In post-Irving era, Oregon Ballet Theatre puts trust in Franc
The most exciting news of Peter Franc's summer has been that he and his wife welcomed their second daughter. Before being a dancer at Oregon Ballet Theatre or a teacher for OBT2 or now taking on a new artistic director role, Franc considered himself a "family man" first.
But, Franc's career world also has changed dramatically in the past year.
His 17-year dancing career, which culminated with being an OBT principal dancer, ended due to a chronic back injury sustained in March. Because of company shutdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions, dancers had to train on their own and "every time we came back to work from a lockdown period, (the back) would go out. … I thought it would heal from down time, but I danced with a compromised back, and it would still go out. I'm still doing therapy to get back to a normal, comfortable way of life."
And then, just weeks ago, it was announced that Franc would be taking over as interim artistic director as Oregon Ballet Theatre parted ways with Kevin Irving in a move that has brought more questions than answers.
So, as OBT prepares for its 2021-22 season, fresh off doing some outdoor performances, it's Franc in charge of the artistic side. He welcomed the move, and OBT plans to conduct a nationwide search for a full-time artistic director — the company has featured only three ADs in James Canfield, Christopher Stowell and Irving (for the past eight years) in its 32-year existence.
"I've always been interested in artistic leadership, and I'm excited to build on the success of OBT in the past," said Franc, who is non-committal about wanting the full-time AD position. "OBT is really healthy. I'm just going to do the best job I can one year at a time."
Said Thomas Bruner, OBT executive director: "Peter is smart and seasoned and savvy and plenty talented. He has been invited to be part of (the AD search), whatever extent he chooses. But, it's bittersweet to watch him retire after six years as principal dancer."
Looming over OBT and Franc is the separation situation with Irving. The company announced his resignation June 25, and the news release included a quote from Irving: "OBT and the OBT School are both in a better place financially and artistically than when I arrived eight years ago. I leave with many fond memories of my years here and of the talented professionals with whom I worked."
But Oregon Arts Watch shared contents of a letter that Irving sent to friends and supporters, saying OBT asked him to resign. The Oregon Arts Watch article quoted the letter and Irving stating that the OBT board "decided to go in a different direction" and "required" his resignation.
"This was an unexpected development," Irving wrote. "Having lost the confidence of the board, and given the alternatives available to me, my only choice was to accede to their request that I resign — albeit with a heavy heart."
Bruner would not comment on why Irving resigned and referred to a prepared statement that said "a resolution" had been approved to "end (Irving's) tenure with the company."
Oregon Ballet Theatre had an outside public relations person handle the communication. It read: "As a professional organization and out of respect for its employees, Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) has had a long-standing policy of not disclosing confidential, sensitive, and private personnel information. Recently, OBT's Board of Trustees was notified that Kevin Irving, the former Artistic Director, has been discussing his separation with OBT with the public, including members of the media, donors, and other community members.
"While the OBT Board disagrees with many of Mr. Irving's comments, it is true that the Board approved a resolution to end his tenure with the company. This resolution was a thoughtful, considered Board decision with sufficient reason and authority to act. Regarding additional elements of the statements, it is in the best interest of OBT and any employer to not diverge from a policy of protecting employee information, including the details of Mr. Irving's separation."
The Oregon Arts Watch story also reported that Nicolo Fonte, Irving's life partner for nearly three decades, immediately quit his position as OBT resident choreographer. Contacted through email and Facebook Messenger with questions, Irving refrained from commenting.
"No comment right now but glad you are asking questions," he wrote.
Artistic management upheaval aside, Oregon Ballet Theatre has added some dancers and promoted others from OBT2, its second company, and financially it is solid, Bruner said.
"I am bullish on OBT," he said, adding that the OBT board "is strong and seasoned … school leadership is amazing … and our education committee engagement is on fire, reaching 34,000 kids last year, half of them students of color." About 240 students have started ballet in the past year, including online.
Oregon Ballet Theatre "has operated in the black for years; we are debt-free as an organization, and we're going to end this year again in the black. We now have a full season and we're returning to live performance at the Keller (Auditorium) and Newmark (Theatre) and brining as many as 55,000 people back into downtown," Bruner added.
Even the biggest of companies face an unknown future after COVID-19 — OBT among them — although Bruner said surveys of subscribers and ticket buyers indicate that people should be returning in large numbers to OBT performances.
"I don't anticipate all of us coming back the same way as before COVID … my goal is, don't come back the same, but come back better, smarter, more nimble and adaptive and more creative than before," Bruner said.
Franc said he took influences from Stowell, as well as Irving, who helped expand "the dance vocabulary" in the company through diversity of ballets and instructors.
"That's something I'm passionate about and I want to appreciate and celebrate all dance styles," he said. "And I like the voices of the future and hearing underrepresented voices in the community, and I also love the tradition of classical ballet and seeing the form evolve. The ability of OBT to perform a wide range of rep suits my outlook and perspective."
For more on Bruner and OBT's upcoming season, see obt.org.
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