True of False: Artistic Directors hold all the power in major dance companies.
False. Here’s why.
A major dance company in the U.S. will usually include no less than 5 departments and sub sections. These departmental areas all run their own team and, at times, don’t even see the AD but once a program during meetings.
Many business majors I remember talking to in college often referred to “the boss” as a ghost. From student and intern prospective, a “ghost boss” is harmful and digs deeper and deeper, taking root in how one see’s themselves in the image of the company. Do you matter? Are you just a puppet? Can you recall a boss as anything other than a higher-up, leveled far beyond your position?
I now know that this is true in a surprising number of major dance companies. But not necessarily in smaller dance companies (major or minor). I think this is one of the main problems that ballet companies face even more so (but not exclusively) than contemporary and various styled dance companies.
When there’s a large operation at sake, there’s an even larger pull to either be erratically everywhere at once or no where but the studio creating, delegating, and concocting for the programs to come. An AD suddenly has “no time” for all the rest.
Respectably, no one can be every where at once, meeting with all the staff for every single situation and decision. I get that. However, there’s a lack of personalized treatment which can be found supporting certain companies.
In my lengthy various-job career from hotels to retail to tutoring to now and onwards (cause let’s face it, as a lower middle class person, I have to keep working for the rest of my life), I’ve had bosses come and go with a momentous degree of differences. Some are cold and distant (see Walgreens). Some are maniac and overbearing. Some are old and wise. Some are intuitive and friendly. Some are ghosts. The list goes on.
In an AD, the list needs to be equal to that of a Instagram profile; brief but personal and honest. Who are you? Locations? Taste? And, of course, age?
The ADs that are present and personal with their staff, just as much as they are with their dancers, need to rise to the occasion in order to make ballet companies less like a business and more like an artistic collaboration on all levels. They say change happens from the top; I say change is a full-bodied experience that is shared and contagious.
Don’t get me wrong, business isn’t such a bad word with a sour aftertaste. I embrace the exchange that needs occur between business types and artistic types in the dance world. After all, not everyone is as one-sided as that. We are humans, muli-dimensional and complex. But business isn’t the focus, the burning hole in the back of any dance company.
Let’s bring up some stunning AD examples!
Obviously, Tamara Rojo is my pick as the supreme AD for the modern day major ballet company–who happens to be a female. ENB is thriving and driving to the heights required of a touring company with a rich history in the UK. She has a 5-year contract with ENB; let’s hope she renews soon.
Rojo has that subtle Instagram quality–no filters required. She doesn’t lie about her age. She doesn’t rely on her esteemed past. But she doesn’t toss it out; she’s still dancing in lead roles for the company, which could be seen as super egotistical, but with Rojo–it’s just natural.
She’s honest about how stressful the role of AD is, paired with her performance schedule, of course. But the decisions aren’t resting on her entirely, and the company isn’t just her job. Likewise, she knows that being an AD isn’t suppose to feel like being a puppet for the company. So in this case, the AD doesn’t have all the power and doesn’t want all the power. Sometimes without that realization, an artistic endeavor like a dance company turns into a corporation about power and money with faceless humans working day-in and day-out, and the company will suffer artistically in the long run (although, the finances might be top-notch enough to sustain it for boring years ahead).
“I wanted to be in that environment and it turned out that very often I felt a little bit like a puppet. You do this, you go there, you do that, rather than be part of the creative process.”
Change thankfully sheds light on some of the traditions and structure from the previous regime. As an AD, Rojo supports ENB and is supported. She is the nervous system for the body of the company, students, staff, orchestra, donors, and beyond. The muscles and tissue and bones and all other systems check in with her and dart around to support her while mindfully aware that they are supporting a living art. And Rojo does that for the body as well to her own degree.
Life is constant give and take, people.
All that entitles keeping a major ballet company alive is delegated but also alerted to her with personalization. She is the well-trained voice for the lives of many people, and the arts in general. I can bet you that the staff with her, from the top to the interns, respect the arts and grow more knowledgeable beyond their expectations while at ENB.
“It is strange because as a dancer I was really bad at asking for what I wanted. But as a director, I am shameless at asking for what I think is fair for the arts and for English National Ballet.”
And she’s very much aware of all the positions which support a company. Breeding good dancers must also be matched by breeding good arts admins and coaches and repertoires and receptionists and production assistants. Everything under the sky working together for those few moments of on stage ballet bliss and educational connections.
“I hope to inspire a whole new generation of dancers that will in turn become teachers, choreographers and managers themselves. I think you can really transform attitudes both for the audience and the artists and therefore you can grow a healthy, productive and interesting art form.” Read more from this 2014 Telegraph interview.
Some other classical ballet AD in Europe of note include Manuel Legris breathing life and love at Wiener Staatsballett and Ballet Academy of the Vienna State Opera. And another favorite of mine, John Neumeier with Hamburg Ballet who’s reign will continue until 2019 when Lloyd Riggins takes over as his preferred successor.
But what about contemporary dance you say?
There’s the beautifully eloquent Janet Eilber with the MGDC, gloriously spinning a web of Graham connections and contractions for the company to stay alive well past the next 90 years. (sidenote, support their Kickstarter please please please!) The current AD at NDT is Paul Lightfoot, paving the way for that special brand of choreographic excellence which NDT is famous for. The past NDT ADs of note, Jirí Kylian and Hans van Manen, were essential in presenting a company for the dancers, choreographers, staff, and audience.
In fact, all of the ADs mentioned here (and, obviously, many more not mentioned) have this all-inclusive quality in contemporary dance more so than classical ballet companies (major and minor). They aren’t minor, but they also aren’t as major in terms of how deep the company goes behind the curtain. When it comes to the operational side, you can’t really compare a company like the Royal to BodyTraffic–one of these two needs to become more personal.
To go even smaller-scaled, in Houston we have the redesigned and revamped Hope Stone led by Jane Weiner. Her touch goes into everything that the company presents, and no matter what degree, it’s always with love and devotion to the arts for the community and worldwide. We also have Frenticore Dance Theater, a non-profit led by Rebecca French with Adam Castaneda, blazing their way for multi-talented choreography and performances. For them community outreach isn’t exactly just that copy-and-paste type of program. They really reach out and teach. They laugh and learn with one another from the community. It’s a creative process there.
I bring these two companies up, not just for promoting friends in HTX, but because I see how they led as ADs in their respective companies of smaller but more personalized nature. Money is always an issue and important. Creating business and patronage is also included. But these areas aren’t above one of the other parts of the company body–the bones and muscles and tissue and organs and emotions.
Before they are ADs, they are people working with people for art.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to get down to: ADs need to represent the company, true, and the arts, even truer, but also the people they are working WITH.
There’s no I in team; there’s no true ruler to a dance company. We are all in this complicated and stressful and rewarding and beautiful art form together, but only if we act like companions and start introducing ourselves, listening, and learning.
We learn this from day in grade school and fight it in middle and high school all the way to college where we rely on it for projects and presentations and participation. And I hope I learn this even more in grad school.