Leader Steps Down From First State Ballet Theatre

After 15 years, the First State Ballet Theatre faces a future without its founding pro-bono executive director. What next?

It’s been a watershed season for First State Ballet Theatre. Having celebrated its 15th year in November, the only professional ballet company in Delaware has expanded both the number of performances and number of venues for the season. It has grown its outreach efforts. It has increased collaborations with other arts organizations. It has staged original performances. It has remained in the black without ever having borrowed a penny. It has, in short, gone where few other arts organizations have gone in recent years—up—despite dwindling public funding, nearly extinct corporate support and ever-increasing competition for people’s attention and ticket sales. Now it faces a challenge: In June, executive director Robert Grenfell and his wife, Mary Anne, the business manager, will step down after a decade and a half of volunteer leadership.

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Not only would replacing Grenfell, whose service has saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, become a major new expense, his departure could leave a big vacuum in leadership. “We have organized our lives around ensuring the success of this company, so we definitely have bittersweet feelings about leaving,” says Grenfell, 68. But with eldercare issues and other concerns crashing down, “We’ve just gotten to the point where it’s too complicated to do everything we need to do in our lives.” FSBT was chartered in 1999, then debuted at the University of Delaware with a performance of “Coppélia” in May 2000. Two years later, it began its evolution toward a statewide presence by performing at the Georgetown campus of Delaware Tech. That performance, featuring a session with the flute-harp duo SPARX, began a continuing history of collaborating with other organizations to promote the arts across the board. “We were collaborative before the C-word became the buzz word in the arts,” Grenfell says.

In 2003, then-Mayor James Baker, always trying to expand Wilmington’s cultural offerings, wooed FSBT to The Grand Opera House. With new studios there and a record of successful performances, FSBT launched a professional company of 10 dancers in 2008. It has since grown to 22.Since then, FSBT has premiered major works in Delaware and it has pioneered new ones. In 2009, for example, superstar Viktor Plotnikov created “Everlasting Arms,” a series of dance vignettes based on sculptures by beloved local artist Charles Parks. “Everlasting” made its world premier in Delaware, as have two other ballets by Plotnikov, a five-time best choreographer winner at several international competitions. Last year, FSBT staged “Irene,” an all-Delaware production scored by guitarist Sean Dougherty and choreographed by FSBT vet Alex Bruckner. The story of a young dancer who joins the biggest ballet company in her city only to learn it is composed of vampires, “Irene” was a perfect introduction to ballet for the “Twilight” generation. Though far from a sellout, the show proved valuable in cultivating a new audience, and it showed that there was an appetite for edgy art. What’s more, FSBT students have qualified to compete in the world finals of the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix for the past 10 years, an FSBT student became one of only two dancers in the United States to compete in the Prix de Lausanne, FSBT has danced at the famous Spoleto Festival dei Due Mondi in Italy, and artistic director Pasha Kambalov has twice judged the World Ballet Competition.

All of which has given FSBT some international profile, yet here, Grenfell says, it is still under-known. Key to FSBT’s solvency has been a solid corps of volunteers who have contributed services from accounting to legal aid, with everything from set building to marketing in-between. Grenfell himself still loads the dance floor and drives the truck when FSBT takes to the road. About five years ago, FSBT started replacing volunteers with contractors and paid staff. Dancers, artistic staff and the business manager are now paid positions. So is the development director, though the grant that funds that position expires in June. By then, FSBT will need to pay a development director on its own and, Grenfell hopes, an executive director. “It’s a real donnybrook,” says board member Virginia Harcke. “Robert has such knowledge about the state and knowledge about how arts organizations can function successfully. It’s not clear there will be a volunteer. We need to clone him.” The alternative to a paid director is a division of Grenfell’s myriad duties among the board members—a workable, if not ideal, arrangement. “It would become an extremely different company,” Grenfell says. For now he remains “guardedly optimistic.” Come what may, he says, he’ll do what he can—short of day-to-day administration—to make sure FSBT continues to succeed. FSBT will present “The Young Lady and the Hooligan” and “Carmen” at The Grand Opera House on Feb. 28.

Photo by Ron Dubick

Executive director Robert Grenfell will step down in June after 15 years of volunteer leadership of the ballet.

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