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Interview, 2-28: Marcello Angelini
Plenty of Heart, Plenty of Hope, and Plenty of Board Support: You're
doin' fine, Tulsa!
By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2006 Alicia Chesser
Photography copyright Christopher
TULSA -- These are hard
times for mid-sized or what are sometimes referred to as 'regional'
U.S. ballet companies. Two well-regarded troupes which at one time
were lead by ambitious directors, Ballet Internationale and Oakland
Ballet (the latter having mounted important reconstructions of Ballet
Russe works in its heyday) have recently closed. Colorado Ballet
fired its longtime and hardworking director last fall; and Washington
Ballet has been grounded by a bitter labor struggle. At least three
of these implosions are rooted in or at least related to problematic
relationships among boards, dancers, and directors.
Oppose to these stories
that of Tulsa Ballet. Here is a director, Marcello Angelini, with
a multitude of bold new ideas, at the heart of all of which is the
desire to see ballet continue to grow in this seemingly unlikely
ground. And what does the Tulsa Ballet board do when presented with
ideas like this? Amazingly, they support them and somehow find a
way to make them happen. This board comprises people who truly love
the Ballet and who realize how important it is for a city like Tulsa
-- which is teetering on the edge of a real renewal -- to have its
arts organizations flourish. Angelini is a shrewd businessman as
much as he is a serious artist, and he and the board have found
a way to speak the same language.
This sort of cooperation
is helping to make big things happen for the company. According
to its marketing director, since last year ticket sales are up 30
percent. Angelini's version of "The Nutcracker" saw an almost 10
percent increase in attendance. Enrollment at the Tulsa Center for
Dance Education, the company's school, has tripled. And in the past
few weeks alone, Angelini has raised enough money -- $3.3 million
-- to continue funding the school and the recently established Tulsa
Ballet II (one mission of which is educational outreach in local
public schools); to fund a choreographer showcase for the main company;
to raise the dancers' salaries; and to cover the cost of live music
for the next two seasons.
What's the secret?
I recently asked Angelini
to tell me the story behind two of his latest accomplishments: engaging
Viviana Durante, former longtime principal of the Royal Ballet and
one of the most sought-after guest artists in the world, for his
production of "The
Sleeping Beauty," and engaging the new Tulsa Symphony
Orchestra to perform the Tchaikovsky score -- the latter for $1.
I also asked him to share his views on the director/board relationship:
what it needs to be healthy, why it's important, and what both sides
must bring to the table. Our discussion follows.
Alicia Chesser: How did Ms. Durante come to be involved with
these performances of "The Sleeping Beauty"?
Well, it's a story about friendships. You see, I believe that the
effectiveness of an artistic director in regard to securing a prestigious
and interesting repertory for his company depends on two pivotal
factors. First, how well respected he is in the dance world and
how many friends he has that he can pull favors from. Second, the
size of the wallet. The smaller the wallet, the bigger the contacts,
and the ability to pull favors, needs to be. In the case of Tulsa
Ballet, not only is our wallet small, but it's fairly empty too.
For 'Beauty,' I had been looking to bring in a guest to dance Aurora.
I wanted someone who could inspire the dancers and excite the audience.
One of the Auroras I was hoping to lure to Tulsa was Viviana, as
I saw her dance live, and loved her, and I do have her DVD of 'Beauty'
with the Royal which I religiously watch. The only problem is that
she is more expensive then a mid-sized company can afford. Donald
Scrimgeour, our European manager, is the one that was trying to
get her here -- he represents her too -- but again the costs were
too high. Then I remembered.... Do you remember Luciano Cannito,
the choreographer of "Mare Nostrum" and also my old friend from
the school in Napoli? He was the artistic director of the Teatro
San Carlo's ballet company, in Naples. Now he has moved to Palermo,
where he directs the company at the Teatro Massimo, and he got to
know Viviana. When he was here I took him flying (I am a private
pilot) and now he is addicted. He took his pilot's license in Italy.
While I was going back and forth with our manager about bringing
Viviana here, I was enjoying an e-mail conversation with Luciano
about airplanes and coming back to Tulsa to do another work. So,
in my next e-mail, I asked him if he would talk to Viviana about
dancing with our company. And he did. And she came!
Durante in Tulsa Ballet's production of "The Sleeping Beauty."
Photo by and copyright Christopher Jean-Richard, and courtesy Christopher Jean-Richard.
AC: How did the
deal between Tulsa Ballet and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra come
about? Was it your idea, or theirs, to have the orchestra's debut
happen with the ballet? And how on earth did you get them to play
for free? (What a joy, by the way, to hear such a fine orchestra
in the pit.)
MA: Yes, a great
orchestra; we look forward to working with them again. Well, Dr.
[Frank] Letcher, the president of the organization, is an old friend.
He is an extremely intelligent and straightforward gentleman, one
of those that you can disagree with and yet stay friends. He approached
me during the first performances of the season and told me he was
in the midst of building a new orchestra. He told me that he wanted
this orchestra to debut with us, in "The Sleeping Beauty." I was
elated but I had to inform him that, because of financial constraints,
this year we had not budgeted for an orchestra for "Beauty." While
I was devastated by this decision, I also supported it as the financial
health of our organization was at risk. In subsequent conversations,
he kept asking me to give him a price we could afford. I kept telling
him that the only price we could afford was $1. And he kept asking,
but the answer was the same. One day he showed up with a contract
for a full orchestra and, when I looked at the "bottom line," the
cost was $1. After some debating with myself I decided that I could
sign on the dotted line. I think 'Beauty' is a fantastic score,
one that allows an orchestra to really show what it is made of.
