Kathryn Bennetts sets the date to quit the Royal Ballet of Flanders

The artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders will leave the company on June 30 and David Dawson’s new production of Giselle, due to premiere in June, has been cancelled.

Kathryn Bennetts has bravely fought against government plans to cut back the Antwerp-based company’s budget and merge the administration with the Flemish Opera since 2010 (see story below).

News of her imminent departure – and the cancellation of Giselle – was posted on the company’s website today.

“The Board of Directors of the Royal Ballet of Flanders has taken note of the reaction by Artistic Director Kathryn Bennetts.

“Following the board meeting on Monday 23rd January, Ms Bennetts was offered the artistic leadership of this company for one final season (2012/ 2013) and within the current available budget.

“Kathryn Bennetts has informed the board of her decision that she will only be available as Artistic Director until the end of her current contract on June 30, 2012.

“The Board of Directors expresses its appreciation for the tireless dedication and the artistic achievements of Kathryn Bennetts. Since 2005 she has succeeded to raise the company to a level of excellence acknowledged through the international successes of the company in Venice, London, New York, Paris, etc…

“The Board understands the current dismay and disappointment of the dancers and expresses its admiration of the way the company takes its responsibility to continue performing Sleeping Beauty this week under the current circumstances.

“At this point, the main concern of the board is to assure the continuation of this classical ballet company. In the interest of the dancers, staff and the loyal public of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, the Board of Directors will do its utmost in its search for a new Artistic Director.

“In agreement with the Minister of Culture, Joke Schauvliege, the Board has decided unanimously to present the budget for 2012 with a minimum deficit. This budget includes the performances of Sleeping Beauty in Antwerp and Gent, the premiere of the program Tussen Hemel en Aarde and the performances of Artifact in London and Birmingham.

“A solution for the cancellation of the premiere of David Dawson’s Giselle is looked into. By taking these measures the Board of Directors wishes to safeguard a swift transition towards a new artistic leadership”.

Just what happened at the board meeting of 23 January is not clear at this stage. It appears that the board itself decided to cancel Giselle.

Bennetts announced in October 2010 that she would leave the company in June 2012 due to the government’s decision. So it’s not clear why the board thought it could tempt her to stay one more year during which she would be overseeing both a diminished repertoire and a smaller budget.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders has 50 dancers. I think the board’s reference to “dismay and disappointment” might be an understatement. Fury might be a more appropriate word as it is hard to see how the company can now maintain that many dancers.

The company is now in the same unfortunate situation as the English National Ballet, both with very little time to find a new artistic director, and both with unhappy dancers who fear for their future.

The article below was first published in The Australian on 8 November, 2010.

When a performing arts company implodes within the top ranks, the loudest noises are usually heard offstage. Not this time.

The pain of Kathryn Bennetts, artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium is out there, online, and on screens, around the world.

Bennetts, an Australian based in Europe for more than 30 years, is frank, forceful, and very public as she speaks of her dismay at a government decision to take away her autonomy and authority.

The plan, to merge the ballet with the Flemish Opera, would mean one administrator would be responsible for both programming and budgets. It’s the programming part that hurts most.

In a highly emotional interview telecast by the Flemish broadcaster VRT, Bennetts called the proposal “ignorant and arrogant,” and said, “I do the programming.”

As for the Flemish culture minister, Joke Schauvliege, who oversaw the decision, Bennetts said “she shouldn’t pretend to know anything about the arts. She should listen to experts, like me”.

The interview, recorded immediately after Bennetts heard the news, has gone viral with a Youtube video attracting thousands of views, a Save the Royal Ballet of Flanders Facebook page and this week’s new ballet support group website complete with petition.

“Officially I have resigned”, Bennetts told The Australian, “but the way I see it, I haven’t resigned. I’ve been fired”.

Bennetts, one of the few women at the helm of a ballet company anywhere in the world, said she had no plans to return to Australia as all her energy was directed into fighting for the independence of her company. She plans to stay in her job until her contract expires in 2012.

