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Ballet director says he was forced to quit

Published May 20, 2006 12:32 am

Resignation: Kåge's departure, with one more year left on a five-year contract, appears less amicable than it was presented
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Jonas Kåge, Ballet West's artistic director for nine years, gathered the company's dancers during rehearsal Friday afternoon and told them he wanted them to know the truth.

Contrary to a news release sent out three weeks ago, he did not decide to leave the company, he said. He was called in to a board meeting to discuss a performance review and told the results were bad - bad enough that his contract was going to be terminated. His only choice was between two already-prepared releases, one stating he had resigned, the other that he was fired.

In an interview, Kåge said he decided to tell his side after company officials told the news media he was leaving, effective in June, after the last concert of the season, because he had accomplished all his goals there. The truth, he says, is that no one voiced any complaints to him until the day the board told him the results of the survey - the details of which he has not seen - amounted to a no-confidence vote.

His main objection is the way it was handled. "Ballet West is this community's company, and they deserve to know the truth," he said.

Ballet West has maintained that Kåge's departure was his decision; in public, administrators have nothing but praise for him.

Carol Carter, who heads the ballet's board of trustees, confirmed this week that Kåge's resignation came after an "in-depth evaluation process," and said that "when we went through that, he requested to resign."

"A lot of that was probably impetus from going through that evaluation process. The inquisition and the process was all going on. That's not what it was meant to do, but that's what happened."

Kåge still has a year left on a five-year contract, which may present a sticky situation. He says the contract doesn't allow for early dismissal except under extreme circumstances.

His departure comes in the middle of a financial restructuring designed to get the company back in the black after losing money for several years in a row.

With one concert cut from the season and staff taking pay cuts, executive director Johann Jacobs has said the company is ahead of projections for the year. That includes good ticket sales for Kåge's "Romeo and Juliet," which received mixed reviews from critics and patrons.

Kåge has a good artistic reputation among national critics, said Allan Ulrich, a longtime critic and former editor with Dance Magazine, says it's unusual for an artistic director to leave a company with a year left on his contract. "I think it's strange that a company would drop somebody when it seems to be experiencing artistic success," he said. "It is possible that there were certain terms of his contract he was not living up to, but why they would do it when he had just one year on his contract, it's very mysterious."

For Regina Rosenthal, a longtime season ticket holder and Kåge fan, it's worse than that. "It's very weird and I'm totally bewildered and totally upset. I've been a fan of Ballet West for many years and Jonas Kåge has done a lot for this company, has elevated the company. . . . I'm horrified that he's leaving so suddenly," she said.

Rosenthal says she sent a complaint letter to the all-volunteer board canceling her season tickets and asking for an explanation of why Kåge is leaving. She hasn't heard back - which reinforces her belief that the board is out of touch with the community. "I fear for the health of the company if sudden or abrupt decisions can be made without any advance planning," Rosenthal said.

Kåge hasn't been able to stage as many contemporary ballets as he would have liked. His mixed bills (like the one that will play next weekend) drew smaller audiences than favorites such as "Sleeping Beauty."

Some patrons blamed Kåge for declining attendance; some disliked his choreography or programming. Kåge's repertory included many works he performed during his dancing career, which spanned the 1970s and '80s.

"I have to conclude that this is really about money," said Francis Timlin, who helps run the online ballet discussion forum criticaldance.com. "There seems to be a significant undercurrent of conflict running between Jonas and Johann regarding priorities for resource allocation. Unfortunately, this is a very common tension in most artistic enterprises."

Not everyone is unhappy. Ballet West fan Shawn Alfonsi has never liked Kåge; he says he's thrilled about the resignation. He blames Kåge for what he believes is a decline in quality and a departure from emphasis on classical ballet. "I think we all gave him a fair shot, but it's like a winning sports team: If you don't perform, you're out of there," Alfonsi said.

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