An April letter from former dancers at Ballet San Antonio alleging a “culture of fear” and abusive behavior in the studio prompted the company’s board of directors to launch an internal investigation, board chairwoman Lisa Westmoreland said Thursday.
Specific allegations in the April 16 letter to the board – with what appears to be an introduction and seven separate accounts from former dancers – included verbal abuse, body-shaming, manipulation, and bullying by “those who are in positions of power within the organization.”
The letter states that a total of 23 dancers have left the company within the past two seasons, since the hiring of Artistic Director Willy Shives in 2015. Westmoreland confirmed that of those 23, 19 signed their names to the letter.
As soon as the letter was received, Westmoreland said she “immediately [started] a process of speaking to everybody – former dancers, current dancers – and [began] an internal investigation and internal conversations on what really is going on in the studio.”
Westmoreland says turnover in arts organizations is not untypical, but she also acknowledged that it is unusual for the board to hear such statements from former dancers. She said the board takes seriously the issues raised and is working to ensure a healthy workplace.
“We as a board are completely committed to making sure that our dancers always feel safe, and supported, and taken care of, and nurtured, and motivated to be the best dancers that they can be,” Westmoreland said.
She said the board spoke with Shives about the allegations, and that “he adamantly denies promoting a culture of fear.”
Shives sent a statement to the Rivard Report via email: “I have the utmost respect for everyone involved with Ballet San Antonio (BSA), including the dancers, ballet master, administration and board. I was brought on two years ago to help rebuild BSA and elevate the company to a new artistic level. The recent issues raised by former dancers were a surprise to me and BSA. However, I am committed to work with our BSA administration and board to address the concerns and make any necessary improvements for the benefit of BSA, especially, our dancers.”
Shives identified as a major priority “collaborating with and responding to our dancers’ feedback.”
In a Thursday interview with the Rivard Report about the board’s approach, Westmoreland said, “We feel that we are uncovering areas in which we need to improve,” including communication, morale, and dancers “understanding the different policies and procedures that are going on in the studio, and how things are done.”
Allegations of trouble within the company of Ballet San Antonio first came to light in an April 14 Facebook and blog post by one of its dancers, Jenna Stamm, which began, “I have kept quiet about the issues going on in Ballet San Antonio for too long.”
She described feeling “terrified to come forward,” and made a plea: “Change must be made. It is the 21st century and abusive behavior in the workforce is no longer tolerated.”
Another post, dated that same day, announced her retirement from Ballet San Antonio.
Whether any of this is unusual in the highly competitive atmosphere of ballet companies is in question. Westmoreland, to whom the letter was addressed, said Thursday such turnover is not uncommon.
“I would think that any time an artistic direction changes, people leave or don’t get asked back. I would imagine that that’s fairly common in arts organizations,” she said.
Moreover, Westmoreland said, “Our artistic director … is always trying to encourage his dancers to build themselves as artists, and so I know he has in the past encouraged people to go auditon other places, and I know that is a fairly common practice.”
However, she emphasized that it is not common for the board to receive
such a letter from former dancers, and that the concerns of current dancers have been, and will continue to be, addressed.
“We have talked to them about steps that we will take to make sure there is never a culture of fear … in our studios,” she said, “because we know as a board that is not a healthy place to work, and we don’t ever want to promote that type of environment.”
Westmoreland plans to hold “town hall” meetings early next week between dancers, board members, and staff, including Shives and Ballet San Antonio Executive Director Evin Eubanks. The meetings will “collect all of the information to make sure that we understand what everybody’s issues are,” Westmoreland said. The meetings will be held monthly going forward, she added.
Asked whether dancers currently employed by the company would feel comfortable expressing their views in front of management as openly as former dancers have in the letter, Westmoreland said, “Our intent is to be present, and as much as we can, more involved in the day-to-day operations of the ballet … until we know that the current dancers are talking to us freely. We believe they already are. We believe we have a good trust relationship with them, but we have told them that we will continue to be available in a position of oversight if they need us.”
The executive director will be “more present with the dancers … as well,” she said.
“We want to foster an environment of open communication, and a very positive work environment,” Westmoreland said. “The only way to make the organization really strong for all of us to be on the same page.”
One issue aired in multiple statements in the April 16 letter concerns nepotism. Cecily Romaynne Shives, the artistic director’s daughter, was hired as a member of the corps de ballet despite an anti-nepotism clause clearly visible in the organization’s federal Form 990, tax documents every nonprofit is required to file and make publicly available.
“When the dancer was hired, the board agreed to a one-year exception to that clause,” Westmoreland said. However, “We’ve done away with any issues of nepotism … most definitely,” she said. “It’s been addressed and taken care of. We didn’t know it was an issue until these letters came out, or we would have addressed it much sooner.”
Without identifying Shives by name, Westmoreland said, “That dancer will just not be given a contract to return here.”
Regarding other concerns raised during discussions with dancers, Westmoreland said, “There were concerns that were brought to us about lack of inspiration, or lack of artistic direction, all of that has been addressed … with the artistic director,” and others, “letting them know that the expectations are higher, that we want more for our dancers.”
Westmoreland said she has also reached out in an attempt to meet with the anonymous dancers who contributed to the April 16 letter, to hear their concerns and update them on steps already taken and planned to address the situation.
The board will then discuss at a regularly scheduled Tuesday board meeting whether further steps are necessary, Westmoreland said.