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Famed Harlem troupe plans to end season

NEW YORK -- The Dance Theatre of Harlem, one of the most acclaimed dance troupes in the world, plans to disband its 44-member company and shut its doors for the rest of the 2004-05 season until its finances can be restructured, a dance union official said yesterday.

"They are taking a hiatus to restructure finances. It's no secret it has been quite challenging . . . so they made the decision with conversations with us that they want to go on hiatus for one year," said Deborah Allton, national dance executive director for The American Guild of Musical Artists, the dance union.

The Dance Insider Online, a popular website magazine, first reported the story yesterday. Ellen Zeisler, a publicist representing the 35-year-old Dance Theatre of Harlem, would not deny that Allton's comments were correct. Zeisler refused, however, to elaborate until a Dance Theatre of Harlem press conference that is now scheduled for Tuesday. Arthur Mitchell, the troupe's founder, also refused -- through Zeisler -- to comment until the press conference.

Allton said that Mitchell and the dance group's accountants and lawyers have been meeting with the union for the past few months to look at what could be done to keep the company afloat financially.

The dancers will still appear this month in the opening performance at City Center's "Fall for Dance Festival" in New York City, Allton said. The union reached an agreement with the center, she said, to ensure that dancers would be compensated for the event.

Allton also said letters have been sent out to dancers explaining the hiatus and informing them of health coverage and career counseling.

The troupe's dance school, which serves about 1,000 people, will remain open, she said.

"It's horrible," Allton said. "It's an incredible institution: Mr. Mitchell has great courage for his artistry and everything, but it takes a business side and artistic side to keep something going and I think it's probably a wise decision. Actually -- the only decision. He did everything he could. It's time to step back and regroup."

Jaime Kotrba, a dancer with the troupe, said she has been away from New York City, but said she hadn't heard anything about the hiatus. "But there's always rumors going on," she said.

It has been no secret that the groundbreaking dance company was in danger of disbanding because of its financial woes. Mitchell told The New York Times in May that he would focus on the artistic side of running the company, while a new executive director would emphasize an effort to restructure its financial standing. According to the Times, the ballet company is $2.5 million in debt.

"It is time for me to move over," the Times quoted Mitchell as saying. "It is time for me to bring in a partner who is savvy, who can put together a working board, who has the clout . . . to bring money and infrastructure."

While Allton said it doesn't look as if things will turn around, Martin Fredmann, chief executive officer and artistic director of Colorado Ballet, said he believes they could. He said Colorado Ballet was in a similar position last year. After reorganization, he said his ballet is now buying a synagogue to house the company.

Allton said he believes the Dance Theatre of Harlem has the support in New York to regroup.

"We got so low because of debt that we thought we had to close our doors after February [2003] production," Fredmann said. "We were in the same position but things turned around. They didn't turn around because of luck or magic but because of the right people and the right chemistry. Everybody worked very hard and said we will do what it takes . . . I am sure a lot of people care about that company. It's very special."

In 1969, Mitchell and the late Karel Shook, a noted ballet teacher, founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which has gone on to be acclaimed as one of the best in the world. The neoclassical company has showcased dancers of all backgrounds, many of them poor children from urban America.

Sali Ann Kriegsman, a dance historian and former director of Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass., the oldest dance festival in the country, said it is not surprising that the company is having financial problems.

"It has struggled throughout its entire existence to keep afloat, and any time a company has to disband, you lose momentum, you lose dancers," Kriegsman said. "A dancer's life is short, and particularly so in the ballet world. But Arthur Mitchell is so extraordinarily inventive and indomitable, and he has such courage and commitment and passion for this that he will do everything in his power to keep the company as a flagship company for this country."

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