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?"
For choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, music is simple: "There's good music and there's bad music and I love good music and I love to hate bad music."
But, true to form, Kelly—whose past few months have included choreographing the Skittles Super Bowl musical and earning one of our first-ever Harkness Promise Awards—had some surprises up his sleeve when he made us a playlist he describes as "for moody Geminis who work over 12 hours a day and need a playlist that can shuffle and never disappoint."
Though the playlist has some whiplash-inducing twists and turns—from Coheed and Cambria to Carly Rae Jepsen to Missy Elliott to Schubert—there is a through-line: "Music that makes you feel like you're in your own movie. I love walking through the street feeling like I'm on a runway, living my best life."
Every dancer's nutrition goals are different. Maybe you're trying to go vegan, or maybe you want to cook your own dinner more often. No matter what your personal objectives are—or whether you work with a dietitian—there are all kinds of apps that can help you make smart decisions at the tap of a button.
The lack of female leaders in ballet is an old conversation. But a just-launched website, called the Dance Data Project, has brought something new to the discussion: actual numbers, not just anecdotal evidence.
Whether she's performing on stage, in music videos, or on television, French electro-pop sensation Chris (formerly known as Christine and the Queens) never seems to stop moving.
Building a full-length ballet from scratch is an intense process. For the world premiere of Anna Karenina, a collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, that meant original choreography by Yuri Possokhov, a brand-new score by Ilya Demutsky, costume and set designs by Tom Pye and lighting designs by David Finn.
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Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared five of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.