Venomous revolt costs US ballet director his job

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The Independent Online

For the American Ballet Theater, life has mirrored art. Among the troupe's most recent performances was La Bayadère, a tale of Indian temple dancers who settle their amorous quarrels with snake venom. Now the controversial director of one of the world's leading ballet companies has been toppled after a dispute as poisonous and exotic as any from the mysterious east.

After serving less than two years of his three-year contract, Louis Spisto resigned this week, overthrown by an uprising of employees, donors and trustees who could take no more of the turmoil caused by his autocratic management ways and expensive tastes, a disruptive staff turnover and allegations of sex and age discrimination in the company.

The trouble had been a long time in the making. Since Mr Spisto arrived in 1999, three-quarters of the ballet's 40 staff have been replaced and several long-standing board members have resigned. There were rumblings that management was spending too much on administration and too little on productions, culminating in a skit at last year's staff party when dancers mocked Mr Spisto's fondness for lavish restaurants with a rendition of the number "Big Spender" from the musical Sweet Charity.

Then in March a former employee, Elena Gordon, filed a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging the executive director had practised illegal sex and age discrimination by favouring young gay employees and working to "disengage" older members of the staff.

According to The New York Times, Ms Gordon accused Mr Spisto, who is openly gay, of creating a hostile work environment. The case has yet to be resolved. But the tensions also reflected big-time ballet's idiosyncratic and introverted culture.

Mr Spisto had split the dance world. For admirers, he was a lively innovator and skilful marketer of the performing arts, a sorely needed breath of fresh air for the enclosed world of classical dance. His reputation had been made during acclaimed tenures at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and most recently the Detroit Symphony, which he left to join the American Ballet Theater in August 1999.

Outwardly, the success continued after his return to his native New York. With all parties this week denying he had been forced out, Mr Spisto told The New York Times that "I feel great about my accomplishments", especially his campaign to increase the company's business. And indeed, spring ticket revenues this year rose almost 9 per cent.

But while the revenues were rising the rebellion was about to explode. Lewis Geyser, a rich Californian trustee, had been dismayed by what he believed to be the poor conducting standards of La Bayadère, and circulated a three-page memorandum to the board, listing his concerns. That prompted three more trustees to resign. At first Mr Spisto and the board president, Edward Fox, played down the trouble. Then they bowed to the inevitable. "It's very hard to run an entity this size with even a modest amount of dissidents," Mr Fox acknowledged to the Times.

The rebels were ecstatic. "It's remarkable when you take a stand and you think nothing is going to happen," one said. "I didn't think the board had the power and I thought Lew Geyser was Don Quixote."

Mr Spisto is to stay with the company temporarily, to work on special projects. "What an exciting season lies ahead," the toppled executive director had written in a newsletter to patrons and sponsors this spring. Exciting, certainly, but surely not quite as he imagined.