And debuting with the Ballet is a good choice as it makes sure that
there is no other sound, besides that of pointe shoes, to appreciate
the quality of sound of an orchestra. So, the choice of debuting
with the Ballet, playing the score of 'Beauty' was a good one for
the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra and a welcome gift for the Ballet.
AC: Now a question
about the relationship between you and your board of directors.
There are at least four companies in the U.S. right now that have
either closed or are literally falling apart, and in just about
every case the board appears to be the problem or part of the problem.
What makes Tulsa Ballet different? How have you managed to get your
board "on board," as it were, with your ideas? What sort of people
are on the board, and what are their priorities? Finally, in your
view, what is the importance of a good, smart, dedicated board in
getting things accomplished?
MA: Wow, that's
a complicated question.... There are companies where directors and
boards are butting heads, but this is a lose-lose proposition. In
my opinion, in American companies, the board represents the community,
its wishes for the quality of the arts in their neck of the woods,
its aspirations for quality of life in their city and the sophistication
of its society. When you meet a board during the process of an interview,
it is the candidate's responsibility to see if their vision for
their company, and their community at large, fits with [his or her]
vision of the company.... Here in Tulsa I was very lucky then ,
and am very lucky now, that the aspirations of this board for its
ballet company parallel my vision of what this company can be. This
means that, at least on a philosophical level, we are on the same
But this is just the
beginning. Like everything else in life, it takes work, a lot of
work, to materialize the vision of an organization. Our board is
not afraid to work, it's not afraid to raise the necessary funds
to support the product we put on our stage. Even during the past
four years, a time that will be remembered in the history books
of our art form as a grim one for arts organizations, the board
has never stopped supporting and cherishing our company. They have
stayed on board, in spite of the rough weather, resolved to weather
the storm. Our commitment to excellence, and our determination to
see the company through those rough times, has allowed us to stay
in the game. I have to tell you, the last four years have been hell,
maintaining the quality of the company, in spite of our inability
to raise salaries for our dancers and our staff. And the lack of
performances (we lost our sister city, Knoxville, Tennessee, a few
years back due to their grave financial challenges; they had pretty
much doubled our performances) has been very taxing on all of us.
But, thanks to our commitment to the company, things started to
happen. Donors came forward and committed enough funds to see us
through the bad times, a new endowment that includes a capital campaign
is well under way to reach its $9 million initial goal, our
school has grown in three years to 205 students, and just in the
past three weeks we raised about $3.3 million for endowment, school,
and operating budget.... So, integrity and commitment to quality
always pay off in the long run.
What is my role in all
that? It's both big and small. In order to keep the board enthused
about the company, my first responsibility is to put, on our stage,
good shows performed by the best company I can assemble. It's amazing,
when the going gets tough, how invigorated our board is after the
performances. It gives all of us the energy to continue the fight.
Second, my role is to inspire the board with a vision that is both
exciting and achievable. I think I am some sort of a mix between
a business person and an artist. My dad was a dancer and then a
teacher; he still owns his ballet school and has produced dozens
of professional dancers. My mom is a bookkeeper, so I grew up listening
to my dad's dreams and the reality checks of my mom. I am not able
to dream without attaching numbers to things. For this reason I
feel comfortable talking to anybody about supporting the company,
I can make a decent financial case for the existence of the company....
I can communicate with business people on a business level. When
you do that, they trust you with their investment.
To answer your last
question, I believe that every board is smart and dedicated. After
all, these are people with university degrees, people that have
started and grown their businesses, lawyers, doctors. They all want
things to happen, they all want their organization to thrive
or they wouldn't serve on a board. But, since a ballet company is
not a business in which they are trained, they rely on people like
me to help them focus their skills in a way that is most profitable
for the company. Just as important, I rely on them to shape my ideas
and my dreams into a realistic endeavor. As for getting things accomplished,
if they see that their artistic leader is not afraid to roll up
his sleeves and put in as many hours as it takes to get the job
done, and done well, I can promise you that they won't turn their
backs on you. I admire board members for giving their time, expertise
and... money to the company. All they do for us is free of charge,
actually they even pay to work, and work hard! I think my appreciation
for all they do for us, and maybe their appreciation for the work
I do for the company, is what makes our chemistry work. Lastly,
I have been very fortunate to find here a group of board members
who are extremely committed, and extremely smart, that have supported
our vision for the past eleven years.
AC: Tulsa Ballet
provides a very interesting counter-example to those unfortunate
companies in which the board and the director simply cannot get
on the same page (or on a page that is beneficial to everyone).
What have you done to make things turn out differently in Tulsa?
MA: Work with
people, rather then against people. Understand them, rather then
fighting them. Make your vision the vision of all of them, without
ever forgetting your personal dream. Understand the constraints
of reality; don't blame them because they can't buy you a Ferrari.
Become a part of the community you work with, understand their principles
and their beliefs and accept them, without reneging on yours. Keep
your heart and your imagination deeply grounded in the art you love,
keep your brain always engaged in understanding the numbers. Be
a part of making the dream happen, not only in the studio but in
selling the company and raising the necessary funds to keep it alive.
Don't expect that anything comes from God, go out in the world and
make it happen. If anybody helps you be grateful... but never expect