“I could have just walked out, I was tempted, but I care about this company. I’m like a mother with my cubs. We have tours lined up in London, Birmingham and Paris next year. I want the company to do these tours.

“I’ve said to the company, ‘let’s go for it, we’re going to have a party’. I’ve told the dancers ‘don’t be radical right now, don’t move, let’s hope it can all be saved.’”

The crisis at the company has become a new focus of the angst in Europe over cutbacks to arts budgets in the wake of the weaker euro and the aftershocks of the global financial crisis.

Dance companies elsewhere, especially in the United States, where budgets have been decimated already, have looked to European governments as the saviours of the arts. That’s no longer the case.

Grants made to performing arts groups in the United Kingdom are to be cut by 15 per cent by 2015. In the Netherlands, the government plans cuts of 24 per cent and in the city of Hamburg, cuts of €8 million are expected.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders, based in Antwerp, is Belgium’s only classical ballet company. It has struggled financially for years.

Bennetts had been hoping to add €2 million to its annual budget but believes the government is planning to slash the existing budget of €5.6 million. Companies of a similar size in Europe, with approximately 50 dancers, have an average operational budget of €20 million.

Bennetts, now in her mid 50s, took up her position in 2005 following a crisis at the Frankfurt Ballet, where, for 15 years, she worked as ballet mistress alongside William Forsythe, the company’s artistic director.

Forsythe, a revolutionary choreographer who took ballet by the scuff of its neck and gave it a good shake, became too avant-garde for city of Frankfurt, which funded the company.

In 2002, when Forsythe was forced out, he described those who made the decision as people who “want ballet as part of the fine-dining experience, something like Swan Lake that won’t disturb their dinner conversation or give them indigestion.”

The Royal Ballet of Flanders has many Forsythe ballets in its repertoire, it also has the classics, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, along with ballets by George Balanchine, Jiri Kylian, the British choreographer in residence, David Dawson, and a new work to come by Garry Stewart, the artistic director of the Australian Dance Theatre.

Although Bennetts left Australia many years ago, she maintains her connections here, and in 2001, was shortlisted for the artistic directorship of the Australian Ballet. In the end, David McAllister was appointed to the position, succeeding Ross Stretton moved to the Royal Ballet in London.

Like McAllister, Bennetts was a graduate of the Australian Ballet School which she joined at 15 after training with the Borovansky Scully School of Ballet in Sydney. From 1973 to 1975, she was a member of the Australian Ballet before joining the Stuttgart Ballet where she spent nine years before an injury ended her dancing career.

Bennetts has been immersed in the ballet world for almost all her life which is why she is so incensed about the changes proposed by the culture minister who, last year, when she took the portfolio of Environment, Nature and Culture, admitted that she knew practically nothing about the arts.

The minister, Bennetts said, did not seem to understand that ballet’s independence from its traditional position – of being subservient to opera – had been hard won.
“This company”, said Bennetts, “started in the opera and gained its independence and left”.

“When she (Schauvliege) became a minister she had not seen the ballet or opera. She did an interview recently where she said she didn’t need to know anything about culture. Imagine if a finance minister said he didn’t know anything about finance, how outraged people would be. How can it be OK for a minister of culture not know anything about culture?”

During the period when the merger plan was being drawn up, Bennetts told a member of her board, (who is also the liaison person with the government), that if it went ahead, “you need to know if that were happen I would not be here. I’m not interested. They went ahead and did it anyway. They knew what I said so I considered I had been pushed out”.

In response to the Save the Ballet campaign, the minister said earlier this week that under the proposed merger, the ballet would retain its artistic independence

Bennetts concedes that “a ballet company is expensive, it doesn’t make money, that’s our problem today” but she believes that the proposed administrative fusion of her company and the opera went ahead it would not save money.

In any case, “it’s not always about money. People need inspiration in their lives, their souls need to be fed. This has struck a nerve in artists having to defend what they do”.