Silicon Valley Ballet bows out, abruptly

When Leigh and I went down to San Jose to see Silicon Valley Ballet in their most recent program last month, little did we know that that was to be the company’s swan song. I raved over the company in Anna Lopez Ochoa’s Prism and Leigh was awed at their freedom of expression in Ohad Naharin’s powerful Minus 16.  

Silicon Valley Ballet

Silicon Valley Ballet dancers throw themselves into Ohad Naharin’s MINUS 16 (Photo: Alejandro Gomez)

And now today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Silicon Valley Ballet – which in the last year had changed its name from Ballet San Jose and recapitalized – has ceased operations, ending a 30-year run as the primary Bay Area dance company south of San Francisco …

All of this comes after the struggling dance company broke even in 2015 for the first time, [board chairman Millicent] Powers said, after a $3.5 million emergency capitalization goal was met. But that funding could not carry the company through 2016, she added.

“Looking forward, we saw a perfect storm of risk,” said Powers, who had been acting as executive director. Another emergency fundraiser was not feasible, being too soon after the last one. Compounding the problem, there could be “legal actions against a board member,” she said. “We were managing without a cushion, and we had reached a tipping point.”

Silicon Valley Ballet was founded in 1986 by Dennis Nahat as a unique two-city troupe called San Jose Cleveland Ballet. In 2000, the Cleveland schedule was discontinued and Ballet San Jose earned critical acclaim under the artistic direction of Nahat. But in 2012, Nahat was ousted by his board, a move that was rumored to be engineered by then-board chairman John C. Fry, head of Fry’s Electronics.

Fry is not listed among the current board members, which may have eliminated the deepest pockets available to SVB.

The annual budget was around $5.5 million, half coming from the Silicon Valley Ballet school and ticket sales, and half from philanthropy. That is where the shortfall came from, Powers said. “Donations that we thought were a ‘yes’ turned into a ‘no.’”

Unable to guarantee prospective donors that the company would survive, fundraising ceased and so did the company.

… Critics on social media cast the technology community as the villain, in not supporting a fine art that changed its name to Silicon Valley Ballet, as a desperate appeal for support from tech.

And in the San Jose Mercury News:

“This is a great tragedy for the community, but if we are honest with ourselves, it could have been predicted,” Andrew Bales, head of Silicon Valley Symphony, said. “Many, many people have accomplished heroic and valiant efforts to keep it alive, but once you get past the tipping point, the writing is on the wall. You have donor fatigue. The board gets tired. You can only downsize so far and at some point you just can’t find the next big angel to write the next big check.”

When the company hired José Manuel Carreño, a star in the dance world, as its artistic director in late 2013, hopes were high that he could save the ballet. He brought excitement and buzz, and the performances under his tenure have been well-received critically. But it was not enough…

Some say that the ballet is merely another example of the brutal financial arts climate in the Silicon Valley, that despite the billions that its very name represents, arts groups here are under extreme pressure to make ends meet because they lack the kind of old-money perennial arts patrons you find in San Francisco. In addition to the death of San Jose Rep, Santa Cruz Shakespeare closed in 2013 before coming back as a smaller operation and the American Musical Theatre went under in 2006.

… Others resist the theme of an ongoing crisis in the arts, pointing to the scope of cultural groups making it in the valley, from San Jose Jazz and the Cinequest Film Festival to Opera San Jose and the symphony…

“Arts and culture are not only alive and well but thriving in San Jose,” agrees Lisa Mallette, head of the City Lights Theater Company, which on Tuesday announced it was offering ballet company subscribers free tickets to the three remaining stage shows in its current season.

Other observers suggest the dance company’s demise was largely its own doing.

Iconic San Jose ballerina Karen Gabay, who spent 36 years with the company, traces a lot of its woes back to the reorganization of the company in 2012.

“Getting rid of Dennis Nahat the way they did alienated a lot of long-term supporters,” said Gabay, who had been working as an associate artist at the troupe. “He was the founder of the company. I don’t think you can eradicate the past like that without losing your supporters.”

And in the Silicon Valley Business News, a sterner message:

“If the city residents don’t cherish art, they won’t have it,” said Larry Hancock, general director of Opera San Jose, which is fighting back after financial struggles of its own. “If they don’t love it, honor it, care about it, they won’t have it. That’s the simple god’s truth.”

Silicon Valley Creates CEO Connie Martinez said “We can mourn the loss, but we have to be carefull not to read too much into it. We live in the valley of churn. This is the cultural churn. An organization’s existence is not a right, but existence of the arts is.”

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