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Flash 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 Jean-Richard

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"?

Marcello Angelini: 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!

Viviana 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 [1995], 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 page.

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 it.

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