After a decade and a half as executive director of First State Ballet Theatre, Robert Grenfell has decided to step down at the end of the calendar year, instead of next month.
Robert Grenfell and his wife, Mary Anne, the company’s business manager, have agreed to stay on for the rest of 2015 to ensure a smooth transition and to work to secure funding.
The decision to leave the day-to-day administration of the company was a painful but necessary one. “I’m going to be 69 in the not-too-distant future and then there are elder care issues and other things we’re involved in,” says Grenfell.
Under Grenfell’s stewardship, FSBT has grown from a Newport, Del.-based school in 1999 to become the most active professional performing arts organization in the state. Among his accomplishments: he funded and built the company’s state-of-the-art studios at the Grand Opera House; established a performance presence in all three Delaware counties; expanded the number of performances per season; increased outreach efforts and pioneered creative collaborations with OperaDelaware, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, SPARX and the Wilmington Children’s Chorus.
National and international recognition soon followed. FSBT’s roster has included dancers from across the U.S. as well as Japan, Guam, Moldova and Georgia. “There is not a week that goes by that we do not get YouTube clips and resumes from dancers all over the world,” says Grenfell.
What’s more, FSBT dancers have participated in some of the world’s most prestigious competitions and festivals, including the Youth America Grand Prix, the Prix de Lausanne and the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy. Additionally, artistic director Pasha Kambalov has twice judged the World Ballet Competition.
Recognition at home has been harder to achieve, though. “It’s disappointing,” says Grenfell. “We awaken every morning trying to think of more successful ways to persuade Delawareans that ballet is beautiful, that they are fortunate to have this company.”
One of Grenfell’s strategies has been to plan programs with the broadest possible draw. Last year, the company appealed to the “Twilight” generation with the world premier of the Gothic vampire ballet “Irene,” scored by Delaware guitarist Shaun Dougherty and choreographed by FSBT veteran Alex Bruckner.
In February, FSBT presented sold-out performances of the contemporary ballet “The Young Lady and the Hooligan” and “Carmen.” “It was the first time we got a standing ovation at intermission,” says Grenfell.
No doubt FSBT has benefitted from the hard work of a dedicated cadre of volunteers, including Grenfell who serves pro bono. About five years ago, the company began replacing volunteers with contactors and paid professionals – dancers, artistic staff and the business manager are now compensated. Two years ago a grant supplied funding for a development director but that money expires in June and will not be renewed.
Finding a replacement with Grenfell’s experience, savvy and commitment will be a challenge. “He’s been a powerhouse and a wonderful leader of this organization,” says board member Virginia Harcke. “He’s a retired business executive and had all sorts of contacts and that really was a wonderful start when we became a professional company (in 2008), so that’s something that’s really hard to fill.”
Grenfell will spend the next several months working to ensure the viability of the company he has worked so hard to build. “I hope that by the end of that time I will have persuaded enough corporations, foundations, government officials and individuals that they’re darned lucky to have an organization this fine right here in our city and performing throughout our state and if they support us, we will continue forever.”