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American National Ballet in Charleston sued by former artistic director

November 24, 2017 GMT

Rasta Thomas, a respected dancer, choreographer and entrepreneur, signed a contract on July 19 making him artistic director of the nascent American National Ballet, based in Charleston. The news sent a buzz of excitement through the dance community.

On Aug. 22, he was fired.

“As the needs and circumstances of American National Ballet have evolved, the board is no longer in a position to move forward with evaluating your candidacy for Executive Artistic Director,” wrote CEO Doug Benefield in a letter to Thomas.

This month, Thomas filed a lawsuit in circuit court alleging breach of contract, fraud, violation of South Carolina’s Payment of Wages Act, wrongful appropriation of Thomas’ name and likeness, and interference with a contract. Thomas is seeking more than $325,000 in wages, plus related costs.

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The lawsuit says that Benefield promised to pay Thomas an annual salary of $65,000 and provide annual raises, a housing stipend, health insurance and travel expenses, but Benefield then reneged, falsely claiming that Thomas was still just a candidate for the job even after both parties had signed a contract.

Thomas further alleges that American National Ballet benefited from the use of his name and reputation, only to release him after a month.

His attorney, Allan Holmes, declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation.

Benefield and American National Ballet Chief Operating Officer Beth Bogush have said that Thomas was not a good fit and that personnel changes were a result of a new organization finding its footing.

Reached by email Wednesday, Bogush said her team was not prepared to comment on the lawsuit or other concerns raised in connection with changes at ANB, but that news would be forthcoming shortly.

Other leaders hired by the ballet company this summer also have left, including Octavio Martin, David King and Kara Zimmerman. In October, the ballet company let go several dancers and demoted others.

The downsizing caused its own turmoil. Thirteen of the dancers had signed 10-month apartment leases with SkyGarden on Woolfe Street with the understanding that they would receive a $250 monthly housing stipend from the ballet company.

Their termination left them in a lurch, according to a parent of one of the dancers. SkyGarden and Benefield have tried to reach some resolution.

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“As many of you are aware, SkyGarden, through its ownership group, has been in contact with Doug at ANB in an attempt to come to a mutual agreement regarding the leases that are in place,” wrote SkyGarden Community Manager Jennifer Garcia to dancers and their parents. “ANB has not been able to provide any sort of resolution or guarantee to make this situation right by all parties involved, and we are no longer willing to continue conversations with ANB that go nowhere.”

On Nov. 20, SkyGarden offered dancers the chance to terminate their lease early for $3,387, the equivalent of a three-month buy-out fee, and set a Nov. 30 deadline.

One dancer’s parent, Alexandra Newton, has written to Benefield requesting that he do “the ethical thing” and pay the termination fee for the 13 dancers, amounting to a total of $44,031.

“This would be a business loss deduction for you,” Newton wrote. “For the 13 young adults who gave you their trust, gave up other contracts to move to your new company, and are now without income and without a contract, it is not a business loss. It is money they will have to earn with minimum or near minimum wages in order to make up for your gamble to provide ‘the highest quality of life dancers have ever seen.’ ... Your foray in the ballet world, however well-intentioned, did not work. Why hold the dancers victims to this?”

On Nov. 22, Benefield emailed Newton, informing her that he had succeeded in negotiating a reduction in the amount of the lease buy-out fee and assured her that he would continue to push for a resolution with SkyGarden.

“I am no longer with ANB as I was only funding and supporting because of Ashley,” he wrote to Newman, who shared the email with The Post and Courier. “I continue to (provide) support only until final issues such as SkyGarden are resolved knowing rent is coming due.”

Ashley Benefield publicly denounced American National Ballet last month in response to the downsizing.

“As the founder, I am completely devastated by what has been done and the way it was done,” she wrote. “The new leadership has destroyed all that we worked so hard to build, and I cannot stand behind them or their actions.”