dancers in “Eighty One” by Jessica Lang. Photo credit: Robert Shomler

Carreno’s company has also presented such modern classics as Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” and Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” Last November Carreno performed with one of his dancers in the Havana International Dance Festival. He couldn’t afford to bring his whole company.

“That is something I’m dreaming to do,” he said.

Ballet San Jose Artistic Director Jose Manuel Carreno. Photo Credit: Chris Hardy

According to news reports, Ballet San Jose’s board ousted Ballet San Jose’s cofounding Artistic Director Dennis Nahat in 2012, and a key donor dropped away. “The transition between Dennis and Jose was a difficult one,” said Hineline. “Audiences fell off, development fell off and donors fell away, so we’re on an uphill curve.”

Hineline has launched the last-resort fundraising campaign, which he is calling the “Bridge to the Future Challenge,” to get cash in hand for current needs, so the troupe can focus on future planning. Its current budget is $5.2 million.

“We started a campaign for $3.5 million in January,” Hineline said. “Since then we’ve raised $580,000. We have pledges into the future if we can make it through this lull. …We need endorsement from the public.”

But attracting support takes longer than a season or two, said Michael Kaiser, the former Kennedy Center president who directs the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. He helped Ballet San Jose draw up a financial plan a year ago. Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Kaiser said the company’s problem is twofold: a sharp budget shortfall, and competition with San Francisco arts organizations, which are less than an hour’s drive away. The last issue is common to many Silicon Valley arts groups, he said.

”They operate in the shadow of this huge city with very well-established and successful arts institutions. And convincing funders who go into San Francisco for their art that they could fund you, locally, is a challenge that takes time to overcome.”

“I believe Ballet San Jose over time could create a distinct enough profile so they wouldn’t compete with San Francisco, but that takes a lot of time,” Kaiser said. When he worked with the organization, it faced “a real uphill climb. The board was going to have to work hard and fast to raise a large amount of money, and I was concerned that it was maybe a bridge too far. That they’d have to rethink the size they could be for the resources they have.”

The special problem that midsize groups like Ballet San Jose have in competing for market share is an issue Kaiser addresses in his book “Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America.” “The majors will dominate and little local organizations will service local needs, but midsize groups with an infrastructure, a building , a staff–all the costs of a full ballet company–will suffer,” he said. “Do they build and maintain a distinct profile that builds a distinct constituency? You don’t have to be big, but you have to be special.

“My heart goes out to Jose, because he can make that company special,” said Kaiser. “He just needs the time.”