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Cleveland Ballet interim artistic director departs as investigation continues

Cleveland Ballet's annual production of "The Nutcracker" debuted at Playhouse Square just as its interim artistic director stepped down after three weeks, amid an investigation into allegations surrounding workplace culture. Timour Bourtasenkov, educated at the Bolshoi Ballet, now takes the artistic reins.
Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Ballet's annual production of "The Nutcracker" debuted at Playhouse Square just as its interim artistic director stepped down after three weeks, amid an investigation into allegations surrounding workplace culture. Timour Bourtasenkov, educated at the Bolshoi Ballet, now takes the artistic reins.

Cleveland Ballet has lost another member of its leadership team as an investigation continues into allegations of body shaming and other work culture issues.

Cynthia Graham is no longer serving as interim artistic director after taking on the role last month. She replaced the company’s co-founder, Gladisa Guadalupe, who has been on suspension during the investigation. Guadalupe’s husband and co-founder, Michael Krasnyansky, resigned as CEO last month.

In a statement, Cleveland Ballet spokesperson Rena Vysnionis said that Graham had been a volunteer, who stepped in on a temporary basis to direct “The Nutcracker” after Guadalupe’s departure.

“She was not asked to leave the position,” Vysnionis wrote. Timour Bourtasenkov will take over the production. He began his professional education with the Bolshoi Ballet, eventually coming to America co-founding Carolina Ballet.

Graham and Guadalupe have been accused of plagiarizing choreography for the current Cleveland Ballet “Nutcracker.” They both danced under choreographer Dennis Nahat for the previous incarnation of Cleveland Ballet, which closed in 2000.

Nahat said he was “surprised” at seeing his moves after seeing video of the current production at Playhouse Square.

“Other dancers have called me since this and said, ‘We thought you gave them permission,’” he said. “Never once did I get a call from them, including board members who are responsible because they have to know what they're putting on the stage. If they don't know… and can say to the public that, ‘We have to get expertise to know what we're looking at,’ then they don't belong on that board because they don't know what they're doing.”

Vysnionis acknowledged the allegations and said they’re being investigated, but she added that it’s a complex issue “on which reasonable minds could differ. Gladisa Guadalupe and Cynthia Graham have expressly and repeatedly denied any plagiarism…” Nahat isn’t currently planning any legal action over the issue.

Graham came to Cleveland in 1976 to dance with a previous incarnation of Cleveland Ballet, retiring after dancing “The Nutcracker” on New Year’s Eve in 1992.

During a media preview earlier this month, Graham praised her dancers as “passionate and dedicated” while admitting that it was an “unexpected” move to take the artistic helm at a crucial time.

“I certainly have always handled rehearsals, helped coach and that kind of thing,” she said on Dec. 1. “This was unexpected to take on this large job. It's going really well. It's a lot of work, I'm not going to lie, stuff I never knew I'd have to do again. But the dancers are lovely. The whole staff is lovely, and I think we're getting along great.”

A petition was started last month asking for Guadalupe to be reinstated. The organizer, Svetlana Stolyarova of Cleveland Heights, said she’s known the company’s founders since 2011. She called the allegations “nonsense” and said coverage of the investigation has been one-sided. In response to the accusations of body shaming, the petition cites Guadalupe’s work with a Cuban dancer who was hired at a time he “was discouraged and carrying extra weight, yet Gladisa recognized his talent and potential.” It further states that this demonstrates Guadalupe’s “commitment to fostering talent, regardless of body size.”

Personally, Stolyarova said she did not support Krasnyansky’s resignation.

“I think it was a very emotional step by Michael,” she said. “He shouldn't do this. He was just protecting his family.”

Should the petition not be successful, she’s concerned for Cleveland Ballet’s future.

“The biggest thing which Cleveland Ballet may lose if Gladisa is not reinstated, is the loss of vision,” she said. “I hope that the board has some ideas of finding some brilliant choreographer as an artistic director or something like this. Or maybe they have other plans which were not voiced yet. It looks like a big threat… another attempt to kill the ballet company in Cleveland. We already lost two, right?”

The moves come as Cuyahoga Arts & Culture Board Member Charna Sherman suggested cutting funding to the company in the wake of the controversy at the board meeting Wednesday. Last month, the CAC board approved 2024 grants, including a 77% increase in Cleveland Ballet funding to $73,954. The board voted to delay entering into a formal funding agreement until the investigation is resolved.

Howard Bender, the ballet’s vice president of development, continues as interim CEO. His career includes 28 years as an operatic tenor. He most recently served as executive director of Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra.

The first incarnation of Cleveland Ballet lasted from 1935-1942. The second incarnation ran from 1972-2000, after which Nahat and much of the creative team moved to San Jose. The Guadalupe/Krasnyansky iteration made its stage debut in October 2015 at Playhouse Square and became a resident company in 2017.

Guadalupe, a native of Puerto Rico, studied under George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet in New York City. She also danced with the second incarnation of Cleveland Ballet and has been accused of plagiarism by Nahat. She founded what’s now known as the School of Cleveland Ballet in 2000, and she was honored with the Cleveland Arts Prize in 2022.

Updated: December 19, 2023 at 12:13 PM EST
This story was updated to include a comment from Dennis Nahat.
Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.