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Oakland Ballet Faces Struggle to Survive

by Mary Ellen Hunt

April 6, 2004

In another sign of the hard economic times for the arts, Oakland Ballet has announced today that the company’s financial constraints have become so onerous that they will be forced to cancel their 2004-05 season.

Now in a bid to put itself on even footing, erase debts and get a jump on the 2005-06 season, the company has launched a “Keep Us Dancing” campaign with the goal of raising $500,000 by May 31.

Reached for comment at her Oakland offices, Brown noted that it had been a difficult situation. “It’s dynamic and challenging and some difficult decisions are being made that are bold and strategic, but it’s really all about ensuring the continuation of this institution.”

Brown acknowledged that with no plans to perform the next season and no renewals in the contracts for the current dancers, the company would have to start from square one in terms of reassembling the troupe for the 2005-06 season, which would mark their 40th anniversary. The announcement comes late in the season when most company auditions have already been held, so the dancers will be forced to scramble to find another situation.

“For me to think about a ballet company without dancers is just not a part of my experience,” Brown sighed. “There’s always been some kind of way to make it happen. We just were not able to. I won’t be able to rely on [getting those dancers back]. I won’t. They will have to find work.

“It was one of the most crucial thoughts that I had. I mean, I spent three and half years building a company that I’m proud of and that understands the way that I like to work. The family feeling, the camaraderie has been established – so it will be like starting over. I’m not looking forward to that.”

Like many dance companies across the nation, the 39-year old company has struggled to continue operation over the past few years, particularly in the arid economy since 2001. Under Brown’s direction since 2000, the company suffered from mixed reviews and declining attendance figures, which have left it with a deficit that has carried over from season to season.

In the past few years, almost all arts organizations, large and small, have been forced to face similar problems, which have been compounded by a shrinking pool of government grants and giving by charitable foundations. Only last week, the New York Times reported that charitable giving by foundations was down by 5%, part of a steady downswing. Individual donors, often considered the backbone of any organization’s support, have also given warily, and many organizations have seen a drop-off in subscriber renewals.

Still, dramatic appeals to the community, such as the one which helped save Diablo Ballet from closure two years ago, have often succeeded in solidifying the support of a company’s audience.

Oakland Ballet’s 2003-04 season saw ups and downs. Poor ticket sales forced the cancellation of their October performances (which were later combined with the November run of “The Crystal Slipper”), and the previous year’s poor showing led to a shorter-than-usual season of the traditional “Nutcrackers” without the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Nevertheless, a critically acclaimed run at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center in January showed the company at its best, with premieres and revivals from local choreographers, Margaret Jenkins, Robert Moses and Robert Henry Johnson.

“That was very exciting, being at Yerba Buena,” Brown says, “For me, I just wanted my dancers to have the feeling of performing at a sold out house. We had not had that since the day I arrived and there’s nothing like it, and so it’s something that they’ll be able to hold onto for the rest of their careers.”

To support Oakland Ballet’s Keep Us Dancing! Campaign, call the Ballet directly at 510-452-9288, or send a tax-deductible check to the Ballet at 130 Linden St., Oakland, CA 94607. For further information, visit

Edited by Lori Ibay

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