Women On Top: Eight Artistic Directors Talk About What It Takes

When an American ballerina hangs up her toe shoes, she may step out of the limelight forever. While her male colleagues might move from the studio into the executive suite, women ballet dancers more commonly continue their careers behind the scenes. They may teach, coach, or choreograph. But rarely do they become artistic directors of a company.

In the last 30 years, American women have progressed into leadership positions in certain professions like politics and business. But in some others they lag behind. Women film directors, for instance, are as rare as women symphony conductors—and women artistic directors of ballet companies. Al-though women have started ballet companies all over the country, when boards of directors seek to fill a vacancy, they most commonly opt to hire a man. While some might suggest that this is because the male-dominated boards are more comfortable hiring men, others ask if it is the women themselves who are reluctant or ill-prepared to take on this leadership role.

Dance Magazine spoke to eight American women who lead major ballet organizations today about how they came into their positions and what it takes to do their jobs. Some built their ensembles from the ground up, some inherited jobs from predecessors, and some were voted in by boards of directors. Regardless of how they came into their responsibilities, these women tackle the same duties and face the same challenges as their male counterparts. Not only do they make the case that women are up to the task, they often bring something extra to the job.

For Marie Hale of Ballet Florida, the job evolved naturally when her school-based ensemble grew into a full-fledged professional company. Initially, Hale got advice from a former pupil, Lou Conte, who had started Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and “who always ran it in the black.”

Why do so few women run professional ballet companies? Hale isn’t sure. “Sometimes if you have been a wonderful dancer in a company, you are used to having things done for you,” she speculates. “And you are not used to doing things for other people. Also,” she says, “boards think that [hiring] principal men dancers brings in money.”

When Oakland Ballet’s Karen Brown left a 22-year career with Dance Theatre of Harlem, she envisioned herself working for a foundation. When she was offered the position of artistic director of OB in 2000, she had no experience in high-level management.
So how did she acquire the skills to work with boards, manage people, negotiate with unions, plan programs, write budgets and long range plans, and be a savvy fundraiser? The answer: She was not afraid to ask for help. “That’s the way our business works,” says Brown. “Everybody helps everybody. In ballet what you learn is passed on from one to another.” Other artistic directors, among them Judith Jamison of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, lent their counsel. Plus, at DTH, Brown had volunteered for everything from working in the office to organizing outreach programs to ironing the Dougla skirts. That experience, and the fact that for a time she ran her own consulting company for dancers, helped develop her managerial skills. Last year, however, financial problems tested Brown’s mettle, and she had to make a tough decision. She put the ensemble on a one-year hiatus while she raised over $500,000 towards a new start with a repertoire of new works by and about people of color.

Stoner Winslett’s dream of a career as a dancer got waylaid by a knee injury. But ballet was in her blood, so in June of 1980, at the age of 22, she became Richmond Ballet’s first full-time employee. By November the artistic director had resigned. Could Winslett put on the scheduled Nutcracker, the board asked. She could. “We finished the season [in the black], and they asked me to stay on,” she remembers. Winslett credits some of her affinity for the job to the fact that, since she was 13, she had planned and organized dance performances, which taught her about programming, marketing, and staying within budget. In Richmond she quickly learned to read balance sheets, and gradually learned that board members can be reliable and deeply committed partners.

Winslett has a theory about the paucity of women ballet directors. “This is a very competitive field,” she says. “Somebody says, ‘Jump,’ and women ask, ‘How high?’ Men are often scholarshipped as soon they as they come in the door. Because they are treated differently, they develop more confidence.”

For Suzanne Farrell, becoming an artistic director was a means to an end. During her years of dancing, she was always concentrating on the next performance, the next role. She never planned ahead, certainly never planned on running her own company. After retiring from New York City Ballet in 1988, she staged Balanchine works all over the world. “I love working with dancers; they are a wonderful breed of people,” she says. “But the sad thing is that you work very closely and develop this wonderful sisterhood, and then the premiere happens and usually you don’t see the dancers again. You never get to revisit a ballet to take it to another level. So I thought that the only way this could happen is to have my own dancers.”

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is the resident ballet company at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., a situation that is somewhat analogous to ballet companies in European opera houses. While she gets help from her “trusted advisors” at Kennedy, she is also developing her own board of directors and fundraises herself.

As a dancer with San Francisco Ballet, Victoria Morgan never thought about running a company either. “Mine was a very traditional upbringing,” she recalls. But women directors at the San Francisco Opera, where she was the resident choreographer for nearly 10 years, had to deal with tough challenges like personnel issues, and that inspired her. “Putting on an opera is a huge job. These women came in, took charge, everyone listened to them, and we all worked together. I figured I probably could do that and be good at it.” So she put out some feelers, and six months later in 1997, she was offered the position of artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet.

The company had gone through turbulent years. Morgan thinks that maybe part of the reason she got the job was that the board wanted not only someone experienced and professional but also someone who could be a nurturer. She felt completely up to it, but, she admits, “I had a moment of panic when I got the job.” So Bruce Marks, then artistic director of Boston Ballet, invited her to shadow him for a week.

Toni Pimble, who runs both Eugene Ballet and Ballet Idaho, commutes weekly between Boise and Eugene; the two cities share repertoires and dancers but have separate administrative structures. This alliance originally came about in 1994 as a marriage of convenience, a way of saving precious dollars.

Pimble feels that she probably runs a company differently from the way a man would. “Sometimes, because of time restrictions, you have to be authoritative,” she says. “But in general, it’s a let’s-do-this-together thing. I am inviting the dancers into the work.” Yet she is also convinced that despite her 20-plus years of experience as both a choreographer and an artistic director “who can read a balance sheet,” she could not get hired at a larger company because advisory boards are looking for big names that will help them with fund-raising.
In addition, Pimble believes that boys who enter ballet already have an independent streak since they are going against peer expectations. For girls, ballet training reinforces societal expectations to be graceful, demure, and disciplined. “It’s difficult to come out of this situation as a person with your own mind.”

When Ballet Memphis’ Dorothy Gunther Pugh founded her Memphis Concert Ballet in 1975 (two dancers, $75,000), she knew exactly what she wanted. Her hometown needed a ballet company even though she knew that championing this eminently European art form might be an uphill battle. She credits her father with giving her the moxie to take on the challenge. “I never thought that there was anything I couldn’t do because I am a woman,” she recalls. “You just have to find a way to get people to share your vision. I want ballets that an audience can think about and grow with.” Through the new Memphis Project (funded by a $1 million Ford Foundation grant) Pugh commissions ballets that aim to attract a more diverse audience.

Tina Ramirez started Ballet Hispanico (which performs modern and jazz as well as ballet) in the 1970s to give Latino dancers visibility. As with Marie Hale, the company grew out of her teaching. Ramirez’s models in the dance world were strong women like Carmelita Maracci and Anna Sokolow. “These women were powerhouses,” she enthuses. But she had to give up her own choreography in order to make it work. Even today, she counsels choreographers not to start their own troupe so they don’t have to split their energies between choreographing and running a company.

They may have had different goals and different paths to get there. But what these women artistic directors have in common is a willingness to ask for help, pleasure in working collaboratively, and leadership qualities they didn’t know they had. They are unstinting in their commitment to their dancers and are sustained by seeing young artists grow. They are nurturers. As Farrell puts it. “I want them to be the very best dancers they can be. Somebody did it for me. Now, it’s my turn to pass it on.”


Rita Felciano is the critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and also writes for www.danceviewtimes.com and Dance View Magazine.

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