How Can the Dance World Nurture More Effective Artistic Directors?
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
What does it take to direct a dance company ethically and effectively in the 21st century? "Oftentimes people get put into this position just because they were a star performer," says Sacramento Ballet artistic director Amy Seiwert.
But leading a healthy, thriving dance company requires a lot more than charisma. Directors also need everything from business savvy to a commitment to nurturing their artists. So how can the dance world be more deliberate about shaping future leaders—and how can aspiring directors prepare themselves to succeed?
ADs Need to Know More Than Dance
"When you get to share with your audiences some work of art that you cherish, you can change lives," says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "That is the single reason I do what I'm doing." But even though the title suggests that an AD's focus is on art, Nissinen says that "your job description is to do whatever it takes to get the job done."
On any given day, Nissinen might give class, schmooze with donors, analyze the budget, attend a board meeting, plan rep, approve photos, review promotional materials, negotiate contracts, brainstorm on marketing, resolve conflicts, give a speech and soothe stressed-out dancers. ("Sometimes, 30 percent of the job is being a shrink," he says.) And if a company has a school, as BB does, teaching and recital management could also be expected.
"The job doesn't stop," says Marc Brew, who's in his second year as artistic director of AXIS Dance Company, where his to-do list also encompasses AXIS' extensive education, outreach and workshop components, plus choreographing new works. "It's finding that balance of me being artistically fulfilled, but also needing to fulfill the company's obligations—within the financial constraints."
Marc Brew says the job of an AD doesn't stop. Photo by Misako Akimoto, courtesy AXIS
Financial Literacy is Crucial
Indeed, the fundraising is endless, especially in the face of challenges like the aftermath of the 2008 recession. "We have to raise crazy amounts of money just to keep the doors open," Nissinen says of BB's $37 million annual budget. "It takes way more time than anybody can imagine."
Nissinen and Brew joined companies in relatively good financial standing, but some ADs are responsible for lifting a troubled company out of debt. When Seiwert took over Sacramento Ballet in July, it was "at least $250,000" in arrears. "We have to look at the long term, how to get out of that," she says.
Financial literacy is crucial to success. "At my first finance committee meeting they said, 'Here's the budget. What are you going to cut?' " recalls Paul Vasterling, Nashville Ballet artistic director since 1998. "I'd never seen a budget before—it was like looking at Greek. I wish I'd been better about learning about finance in my education."
Raising money is as much about people skills as it is about crunching numbers. The AD generates enthusiasm for the company's vision by giving speeches and networking, and can be involved in the "ask"—direct requests for significant donations from corporations or individuals—and grant writing. "They don't give you very many sentences on a grant application," says AXIS board president Jeanie Bunker, "and if you don't articulate it well, you might not get the grant."
Most large companies will have an executive director who is ultimately in charge of financial decisions, but the AD needs to be an active partner. Otherwise, says Vasterling, "you've basically given up your control and your knowledge of what's going to happen."
Some new directors, like Amy Seiwert, are tasked with the challenge of getting their new companies out of debt. Photo by Goodman, courtesy Seiwert.
Developing The Right Company Culture Takes Skill
No matter how stressful things get, the AD has to maintain decorum; set high expectations for company conduct, appropriate language, open communications and sexual harassment policies; and abide by labor laws stipulating fair wages and working hours. "You have to be very responsible for what you say and how you act," Nissinen says. "You have to protect the organization."
Dancers and staff also need to feel supported by their AD in order to do their best work. "It's all about people," says Vasterling. An admitted micromanager, he had to learn the communication skills, including active listening, that engender loyalty and bring the company together as a team.
During his first few years, he says, "the administrative staff were frightened of me because I was like, 'Why are we discussing this? You just need to do it.' In the studio, I was used to people just doing what I told them to do."
He went through executive coaching—and some soul-searching—to develop a more respectful, open-door style of management. "Hearing feedback and not getting defensive is hard, but it's also really helpful," he says. "The biggest lesson was learning to let people do their thing, and giving them the opportunity to fail or succeed."
Nissinen hopes to one day offer intensives or retreats for dancers interesting in becoming artistic directors. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Executive Training Can Smooth the Transition
In the corporate world, business schools and executive mentoring prepare candidates for leadership. But outside of arts management degrees, the dance world has little codified training for aspiring ADs.
Hands-on learning with skilled mentors can help bridge the gap. Brew shadowed Scottish Dance Theatre's then-artistic director Janet Smith for three months and received mentoring from choreographer Wayne McGregor. "I got to learn the functionality of every day, not in the studio, but on grants, on building new programs, connecting with other artists, and how to manage a team and be a positive leader," says Brew, who became SDT's associate artistic director.
Seiwert has reached out for advice to friends like Ballet Austin's AD Stephen Mills and executive director Cookie Ruiz and former Louisville Ballet AD Bruce Simpson. She also worked with an executive coach to smooth her transition to Sacramento Ballet. (The Dance/USA conference can be a great place to learn best practices like these, in sessions and informal meetings with other ADs.)
While still a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, the Finnish-born Nissinen improved his English and his presentation skills by volunteering to give lectures to the company's volunteer groups and at local colleges. Today, he invites dancers who are interested in learning about his responsibilities as artistic director to shadow him for a week. What he'd love is to be able to offer multiday intensives or retreats with speakers and workshops for dancers interested in going into leadership roles.
Zollar cautions ADs to not give up their power to any administrator, but to be a real partner in the business side of the company, too. Photo courtesy Urban Bush Women.
Aspiring ADs Should Explore Many Roles
Basic courses in accounting and budgeting, public speaking, nonprofit management and marketing will stand aspiring ADs in good stead. "You're gonna have to be a partner in the business," says Zollar, who faced a crisis of her own when UBW was nearly insolvent in 1999. "Don't give away your power to any administrator."
Today, she encourages UBW artists to explore and embrace many roles within dance, such as teaching, producing and connecting with communities. "How do we use the assets that the dancers bring to the organization," she says, "and how do we build those assets and strengthen everybody?"
Until more training becomes available, dancers who want to become ADs have to be creative. "We're artists, we're good at creative problem-solving," Seiwert says. "You know what you want to do—how can you make it happen?"
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.