The messages started coming in Monday evening. A concerned teacher was worried about several dancers she knew at American National Ballet—did we know what was going on? Later that night, more information started emerging on social media—and it was clear something was up at the Charleston, South Carolina–based company.
We've been interested in ANB since its debut was first announced in April—not only was it a brand new company, but one with close to 50 dancers, and some major names attached, like Rasta Thomas, Sara Michelle Murawski and Jessica Saund. The founders, Doug and Ashley Benefield, had few ballet credentials but they made an encouraging promise to highlight diversity, hiring dancers of different body types and races. A story in Charleston's The Post & Courier reported that they had a strategic business plan to support the company through for-profit ventures such as a licensing enterprise, a dancewear line and an academy.
So what happened? Here's what we know so far:
Many Dancers Were Let Go on Monday
Beth Bogush, the company's chief operating officer, executive director and artistic adviser says that seven corps members and 10 second company members were laid off, although several sources, including The Post & Courier, have said the total number is 23 (11 company dancers and 12 apprentices and second company members). "The company was formed with a large amount of dancers," says Bogush. "But some of the commitments for funding fell through."
She says all the dancers let go have been encouraged to stay and train at the school, and have been invited to take company class for free. (However, the dancers we spoke to said the company class offer is only good for the next two weeks.) Some corps members were offered second company positions, which pay a stipend. Administrators are also trying to reach out to local contacts to see if they can set the dancers up with jobs teaching or guesting in Nutcracker productions.
A Merger Will Soon Be Announced
The main reason for the layoffs is that ANB is planning to merge with another company. Bogush says details on that will be made public in a couple of weeks.
"We had to let go some of the dancers who didn't meet the criteria for the new company, which will perform classical ballet, neoclassical ballet and musical theater," she says. According to Bogush, the company that ANB will merge with plans to relocate to Charleston, and the combined company will have about 30 dancers, including those that ANB has kept.
Company members were told of the merger on Friday and asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. One dancer who spoke on condition of anonymity says that she didn't understand what the agreement was for. "We were under the impression that it was in regards to the company merge, but that was never confirmed," says the dancer, adding that she did not receive a signed copy back from management. A second young dancer, who also did not want to be identified, says she found the language vague and confusing, and adds that they were given the choice to sign or leave the room. "So everyone signed. I didn't understand a word it said."
Monday's announcement came as a surprise. "We knew in advance that there were going to be some changes made, but we weren't expecting a mass firing," says the first dancer. She added that those whose contracts were terminated were not offered severance pay.
There Has Been a Revolving Door of Artistic Directors
Unfortunately, this turnover isn't altogether surprising. Octavio Martin, a former principal with Cuban National Ballet and Sarasota Ballet, was originally named artistic director last spring. In August, however, ANB's website suddenly announced that Rasta Thomas would be artistic director, with Martin leading the second company. Both names were removed a few weeks later. Bogush says the new artistic director will come from the company that ANB is merging with, and Alexandre Proia will lead the second company.
Part of the reason that so many changes have happened so quickly is because there was a transition in management this summer, which Bogush says was due to personal issues. "The new management represents a new vision," she explains.
"The company was founded by a group of people with an idea in mind to highlight diversity, so we—close to 50 dancers—signed on for that," says former ANB dancer Christopher Charles McDaniel, who resigned earlier this month. "But between being hired in June and arriving in September, that group shifted. That left us dancers with new management that had never seen us, and were confused about what to do with us."
He adds that for the first pay period, the dancers were paid in cash. Their second check came from a company in New York City.
When we reached out to founding executive director Ashley Benefield, she told us that she has been out of state on maternity leave for the past few months and had limited contact with anyone at ANB—and only found out about the firings second-hand. "They have destroyed everything we worked to build, and I no longer want anything to do with the company," she says. "It makes me sick. My heart goes out to all these dancers."
Performance Plans Are Still In The Works
As of now, planned performances include a Salon Series next month and a gala at Charleston's Gaillard Center in December.
Bogush says choreographers including Broadway's Warren Carlyle, Complexions' Dwight Rhoden and the second company's artistic advisor Francesca Harper will be setting work on the ANB dancers in the new year. The company will also be working with the RKO Stage catalogue to produce musical theater works.
On Tuesday night, principal dancer Sara Michelle Murawski, who has been the face of the company since its founding, shared her letter of resignation on social media.
For those who have been let go, many are trying to figure out their next step, in terms of finding work and breaking their leases. Both of the anonymous dancers we spoke with say that they believe management is assisting those with leases in an apartment complex that the company partners with.
"I really hope for those who are still here, that the new company can turn into something great," says the first dancer. "It was such a beautiful group."