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Flash News & Opinion, 7-26: Spisto Ousted from ABT
Old Guard, Biased Press Prevail

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

(Editor's note: Alicia Mosier contributed to the reporting of the News part of this story. The opinions are Paul Ben-Itzak's, and do not necessarily reflect those of any other member of the staff of The Dance Insider.)

Louis Spisto, who brought a sea change to American Ballet Theatre, exorcising its organizational entropy and increasing its earned income, donations, and touring, has resigned as executive director after two years, the apparent victim to an orchestrated campaign by disgruntled former employees, biased coverage of that controversy by the New York Times, and a board more concerned with style than substance.

In a statement released by the company on what it is calling Spisto's "resignation," board president Ed Fox contended, "Mr. Spisto's resignation resulted from a growing difference in vision from certain members of the board of directors. Recognizing these differences, Mr. Spisto offered his resignation, and it was accepted." Typically, executives of companies are not fired when a board is displeased with them; they are encouraged to resign.

Fox acknowledged Spisto's "significant achievements," including "substantial increases in contributed income, a 24 percent increase in earned income, doubling of touring weeks and a three-fold increase in ABT's respected education programs."

A spokesman for ABT, reached this morning by The Dance Insider, declined to comment beyond the official statement.

When Spisto came on board over two years ago, ABT, despite its reputation as one of the premiere ballet companies in the United States, was suffering from a long-term organizational entropy. On the administrative side, it did not exhibit the hunger, drive, and ambition one would expect in one of the premiere artistic ventures in the U.S. While its finances had improved during the tenure of the previous executive director, Michael Kaiser, under whom a multi-million dollar long-term deficit had been eliminated, in other ways the company had not yet entered the 21st century; when Spisto took over, in spring 1999, it still had no e-mail system. The press office catered to the New York Times, Dance Magazine, and Clive Barnes, and had little use for other media. Walking into the ABT offices at 890 Broadway, one had the feeling one was in a small-time organization content with where it was, and not a dynamic, hungry, visionary artistic enterprise in a leadership role in the dance community.

The apathy on the administrative side had infected the artistic side. The corps often looked lackadaisical, and was also often under-rehearsed; one way Kaiser had saved money was by cutting back on rehearsal time.

When Spisto took over, he effectively cleaned house, nudging out many longtime employees. He brought in Greg Patterson, a veteran of the National Ballet of Canada and the Orange County Performing Arts Center, to head the marketing and communications department. Under Patterson's leadership, it was newly professionalized. The press department, under Patterson and new national press representative Kevin MacInerny, began to cultivate relationships with all media, not just the Times and Dance Magazine. As a result, coverage improved dramatically.

He also brought in another veteran, Jon Teeuwissen, as general manager. A former executive director of the New Orleans Ballet Association whose other experience includes managing Pilobolus's New York seasons, Teeuwissen is universally liked in the dance community, with particularly strong connections among presenters nationwide.

Spisto's problems may have begun when a former longtime press manager, Elena Gordon, filed a complaint after she was let go. The Times, to which the press office (though not under Gordon's direction) had always been partial, published a hit piece in the spring alleging dissatisfaction with Spisto among employees. The piece was a slam, even though the factual basis was slim: the worse charges the paper could come up with were that he had replaced some employees and that he occasionally ate out at expensive restaurants. The former is a prerogative of any new executive director, and the latter a necessity for an executive director courting major benefactors. (He could hardly have taken them to The Flame!)

The Times piece made little mention at all of the entropy which had enveloped the organization before Spisto's arrival. As well, the subtext, and probable drive behind the piece, was that the Times's chief dance critic was no longer being catered to at the cost of excluding other media. And perhaps that the chief dance critic prompted the piece out of loyalty to the now former press office employees who had long genuflected to her.

Spisto may also be a fall guy for ABT's new production of David Parsons's "Pied Piper," an expensive enterprise which proved a critical and audience disaster. Personally, even though I wasn't crazy about the production, in this case I think it was a risk worth taking, and that on paper it seemed not much of a risk at all. David Parsons has a little-heralded genius for dark narrative works, and his failure to realize that vision this time around was a fluke that could not have been anticipated. And anyway, if there is blame to be cast, that responsibility would typically fall to the artistic director, in this case Kevin McKenzie.

In the business world in which many of ABT's board members no doubt operate, executives are usually let go because they fail to meet bottom line expectations. Considering the dramatically increased dollars which Louis Spisto brought into the ABT coffers, which Fox acknowledges, one can only conclude that in drumming Lou Spisto out of the company to which he had brought such a brilliant, long-needed make-over, ABT's board was more concerned with appearances, particularly in the Times, than achievement.

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