Now financially stable, new home, new projects, school expansion take center stage

COURTESY PHOTOS: JAMES MCGREW - The School of Oregon Ballet Theatre will be opening a new space in West Linn. Images from the Annual School Performance at Newmark Theatre in April are Nicolo Fontes Accidental Signals and A Grand Etude.Oregon Ballet Theatre, which, over the years, has produced such great works under the guidance of artistic directors James Canfield and Christopher Stowell and now Kevin Irving, continues to evolve off the dance floor as much as on it.

Beset by financial problems a few years back, OBT started to rebuild and now finds itself expanding and charting its course toward better days. The company, now boasting a budget surplus, plans to move into its swanky new building in South Waterfront in January, relocating from its longtime spot at 818 S.E. Sixth Ave., and, at the same time, setting up residence at the site of the Moxie Dance company in West Linn to further expand its successful School of Oregon Ballet Theatre. And, there are many other things happening in what appears to be a promising time for the company entering its 26th season.

“It’s refreshing to see new leadership and board come in and really rally, learning from what (OBT) went through and invest in the mission and program to become a healthier company,” says Dennis Buehler, OBT’s fairly new executive director. “It’s not so much a rebuild, but a commitment to how we look at the next 25 years, dances and dance education.”

Indeed, OBT has focused much of its work on its school, trying to expand its annual student body as well as its summer intensive program. And, it has worked, as numbers have greatly increased — some 200 in the annual program, and 150 in the summer intensive — to the point where OBT took advantage of the Moxie Dance space becoming available and leased the property located at 19066 Willamette Drive. It’s a space that will allow expansion for its ballet school and serve Gladstone, Oregon City, West Linn, Lake Oswego and areas beyond, offering pre-ballet and early-level classes for children, “mommy-and-me” classes, and adult ballet and fitness classes in two studios.

The expansion comes in the wake of Oregon Ballet Theatre establishing the OBT2 pre-professional dance ensemble, a bridge program between OBT and the community that begins performances in smaller venues and spaces such as community centers and schools around the metro area in December. It was created by a M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust multiyear grant.

“It’s an exciting time for us,” says Anthony Jones, who just passed the two-year mark as school director. “The school is in a good healthy place to grow.

“We’re expanding our programming to a greater audience and focusing on a younger generation. There is a greater demand in the younger ages, for those trying ballet for the first time. Before, it was traveling a great distance for a pre-ballet class (to the ‘818’ location), and it didn’t seem to be a priority among parents. When (kids are) 10 to 13, parents will happily drive them. We started doing research and found that it’s very common now with ballet companies all over the United States to have these satellite schools. Boston Ballet has three satellite schools.”

Buehler says that before he, Irving and Jones arrived, the OBT management and board had discussed such moves, including finding another facility and expanding the school.

COURTESY: OREGON BALLET THEATRE - Oregon Ballet Theatres new space in West Linn is already advertising its classes.“We all recognized that the school has an enormous potential to grow, and how do we reach deeper out in the community and provide better access?” he says. “It was a bit unexpected that this space came available.”

The thing is other student-oriented companies also have looked to expand, including The Portland Ballet, which hired ex-OBT dancer/executive Anne Mueller as co-artistic director earlier this year. Mueller has taken The Portland Ballet youth ballet academy in new directions, increasing enrollment and helping with artistic initiatives. (Mueller has choreographed new pieces for The Portland Ballet that hit the stage next week).

Believe it or not, it’s a competitive business to attract top young dancers, including ballet dancers.

“No matter whoever else is out there, it’s a good move for our company, it’s going to expand our reach into the community,” Buehler says. “We’re blessed, quite frankly, to have the amount of dance here — not just schools, but companies such as The Portland Ballet, BodyVox, Northwest Dance Project, Polaris. Each one of us has our own little niche. Each serves the dance community in unique ways. We all work well together. I’d celebrate a community that invests in dance and theater and classical music.

“Coming into this year, OBT2 was a significant announcement for us, a capstone for our school. The Murdock Trust commitment is reflective of how we’re going about our work, a disciplined and stratetic view of putting a business plan in place and its alignment with the mission, and the excitement it puts into the company,” Buehler says.

Oregon Ballet Theatre has outgrown the “818” space in many ways, including school operations and for the professional company. The opportunity to lease the 14,000-square-foot property at 0720 S.W. Bancroft St., in South Waterfront, became available, and the company signed a seven-year lease.

“I won’t call it a new beginning, as much as a next step,” Buehler says. “We’ve been thinking about this type of move for some time. The space at ‘818’ has served us well for 15 years.”

The old building and property has been sold, and the sale only needs to be finalized. It will be zoned for commercial/residential mixed-use development in a centrally located part of inner Southeast.

“We were happy to eliminate our debt and take the next step for our program to expand to get healthier,” Buehler adds, “and move into a long-term home for us. It’s a message about health and growth and where the future may lie for OBT.”

In addition, Irving has been given the resources to enhance choreography. In the future, OBT plans more changes, including putting on a new outdoor performance series created solely by female choreographers. It’s expected to begin in 2017.

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