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DANCE : Dancing on the Edge : Dance Theatre of Harlem tightens its belt and rebuilds after a financial crisis forces six months of layoffs

<i> Susan Reiter is a free-lance writer based in New York. </i>

Dance Theatre of Harlem is back and in full swing, if a visit to its humming studios on 152nd Street is any indication. The company is touring again and in mid-November performed at Boston’s Wang Center, the first time the dancers appeared on stage since March.

But as Arthur Mitchell teaches company class in his typically dynamic fashion-- cajoling, demanding and exulting when he sees results--shadowing the company are the disruptive events of the last year: a fiscal crisis that crested in January with a looming $1.7-million deficit--which necessitated a six-month layoff of 50 dancers and staff.

Some observers feared for the company’s future, but Mitchell, the company’s vigorous and charismatic founder, artistic director and guiding spirit, was confident that after six months of cutting back, restructuring and careful planning, the company would be back in operation when its new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

He was right, thanks to a supportive response from several major funders as well as from company personnel. But he has learned a hard lesson from the crisis and is exceedingly cautious about the future:

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“I want everyone to realize that we are not totally solvent,” Mitchell said during a recent interview in his office. “By that I mean that we’re coming out of the crisis, but it’s going to take a year to build back to where we were before.

“But even that is going to change, due to the change in world economics. The sponsors aren’t there, the dollar has lost its value; the vast amount of European touring that we had is going to be cut back. It will take a year for us to come out of it and be back in full swing, getting the amount of earned income that we can.

“I must say that everybody--the board of directors, the executive director, the staff, the dancers--really understood what we were going through. Many people said, ‘We’ll work for nothing: We want to keep Dance Theatre alive.’

“People were calling and saying, ‘I can’t give much money, but what can I do to keep this going?’ That is the sort of impetus and morale boost that was needed, and it made me say, ‘I’m not going to let this go; I’m going to deal with the problems, get the best consultants, bring in the best administrators--because we can’t let this go.’ ”

Such terms as “fiscal responsibility” and “flow chart” have become as much a part of Mitchell’s vocabulary as tendu and plie. As longtime company member Lowell Smith notes, Mitchell “does not do things half-assed,” and he plunged into the task of salvaging his company’s fiscal stability with the same fervor that has made him a passionate spokesman for his art form.

Possessed of what he himself describes as “innate positiveness,” Mitchell found ways to hold his dancers together even as they scattered to seek alternative employment during the layoff, which was announced as the company made its annual appearance at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium.

Mitchell persuaded enough movers and shakers with financial clout that his cause was worthy. American Express Travel Related Services Company and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund led the way with $1-million contributions each, and the company received $200,000 from both the Schubert Foundation (in the form of a challenge grant that had to be matched) and the Rockefeller Foundation, which awarded a stabilization grant.

When it looked like the school would have to cancel its summer session--attended by about 500 dancers--special funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts and Chase Manhattan Bank kept it operating without interruption.

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The American Express gift couples direct financial support, over a four-year period, with marketing services. The Reader’s Digest money came in the form of an emergency grant earmarked partly for debt reduction and partly for dancers’ salaries and company operations. It came with the stipulation that the dance company raise $350,000 in matching funds toward erasing the debt, which it did, and that the company close out the fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) without a deficit--which Mitchell now can proudly say has been accomplished.

“We finished the fiscal year in the black--we even managed to give the dancers some back pay,” he said. “It’s been a very good learning experience for us: We’re learning how, with today’s economic climate, we can do as much as we did before, but with less money. That’s where ingenuity and professional business acumen come into play. You just don’t spend what you don’t have.”

The company’s 1990-91 tour includes stops in Cairo, London, Bermuda, Detroit, Cincinnati and Washington. As part of the company’s restructuring, it will now visit the West Coast every other year rather than annually.

“It . . . is the right cycle--not just in terms of the Ambassador Foundation but also Berkeley, where we have a longstanding relationship,” executive director Anthony Turney said. “That’s not a formal decision, just an approximate cycle--alternating the East and West coasts seems appropriate. We haven’t fixed any dates yet.”

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A spokesman for the Ambassador Foundation in Pasadena where the company was in its 10th season last January, said such visits have been heavily underwritten since the dancers usually perform with a 60-member live orchestra and the “element of loss is substantial and has become prohibitive.”

For the current fiscal year, the company can count on meeting only 30% of its $6-million budget with earned income; 70% will come from fund-raising. That ratio, Mitchell pointed out, is the inverse of 10 years ago when touring opportunities were at their height and the company earned 70% of its budget. His goal, for now, is a 50-50 balance, more or less the way it was before the recent crisis.

“I couldn’t be honest and say this will never happen again,” Mitchell said. “I hope it doesn’t, but we’re taking all possible steps so that we can anticipate if it’s going to happen again and be more prepared.

“It’s been hard, but I think that out of this we will become a much tighter, reorganized and much more finely tuned organization than we are. We may even have been becoming a little complacent, because the company had grown so quickly, and we were maybe taking things for granted. We’re not doing that now.”

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Lowell Smith thinks that before the layoff, some dancers had also begun to take their careers for granted, but that has all changed. “It was starting to have that big-company energy, but now people really want to dance, because it was taken away from them,” the 13-year veteran said. “People are rehearsing with more focus and more energy. Everyone came back after the layoff thinner. The dancers had to remake their decision to dance, and in doing so, they’ve come back more committed.”

“The experience made me realize how dear the performing aspects are to me,” said Cassandra Phifer, who has been with the company since its inception 21 years ago. “You take it for granted when you’re in the thick of it, but when you don’t have it, you tend to cherish it more.”

The more senior dancers such as Smith and Phifer used the six-month hiatus to explore outside interests and contemplate their post-performing futures. Smith returned to acting classes, which he had taken prior to his dance career, and Phifer worked in the company’s marketing and development departments, organizing a busy schedule of community outreach programs.

“Actually, I found it a very therapeutic time,” she said. “As you get older, you have to start thinking about what your post-performance career will be. I’m interested in arts-education projects.”

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Several grants came through that made it possible for the company members to take classes together from July to September, rather than having to pay for outside classes. A company newsletter went out regularly, and meetings were held every six weeks to keep everyone informed of developments. The company also held two retreats to give members of all the departments a chance to discuss short- and long-range plans.

New works by Glen Tetley and Billy Wilson will enter the repertory, which will feature fewer large-scale productions and more contemporary works created for Dance Theatre of Harlem, which are what tour sponsors tend to request these days, Mitchell has found. Financial considerations will also make the company limit performances of its more expensive productions, such as its all-Nijinska evening.

All signs point to business as usual, and Mitchell is back in his element. “I feel very confident,” he said. “The positive has begun to outweigh the negative, as you can see in class. The common bond that ties us together only needed to be reaffirmed.”


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