Dancers with the Channel Islands Ballet were preparing for an upcoming performance at the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks when they got the news: They were out of a job.
Artistic director Yves de Bouteiller informed the 10 dancers during warmup exercises last week that the nonprofit arts organization was $150,000 in debt and could no longer afford to pay them.
"We were all speechless," said Sara Viale, 32, who was in her second season with the troupe. "We knew there were financial troubles, but it still came as a shock. It was kind of a funeral atmosphere."
While two performances of "Spring, Love Songs" have been canceled, the company's board of directors is still hoping the money can be raised by April 1 so the troupe can finish the remainder of the season, which ends in June. The company had planned for two more performances in May and June.
But it will be tough going, given the current economic climate. "We are making phone calls and are contemplating putting on a benefit to raise money, but really we are looking for an angel," said Kathy Nishimori, a nine-year board member.
"If everybody who believes in the arts would give a little, it all adds up," she said. "We want Ventura County to have a professional ballet company, and we hope the community will support it."
She said the annual operating budget of $480,000 is small for a nonprofit organization. It basically covers the salaries of the artistic director, the dancers, a part-time general manager and rent for the studio and office space at Cal State Channel Islands.
"Our first priority has been to pay the dancers and it was very hard to lay them off, but there's nothing else for us to cut," Nishimori said. "We run on a shoestring budget."
Channel Islands Ballet is not the only nonprofit arts group feeling squeezed for donations. With a weakening economy and the threat of war, other Ventura County organizations are also hurting for money.
"We've definitely seen smaller amounts in our donations, but the biggest impact has been on our ticket sales. People see the arts as a luxury not a necessity," said Hillary Metcalf, executive director of the Cabrillo Music Theater.
Metcalf said costs are being cut by relying on volunteers to do work that had been contracted out. Also, a part-time administrative assistant was recently laid off.
"We've been weathering the storm and are sure things will turn around at some point," Metcalf said.
Patricia Jones, executive director of the Alliance of the Arts in Thousand Oaks, said her organization also has seen a slight drop in donations.
"Nineteen-ninety-eight was the heyday for fund-raising because it paralleled how the stock market was doing but now there is less to dole out," said Jones, whose group raises money for the Civic Arts Plaza.
"Luckily, our main supporters have continued to support us because they are thrilled not to have to go to downtown [Los Angeles] for the arts."
Doug Green of the Ventura County Community Foundation said the faltering economy means increased competition from various organizations for scarce donations and government grants.
"When you have people that are in need of basics like food, shelter and clothing, the arts are going to suffer," he said. "When people think of nonprofits, emergency services come to mind first; they don't think about groups that enhance the quality of life," Green said.
With six new trustees on the ballet's 12-person board, Nishimori is hopeful that not only will the group be able raise the $150,000 but that it will secure enough funding for next season.
The board has submitted a number of grant requests, but will not know until summer whether they have been approved. "There is a lot of new energy on the board and there is a good possibility of doing additional planning so the organization will be more stable," Nishimori said.
"But it's a hard time for all nonprofits, especially in the arts," she said.
"There have been cuts across the board, and I think the general public is very concerned with what's happening with the economy, so it's harder to get private donations."
Although hopeful that Channel Islands Ballet's financial troubles will soon pass, de Bouteiller said he knows the layoffs will be an extreme hardship for the group of dancers from Italy, Latvia and Austria as well as East Coast cities. The average salary for a dancer is between $500 and $600 weekly for a 30-week season.
"Some of the dancers can dance anywhere they want, but they chose to work here. Either they knew me or they wanted to be in on something that was new and growing," said de Bouteiller, a native of France who took the position after heading Ballet Wisconsin in Milwaukee for eight years.
When de Bouteiller came on board in 2000, Channel Islands Ballet was transformed into a professional company for the first time in its 23-year history. Instead of a different group of dancers coming in for each performance, they were now considered in-residence -- living and training in Ventura County.
The season was expanded to include four programs at the Civic Arts Plaza, the annual Nutcracker performances at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center and one program at Ventura College.
The dancers also head into county classrooms to teach dance to elementary schoolchildren through the group's Arts for Youth program.
"We have a good group of dancers who work very hard and are so talented. I just hope they can hang on," de Bouteiller said.
While the future of the county's first professional ballet company is in limbo for the next month, the dancers will continue to take classes while putting out feelers to other ballet companies. "I would love to say I trust everything will work out, but right now I'm a little pessimistic. It's not a happy time," said Viale of Torino, Italy.
For information or to make a donation to the Channel Islands Ballet, call 384-8558 or 644-2253 or mail donations to P.O. Box 6395, Oxnard, CA 93031-6395.