Leaps and binds

A list of the people who have resigned or been fired from Southern Ballet Theatre in the last few months is, by any measurement, longer than it should be. There's artistic director Vasile Petrutiu; ballet master Vadim Fedotov; company manager Tobias Leibovitz; longtime board member and past board president Louis Supowitz; wardrobe mistress Marlene Johnson; dancer Saule Rachmedova; and dancer Heather Sanders, who was in many ways the public face of the ballet and who has taken the position of Southern Ballet's school director. Petrutiu's replacement, Fernando Bujones, is splitting his time between Southern Ballet and previous commitments, meaning that regardless of Bujones' quite impressive credentials, there's currently something of a vacuum on the artistic side. And the season's subscription series that was supposed to end with "Romeo and Juliet" now ends with a less challenging "classics" show that excerpts sections from several ballets.

Such upheaval prompts two questions: What caused all the problems, and how is the company handling them?

The state of the management of the 26-year-old company, which operates on a $1.7 million budget, is especially relevant in this point in Orlando's history, considering how much political air time is given over to the arts in the form of talk about a downtown arts district and performing-arts center. But the fact remains: In Orlando, an audience for the arts is not a given. Lose an artistic director, a leading ballerina and a longtime board member, and people will start to wonder. Of course, ticket buyers may sooner or later choose to ignore any misgivings. But how did Southern Ballet get in this position?

"I'm not sure that Southern Ballet is strong enough to go through these changes," sighs one observer who wished not to be named. Indeed, many of the ballet's watchers and insiders would talk only off the record; initial questions were often met with an uncomfortable silence or swift suspiciousness. One parent of a student in Southern Ballet's school preferred to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions against her child. At least two interview requests received the curious response, "Are you a board member?"

Perhaps that suspiciousness reigns because of some of the incomprehensible decisions made by Southern Ballet's board of directors.

Case in point: the Jan. 7 dismissal of artistic director Petrutiu after a two-and-a-half-year tenure. It's ultimately impossible, given the utter silence on all sides, to evaluate the decision to get rid of Petrutiu midseason; many have praise for his work and dedication, while others have little good to say about his skills.

Regardless, firing an artistic director in the middle of a planned season isn't a common occurrence. "I would think that's kind of a drastic decision," says Tom Thielen, the director of the Florida Dance Association. "That doesn't mean it's not justifiable."

"It took [the board] an incredibly long time to get around to [dismissing Petrutiu], and it made them lose a lot of good people," says one former board member, who adds that Petrutiu "really ran that ballet the way that Ceacesescu ran Romania. The drama backstage was so much more intense than what they put on onstage."

"We just really tried to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, perhaps for too long with the people existing in the company, and something had to be done," says board member Shelly Kolin. "This step needed to be taken, and not a moment too soon."

But others are baffled. "I thought Vasile was doing an adequate job in the position," says David Bauer, Southern Ballet's production stage manager from 1991-97. "It stunned me when I heard the news [about Vasile]. As far as I know this was completely out of the blue."

"My wife and I were impressed with Vasile," says fan and supporter George Daniels. "To just read about this in the newspaper seemed kind of strange."

"Nobody thought about the dancers," says one person familiar with the artistic side of Southern Ballet. "This has caused them an extreme amount of stress. They're concerned about their careers. You know, jobs in the dance world are really hard to get these days."

Probably the most vocal critics of Petrutiu's firing were parents of students in the school. Although board president Tricia Earl professes to be mystified by the parents' hubbub -- "Really, the school's a separate entity under the school director," she notes -- many parents clearly felt that Petrutiu's loss was significant to them.

"Vasile was doing a good job, he was making things work more smoothly," says Lyn DeVincenzo, spokesperson for the parents. DeVincenzo -- who admits, "We'd rather change the board than change Vasile" -- points specifically to the rehearsals and costuming for the 1999 "Nutcracker," which she says was free of many of the past years' glitches. Further-more, she says, "Vasile was getting rid of teachers that didn't work well with him and bringing in teachers that did."

What aggravated many of the parents -- and, two months later, still aggravates them, so that they're not just giving up and slinking away quietly -- was the board's attitude toward them. A few days after Petrutiu's dismissal, about 25 parents went to a Jan. 10 board meeting to express their concerns -- particularly the lack of communication from the board. When asked if she was surprised by the parents' reaction, Earl says simply, "I understand that everyone's worried when there's a change." Following that meeting, the parents decided to gather on their own on Jan. 13 to detail their concerns in a more coherent manner. Not only did they encounter resistance in getting access to Southern Ballet's break room, they actually discovered signs posted in the facility that stated: "The School of Southern Ballet Theatre will NOT hold a Parent Meeting Thursday, January 13." Needless to say, this was news to them.

DeVincenzo ultimately rented a conference room at the Radisson for the meeting, which resulted in a letter listing the issues the parents wanted the board to address.

"After all the hullabaloo we raised, you'd think they would have known what we wanted," says DeVincenzo. They asked for the board's bylaws, clarification about how decisions are made, and plans for replacing the lost staff. "I thought it would be a show of good faith if they would have just handed [the bylaws] to me," she notes. Instead she got a two-page letter from Earl dated Feb. 3 that she characterizes as "a nonresponse" : "They really didn't tell us anything."

"The letter was answered to their satisfaction," insists Earl.

"The board made enormous efforts to listen very carefully not just to the parents but to the dancers," says Stanley Talcott, a board member since November. "They really wanted assurances that this wouldn't mean some deterioration in the level of the teaching at the school." Nonetheless, Talcott points out that in many ways the parents were asking for information that the board cannot provide: "They want a little more opportunity to participate than is really possible. You're really not out there to reach a consensus. Tough decisions have to be made. They just have to have faith and believe that what's happening is in the best interests of the company."

