What To Do When You All of A Sudden Have A New Artistic Director
When news reached the Limón Dance Company that Colin Connor was replacing longtime director Carla Maxwell in 2016, the tight-knit group experienced a range of emotions. “Everyone agreed that fresh energy would be a benefit to the company,” says veteran dancer Logan Kruger. But the excitement lasted only until the fear sunk in—there would be changes, and some of them might even include saying good-bye.
It’s understandable to experience feelings of shock, fear and even abandonment if your director leaves. It’s not just that you’ll have a new boss—a shift at the top can have a domino effect on casting, programming, rehearsal structure and branding. Here’s how to forge a relationship with your new director and take advantage of the opportunities that come from having fresh eyes on your dancing.
Prepare for the Unknown
When Julie Kent took over The Washington Ballet as artistic director, she intended to redefine the organization. Photo by Mena Brunette, Courtesy TWB
How different your work environment may become and how long it will take to feel settled will depend on the type of transition. Is the shift part of a succession plan? Or has the board acted swiftly to remove someone? Is the search committee looking for a director to lead the same way or to envision an extensive change?
“Sometimes the goals stay the same even if something changes at the top,” says Julie Kent, who experienced this type of transition multiple times as the longest-serving ballerina in American Ballet Theatre’s history. But as artistic director of The Washington Ballet since July 2016, she has been leading an effort to completely redefine its repertoire and reputation. “There’s no formula for such a huge transition. You can’t rush the process,” she says. “Remember that you are part of a larger whole.”
Have Patience—but Be Honest
Dwayne Scheuneman (foreground) says that it’s reasonable to ask for more clarity if you’re totally in the dark. Photo by David DeSilva, Courtesy AXIS
Trust that the dancers’ best interests are part of the plan, even if you don’t hear all the details. It may be frustrating, but your job is to keep dancing. “Producing under any circumstances is your responsibility,” says Kent.
If fear of the unknown is affecting your work, it’s reasonable to ask for more clarity, says Dwayne Scheuneman, who has performed with AXIS Dance Company under founder Judith Smith and new director Marc Brew. “Request a one-on-one with the executive director or board member leading the search and let them know you’re concerned—it might be what they need to hear to embrace a more open process,” he says.
Don’t Fear the Pink Slip
Kruger (right) focused on whether the new director was going to be a fit for her or not, rather than stressing about her job security. Photo by Keira Chang, Courtesy Limón
It’s natural for an incoming director to make room for new dancers, but panicking about your job security won’t impress anyone. “What worked for me was focusing on what I had to offer and trusting that I was either going to be a good fit or I wasn’t,” says Kruger. “I was auditioning for Colin, but he was also auditioning for me.” (Five dancers ultimately left for various reasons. Connor replaced four of them, and Kruger was rehired.)
Lillian DiPiazza was in a vulnerable place when Angel Corella was hired as the new director of Pennsylvania Ballet. She had been promoted to soloist by former director Roy Kaiser but learned soon after that she had a back injury. “I found myself approaching my new boss saying, ‘I’m going to be out for the next five months,’ ” she says. “I was worried about getting left behind.” When she recovered, DiPiazza treated her return like she was joining a new company. She was promoted to principal for the 2016–17 season, by which point 17 dancers had left or were let go.
Marc Brew (foreground), the new artistic director of AXIS. Photo by Misako Akimoto, Courtesy AXIS
You might be surprised at how long it takes to find a groove with your new director, especially if they’re busy closing out other commitments. Don’t make decisions about someone right away, says Scheuneman. “Understand that there are so many things we don’t see in the studio. Marc had a long relationship with us, but he was still nervous about moving from the UK and getting used to our community.” Have compassion for the major changes the director is making in order to lead your company.
Lillian DiPiazza suggests steering clear of gossip about the new director. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet
Show through your work ethic that you want to be there and you’re willing to embrace change, says DiPiazza. Gossip is inevitable, but steer clear of spreading negativity. “If the people you are close to become unhappy, it’s easy to let it affect you, but how you react says something to everyone around you,” she says. It’s okay to acknowledge the validity of a concern that’s at the root of the gossip, says Scheuneman. “Then, instead of hating on a new director, ask yourself how you can help them find a better way.”
Use Change to Your Advantage
Kruger (left) ended up benefiting from her historical knowledge of the organization. Photo by Keira Chang, Courtesy Limon
Don’t forget that some changes may benefit you. Company members with historical knowledge of the organization can be major assets to a new director. “We came to realize that Colin valued our opinions,” says Kruger. “After his first full season, I was asked to be rehearsal director. He trusted me to help new dancers develop an understanding of Limón.”
Fresh eyes can shake up casting, too. “It’s hard to typecast dancers when you don’t know them, so redefine yourself and be the kind of dancer that does the roles you want,” says Kent. A fresh perspective might also push you to become more versatile. “We’d always had more emphasis on Balanchine, but Angel brought a more classical style,” says DiPiazza. “It was rewarding to discipline our bodies to alternate between both.”
Check In with Your Goals
Kent emphasizes that it’s ultimately up to the dancer to decide what’s best for them. Photo by Mena Brunette, Courtesy The Washington Ballet
What if it’s not working out? “The organization has needs that might not align with what you want,” says Kent. “I’m not a fairy godmother making wishes come true. I’m making tough decisions to set the company up for the greatest possible success. You are the only one who can decide if this is the ship you want to be on.”
Maybe it’s time to move on, and that’s okay. You may realize this transition has prepared you to take a step forward towards a better career.