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Supporters for ballet company fill meeting to save the company at Kelowna Art Gallery

   - Doug Farrow
— image credit: Doug Farrow

A town hall meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 13 suggests the Okanagan arts community wants to Ballet Kelowna saved, but even the company's artistic director suggests it may be too late thanks to announcements from its board of directors that the company will fold for financial reasons at the end of the season.

“This is like a death in the family,” says Rosemary Thomson, conductor for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, pausing for a moment as emotion bubbles to the surface.

“I’m a little overwhelmed…I find this absolutely shocking—the lack of leadership we’re seeing here today.”

She was speaking at a meeting convened to discuss whether there is an appetite for saving Ballet Kelowna, which is currently scheduled to be shutdown at the end of this season.

The president of the board of directors for the society that runs the company, Jamie Maw, hovered in the back of the room, never introducing himself.

Three board members opened the meeting but never offered any answers or responses.

Though the ballet company is said to be down just five per cent of its budget, the board of directors did not confirm any numbers, telling the meeting’s moderator not to allow any discussion of internal Ballet Kelowna business. No definition for what that meant was given either.

Founding member Jiri Strom’s complaints that the discussion was being censored was itself censored.

And yet, of the 50-plus people gathered at the Kelowna Art Gallery for a meeting to discuss “their love of dance” Wednesday evening, all said they were totally unaware the financial troubles raised at the last Ballet Kelowna annual general meeting in December would force the company to disband before spring.

And they were not impressed with the lack of communication involved.

As Thomson put it, the arts is always under financial duress, but “you don’t just throw in the towel.”

There was no plea to the members for help before the announcement to fold. There was no fundraising campaign. There was no inkling of severe difficulties until a statement was sent to the press.

On Friday, Feb. 1, a press release, dubbed a joint statement from Maw and the company’s artistic director David LaHay, was issued late in the afternoon at a time slot well-known in marketing and public relations circles as a news dead zone.

Predictably, the story unfurled itself slowly. The Capital News published a 700-word story, Final curtain call for Ballet Kelowna, to its website that Friday evening and a wave of headlines hit the mainstream media over the next week without making much of a splash.

Ripples among artists and in the arts community, through patrons and creators, nevertheless failed to dissipate and it didn’t take long before the company was inundated with letters, emails and offers of support.

It is very clear there is an appetite for dance in the Interior, and the stories that surfaced Wednesday only served to further the point.

“The first show that I went to, it made me feel like maybe Kelowna is a place I could fit into. Kelowna is a place that is not easy to fit in. I don’t know if you know this if you’re from Kelowna, but it’s really not easy,” said a woman named Larissa, who works in the UBC Okanagan library.

Joan WilsonBallet Kelowna tour coordinator Joan Wilson said the company was the kind of place her son, once a boy reviled by the notion of having to pick up his sister from dance class, could go work on the computers and walk away with such respect for what the company did that he sent his parents in to buy tickets.

Wilson would later find enough solace in the dancer’s performances to drag her out of the house after her husband’s death.

She went back. She started following the tour. Eventually, she would volunteer so much she became the tour director.

Glenna Turnbull, arts columnist and a long-time dedicated volunteer, said she provided her photography to the company for free and can remember rolling up the stage floor in Merritt during the years she sat on its board of directors.

“The way that we survived from the beginning was that everybody pitched in,” Turnbull said.

“We had a really enthusiastic board…in an arts organization, you have to volunteer.”

From Creator’s Art Centre ballet director Emma Donely’s suggestion that the ballet pursue a wider audience with more storyline performances, to dancer Kurt Werner’s plea to ask local radio stations to go directly to the public for help during rush hour, the suggestions to alleviate the immediate financial stress were plentiful.

And yet, it may already be too late.

Speaking an hour and a half into the meeting, David LaHay broke his silence to say he too was unaware of the company’s impending demise until the day before it occurred, though it has been his life’s passion for the last 10 years.

Described as an educator and visionary who was building a dance audience in the Interior so strong Revelstoke’s last performance sold out, performances in Golden always sell out and even tiny venues in the Kootenays were willing to invite the company back year after year, LaHay said he is not on the verge of retirement as the board of directors has suggested.

He does believe that announcing a company will cancel its dates, even if they are reinstated, as occurred late last week thanks to emerging funding from some generous patrons, is tantamount to suicide.

“It’s really like trying to resurrect something from the dead,” said LaHay. “It’s a ticking time bomb. Once the word is out, why would (anyone) give us money?”

LaHay pointed out that the community of venues and promoters that the company has put a decade into developing cannot trust that it will be there next year, meaning it might be very difficult to book shows even if money surfaces to save the company.

LaHay said he turns 65 next year and was going to continue on for one more year, enough time to find a successor if the company can be saved.

Ironically, the company would only need a couple more years before it could likely qualify for federal and provincial arts grants that would provide the operational base to make the current issues a moot point. To secure Canada Council funding, at the very least, the company must complete two special project grants—the first was completed last year. Progress on B.C. Arts Council funding is more dubious.

But if there was one message that surfaced from the initial meeting on Ballet Kelowna’s fate it was that the Ballet’s hometown needs to step up to the plate.

“This is the time to take the measure of our community…to determine the value of this art form,” said retired executive director Alison Moore, who stepped away from her post last year but sent a letter to the meeting to be read aloud.

Pointing out the company has yet to fill the seats in the Kelowna Community Theatre, she said the current approach of making up for government cuts with large-scale fundraisers cannot and will not work without ticket sales to performances. Fundraisers simply cost too much to run.

She challenged the ballet’s supporters to get out and find the audience the dancers have never managed to enjoy in Kelowna. A meeting to discuss the particulars of the society’s financial position is pending. Anyone can become a Ballet Kelowna member for $25 and attend the meting. Memberships can still be purchased for anyone who wishes to attend.

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