When asked if she's comfortable with the way Petrutiu's dismissal was handled, Earl says in exasperation, "Maybe someone should tell me how to do it better." Then she adds, "It's kind of gone away."

It's gone nowhere for DeVincenzo and other critics. She has questions as to whether the emergency board meeting to consider Petrutiu's dismissal conformed to the legal seven-day-notice requirement; and whether the expense of Petrutiu's settlement and his replacement's contract will limit Southern Ballet's other expenditures.

Even one person who's had an inside view remains bewildered. An ex-board member calls the body's executive committee "a star chamber," and when asked why the board dismissed Petrutiu when they did, offers, "It's one of those mysterious politics things."

"They're not a public organization," shrugs Daniels, the supporter. "If they choose not to do things, that's their right."

True enough. But when you're asking for money from the public in the form of donations and ticket-buying, and when you're trying to serve a group of dancers whose extremely hard work shouldn't be undermined by useless distractions, other considerations come into play.

While Southern Ballet's current financial situation is good, an aftertaste lingers from years of less-than-smart practices. Debt incurred in the early '90s stayed on the books for years. In 1995, board member Nancy Jacobson was appointed acting executive director. "This was a major error," explains past school director and development director Suanne Ferguson, "since exactly what the company needed at that time was a leader with a great deal of knowledge of the business and of the techniques of fund-raising." Jacobson instituted a policy of cutbacks. "As executive director, she didn't want to ask the board to raise funds," notes Ferguson, "nor did she have the knowledge or inclination to raise them herself. The only possible response was to cut, cut, cut." Nonetheless, the deficit remained until the hiring in 1998 of Joshua Garrick, who cleared the debt in one year before resigning -- yet another departure that was, again, not well explained. Garrick, who now manages the Bach Festival Society, refuses to comment except to say, "I'm obviously much happier working for and with [festival president John] Tiedtke."

All this would be relegated to past history if everyone were fully convinced that renewal had taken place. While Ferguson, who left Southern Ballet in 1996, readily admits that the current board is not the same one she dealt with, she observes a similar mindset: "Though a new artistic/administrative team was hired, the philosophy of the board did not change," she explains. "In my opinion, until someone on the board takes enough time to research the exact role of a board of directors, the situation will never change. There will never be stability because dancers and staff will go where the situation offers them opportunity for growth, where their needs are supported by the administrative staff and the board, and where the board of directors does its job -- to give and get funding for the activities of the company. Micromanaging the company only suggests distrust."

Indeed, since Garrick's departure, board member Julia Hobbs has acted as interim executive director. "I would have thought that the board would be smart enough not to put another board member in that [executive director] position," says one person.

"It's difficult to run an organization that size without an executive director," notes Thielen, of the Florida Dance Association.

Even board member Talcott laments the lack of an executive director: "It puts demands on the board that the board doesn't really need to be concerned with."

Earl insists there's no conflict. "There are certainly things that [Hobbs] doesn't vote on. But she's done as good a job as anyone we'll bring in," says Earl, mentioning new additions like e-mail and a website.

"Since I left they haven't been able to hold onto a production person for more than six months," notes Bauer, the stage manager who left three years ago.

Indeed, what Southern Ballet seems to need, now that the financial side isn't in distress, is some sense of mission continuity. Changing the subscription series midstream doesn't build confidence, although Earl says, "We haven't heard any complaints." But she adds, "I think it would be insensitive to say I'm not worried" about people's reactions.

And there's the major loss of dancer Sanders, who was set to retire at the end of the season but who opted to quit after Petrutiu's dismissal. Sanders was quoted in the Sentinel saying she was "disheartened" and "dissatisfied with the course the governing powers of this organization have taken."

"I am truly, truly disappointed and disillusioned that I'm not going to be able to see Heather perform," says one person knowledgeable about the ballet.

"Heather got short shrift regarding her retirement," says DeVincenzo. "Parents who weren't upset about Vasile, when you combine Heather and Vasile, they're upset."

Robert Sherry, a dance professor at Rollins College, sees the loss of Sanders as representative of a larger transition. "For a long time and possibly still, there's been an element on the board and the administration that had a clear tie to the community," says Sherry, referring to the family who founded and ran Southern Ballet for most of its existence. Sherry contrasts the "this is something that's mine" feeling -- which appeals mainly to friends and insiders -- with the broader urge simply to see good dance in Orlando, which brings out a new, wider audience, requires a higher artistic quotient, and often means "getting over the divorce" from the familiar names, as Sherry puts it. Sanders personified the local and homegrown: "That's a whole different feeling than seeing an amazing dancer from Russia," notes Sherry.

Enter into this friction new artistic director Bujones, a former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. "Fernando Bujones has tremendous ability to impart what he has learned in his experiences," says board member Kolin. "We just couldn't be more excited if Shaquille O'Neal decided to come back to the Magic -- that's the level of expertise and skill and wonderful ability. On top of that, he brings a whole new level of class and professionalism and decisiveness."

It's worth noting that Bujones signed only a one-year contract; DeVincenzo sees that year as time to work with the board or, if necessary, to change the make-up of the board. Because, she notes, whatever anyone thinks about the people on the board and the decisions they've made, "There's certainly no one who wants people treated this way."

"We have nothing against Fernando," assures DeVincenzo. But the frustrations continue. Even though Earl's Feb. 3 letter stated, "At our monthly Board meetings we would like to have your [parent] representative come," DeVincenzo was not invited to the Feb. 28 meeting that addressed Bujones' appointment. "How can the board continue to move forward like a steamroller," she wonders, "when they have parents that disagree -- people equally as experienced with the ballet, people equally involved? How can they just blindly move forward when they have people this upset?"

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