How Oregon Ballet Theatre Pivoted from Near Bankruptcy to Full Flight
Two years ago, Oregon Ballet Theatre almost bowed out. The company, one of the city’s five largest arts organizations, finished its previous season in the black only with a last-minute plea to donors—the second in three years of a bad economy and a string of executive directors (the chair was then empty). The company owed the Portland Center for the Performing Arts $300,000 and could barely make payroll. Some members of the nonprofit’s board pushed a truly radical measure: bankruptcy and dissolution.
“A number of people felt it was time to close the doors and fire everybody—literally just terminate everything,” says board secretary Harold Goldstein. Instead, the 6 board members pushing for bankruptcy stepped down in October 2012, leaving 10 believers. The next month, Christopher Stowell, OBT’s artistic director for nine years—renowned for boosting the ballet’s reputation, controversial for what some perceived as a lack of financial restraint in doing so—unexpectedly resigned (read our 2012 interview with Stowell about why he left). Dancers and office staff began to flee, until every executive position but one sat empty. Arts media despaired: Could OBT sustain the major productions Portlanders had come to expect, like Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, with its fleets of dancers and live orchestra? Would Portland become one of few major US cities lacking a prominent classical ballet?
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That dance of worry now looks more Chicken Little than Dying Swan. OBT appears to be in full flight, launching a 25th season full of surprises both artistic and institutional. Beginning with the hiring of artistic director Kevin Irving last summer and culminating in the September appointment of new executive director Dennis Buehler, a skilled cast has filled every executive position. This month’s live collaboration with legendary local band Pink Martini begins a season in which the company will unveil its version of Ben Stevenson’s iconic, evening-length Cinderella and perform the world premiere of a work by Darrell Grand Moultrie, who choreographed Beyoncé’s 2013 tour. It will also stage George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece, Agon, and inaugurate a new youth company, OBT 2.
How did OBT manage such a stunning turnaround? “There was an entrepreneurial feeling among the board and staff when I came back,” says Brad Miller, one of several erstwhile board members who rejoined in early 2013, shortly after Stowell left. The board’s volunteer stalwarts assumed the roles of CEO, COO, and development and marketing directors, and former dancer Anne Mueller stepped in as interim artistic director. First order of business: retool the budget, so expenditures reflected income. (Obvious, yes. But current board members say previous budgets often lost sight of that goal.) This meant contacting lapsed donors and restructuring cash flow so OBT could make summer and fall payrolls before The Nutcracker filled its holiday coffers. It also meant calibrating onstage ambitions to financial realities.
“There was an excitement over what Christopher was doing, which led to a willingness to stick our neck out,” says Miller, who helped hire Stowell in 2003. “We’d then end up with a difficult situation. There’s a commitment not to put the ballet in that place again.”
Even so, OBT avoided major cuts. Its budget dropped from $5.7 million in 2012 to $5.1 million in 2013, but mostly because of the vacant executive positions. The company used live music less often and didn’t replace four departed dancers, but otherwise did not trim its production capacity.
In July 2013, OBT hired Irving, a New York native who spent five years turning Sweden’s languishing Göteborg Ballet into a Scandinavian powerhouse. Irving put his stamp on the season, focusing on retiring veteran dancer Alison Roper and adding company premieres by renowned choreographer Nacho Duato. (Irving once worked with Duato, and was able to acquire performance rights at a significant discount.)
According to Roper, Irving has a commanding presence in the studio, inciting a rigor and excitement in dancers that seem to translate to audiences—The Nutcracker broke company sales records. The season’s last two productions were refreshingly novel: a touching multimedia tribute to Roper and the intimate, sold-out Create, in which Irving charismatically guided dancers through a live rehearsal and then invited an audience member to choose which couple would perform.
With the books for 2013–14 not yet final, it appears OBT came out about $30,000 above budget—its first smooth financial landing in years—and the 2014–15 budget has bounced back up to $5.4 million. The company is exploring new opportunities, including selling its full-block HQ in the desirable Central East Side to a developer. “We have a buyer,” Goldstein says. “If it goes through, we’ll be in way better shape financially than we’ve ever dreamed of.” Irving recently signed on for three more years, and presented a five-year plan outlining both artistic and financial goals.
“It is a promise that audiences haven’t seen everything we have to offer,” Irving says. That sentiment, as much as anything else, suggests a happy ending to the saga.
Editor's Note: OBT officially announced on October 17 that it has signed a sales agreement to sell its building to Mill Creek Residential Trust (MCRT), which will turn the property into 200 market-rate units with parking. "Mill Creek’s proposal allows us the opportunity to eliminate our debt, better capitalize the organization and, with strong new leadership in place, pursue a home that will be important to the next phase of our development," stated board chair Ken Hicks. Now OBT is searching for a new studio space that will allow it to expand its studios and teaching opportunities.