NEWPORT'S theatre and arts centre is in danger of being a "joke" if the council do not sort out a management team soon, according to the artistic director of a dance group.

Darius James, of Newport-based Independent Ballet Wales, claims the council is being too slow in finding arts professionals to get the £13m centre ready to open next autumn.

The Argus reported on Saturday how the £104m Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff now has a team of 20 planning opening night for winter 2004, and are even drawing up events for the first two years.

But Newport, which is set to open months earlier, has yet to employ anyone to run the new centre being built on the banks of the Usk. Newport council says the centre is on schedule - and the authority is currently recruiting a team for it.

But Mr James, 37, of Newport, said: "This is a wonderful opportunity but I am very worried about it passing us by. It's reaching a crisis point.

"We are way behind. There should be a manager there with artistic vision to make Newport's centre different from Cardiff. Unless that happens the centre will be a joke and we will be swamped by Cardiff and Swansea.

"We need a manager and more arts staff quickly. The way things are going the programme will be full of tribute bands.

"They are fine, but they must be part of a balanced programme. We tour 96 venues a year and we go to some really well-run places with a balanced programme."

Mr James said Independent Ballet Wales, the only professional theatre group in Newport, was also being held up by the delay.

The group want a residency at the new centre to continue dance workshops for Newport youngsters.

He said: "We are planning summer and autumn 2004 now. We need to plan ahead and apply for further funding, but we cannot do that without a centre manager."

A spokeswoman for Newport council said the centre is on schedule. She added: "A team of six marketing and programme staff are now being recruited. The centre is on track to open with an exciting and diverse range of activities."

* Pictured: Newport's arts centre under construction