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John Krasno has done many things in his lifetime, but what he does best is breathe life into what others say is beyond saving.
Nearly three years into his role as Oklahoma City Ballet executive director — and with tons of vision from Artistic Director Robert Mills — Krasno seems to have given the Oklahoma City Ballet a new lease on life.
“We are, literally, the most ambitious ballet company of our size in America,” he says. “The number of world premieres, the number of full-length ballets we commission, including scores, is the same as ballet companies three times our size. There is no one making as much out of as little as we are.”
Nearly 2,400 patrons filled the Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre in Feburary for a rare triple bill featuring Mills’ take on The Firebird.
BREAKING A LEG It wasn’t always this way. Just a year before Krasno arrived, the ballet was hemorrhaging financially. Mills was hired in 2008 as the Oklahoma City Ballet was in a state of disarray.
He chuckles when the previous Ballet Oklahoma was described as the redheaded stepchild of the Oklahoma City arts community. Having worked a couple of two-year contracts with the company as a dancer, he felt he understood what it needed.
“I got a call from someone on the board at the time, and he said, ‘Help,’” Mills says. “They had let go the previous director, and they didn’t know where they were going to turn. I was happy to step in.”
He poured all of his creative focus into improvements.
“It really was a sinking ship,” Mills says. “The fact was, no one was coming to the shows. It tells you the product wasn’t up to par. People weren’t responding to the product, they weren’t buying the product. When your product is not being bought, you have financial issues.”
Today’s Oklahoma City Ballet features a much better product. Mills has brought in higher quality worldwide performers. Now, it’s not rare to see New York City choreographers setting up shows in OKC.
“I’m proud to say the productions are strong,” Mills says. “There are things the company didn’t have previously.”
Krasno says its buzz has continued to improve, as financial stability and community support grow to possibly the best they have been in the ballet’s 40-year history.
Krasno has sold cameras to the movie industry, owned his own company, consulted wealthy individuals, and worked in the high-tech and artificial-intelligence industries. But his magnum opus may be the resurrection of the ballet.
When he first arrived, the company’s annual budget was around $1.2 million. This upcoming season, the ballet should top $2.4 million. Foundation giving has climbed, as has corporate giving; Krasno has more than doubled the amount of grants received.
Last season, the troupe had its first organized fundraising campaign, and Mills says the group maintains more transparency in its financials. Community outreach has increased exponentially with the company going into public schools to drum up interest.
Mills already has titled next season, Raising the Bar.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but I have greater aspirations,” he says. “I really don’t put a glass ceiling on what I think Oklahoma City Ballet is capable of.”
He says the group will undertake the ballet’s most historic work in Swan Lake, and has aspirations of national touring.
New Yorker Nicolo Fonte, who has choreographed shows around the globe, will bring his talents to town during the next two-year season, which will feature a number of world premieres.
And it’s all because Mills and Krasno saw something worth saving.