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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 decisions.

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.

For more on this story, click here.

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