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Flash View, 7-27: Tarred and Feathered
At the Grey Lady, Yellow Journalism Rules as the Times Hits Spisto Hard
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- Even from across the Atlantic,
the sheer stink emanating from 229 W. 43rd Street reeks, as the New York Times
yesterday published the worst hit piece ever perpetrated in arts journalism. Full
of innuendo, stopping short not even of gay bashing, advocacy journalism that
even the rival New York Post would be embarrassed to print, and evincing an appalling
lack of basic dance knowledge, Doreen Carvajal's front page "story"
on Louis G. Spisto's "resignation" as executive director of American Ballet Theatre
marked one of the darkest days arts journalism has seen in recent memory.
The story's low-point came when Carvajal
regurgitated a tired slur that has been circulated by an embittered employee forced
out by Spisto, writing, "Last March, a veteran former employee, Elena Gordon,
filed an age and sex discrimination complaint with the state, and accused Mr.
Spisto, who is openly gay, of creating a hostile work environment. She cited vulgar
humor directed at male employees who are gay." Gordon, in this reporter's
opinion, departed in a long-needed make-over of the ABT press office instituted
by Spisto. That office, in which Gordon worked for 25 years -- another factor
not mentioned by Carvajal -- was known for catering to the New York Times almost
exclusively. The Times, through Carvajal, is obviously paying the favor back.
Carvajal mentions that 30 of a staff
of 40 left the company, but fails to specify how many of those were fired, leaving
the impression that they quit over Spisto.
But perhaps the most glaringly telling
line in Carvajal's invective masquerading as objective journalism is the following:
"The ongoing backstage drama intensified this spring after the curtain dropped
on the company's May performances of 'La Bayadere,' a saga of ancient Indian temple
dancers who settle their feuds with snake poison.... A wealthy Southern Californian
trustee, Lewis P. Geyser, dismayed by the choice of a guest conductor for the
demanding piece, began a one-man campaign to review the company's top leadership."
According to Carvajal, Geyser "embarked on his campaign to question dancers
and staff members after attending three performances of 'La Bayadere.' He was
outraged, he said, by what he considered mediocre conducting and questioned how
the conductor, Jonathan Sheffer, was picked."
In point of fact, it was not "La
Bayadere" in its entirety, but the Kingdom of the Shades act which was performed
this Met season by ABT. It shared bills with David Parsons's new "Pied Piper,"
conducted by Sheffer, a well-known and respected conductor of new and 20th century
music who leads the Eos Orchestra and has also worked with Paul Taylor and Mark
Morris. While the decision to ask Sheffer to stick around to conduct the Minkus
music for the Kingdom of the Shades act may have been questionable, it's one that
should have been vetted by the artistic director Kevin McKenzie and not Spisto.
Shouldn't the buck stop with McKenzie?
Carvajal also downplays Spisto's
qualifications for the ABT post, describing him as "a lanky marketing executive
with a resume in orchestra management who made his first foray into the insular
dance world at Ballet Theater." In point of fact, Spisto's previous position
was as president of the Detroit Symphony, and he has a long history in arts management
across the spectrum, having also worked with Cal Performances, a leading presenter
in the U.S.
Piling it on, Ms. Carvajal, inexplicably,
tries to lay the blame for what some consider the failure of Parsons's "Pied
Piper" on Spisto, simply for "encouraging" the project. In this
reporter's opinion, if the production failed, it was a noble failure; all the
ingredients were there to indicate an artistic and box office success. But the
decision to commission the ballet was an artistic one, most likely made by McKenzie,
and if anything, Spisto should get credit for finding the funds -- in record short
time -- to allow the artistic director to realize his curatorial vision. If Carvajal
really believes that the fault, if there is any, for an artistic failure is to
be laid at the door of the administrative director, than it is she that has a
rather insular view of how arts organizations are administered and who makes what
Beyond that, Carvajal simply turns
the Times over to various disgruntled board members, with no attempt to evaluate
what other agendas these members might have for casting aspersions on Spisto.
Token acknowledgment is given that,
Oh, by the way, Spisto in just two years dramatically increased contributed and
earned income to the company as well as touring.
Token space is also given to Spisto
to defend himself, which he does with class, saying only, . "It was an appropriate
time to make the change....I feel great about my accomplishments, especially in
the areas of increasing the business."
Apparently, no attempt was made to
elicit comment from Mr. McKenzie.
Spisto did not respond to an e-mail
request for comment to The Dance Insider. The ABT press office did not respond
to a request for comment by Mr. McKenzie.
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