Reconsidering the Artistic Director Model: Dance Company Looks to Past To Get to Future

Any information on the future plans of the evolving dance company Morphoses would constitute news. After all, this is the company that was started by then abruptly abandoned by Christopher Wheeldon, the choreographer widely acknowledged in the ballet world as one of the most intriguing new dancemakers in the field. And Morphoses’ plans post-Wheeldon are gaining lots of attention, not for who is succeeding Wheeldon, but, in essence, for who or rather what isn’t succeeding Wheeldon.

Rather than employing a new, permanent artistic director to shape the company’s artistic footprint in the dance world, Morphoses is planning to reemerge this fall without a permanent artistic director. Instead, the company, which is overseen by executive director (and former Balanchine dancer) Lourdes Lopez, will employ a series of resident artistic directors, each of whom is to be engaged for a year with the express purpose of creating a new work or works for the Morphoses repertoire. First up under this new structure: Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti, whose  world premiere “Bacchae” opens at New York’s Joyce Theater October 25-30. The production, described by the company as a “choreographic staging,” will feature 11 dancers selected for the production and a commissioned score by Paolo Aralla. Other members of the production team are flautist Erin Lesser, dramaturge Luca Scarlini, and puppeteer Candice Burridge.

But while the promise of a new work is always intriguing, it’s the philosophy behind the new structure of Morphoses that has captured the attention of the dance world. “It’s an interesting experiment. Hopefully it will be impactful on how dance is made. I think that’s the bigger I ssue here,” said Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce. And, added Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, the real question from a presenter’s standpoint isn’t if the structure of the company does or doesn’t fit the traditional model as much as if the intended goal of producing  work is realized. “It’s okay if there isn’t one artistic director. For them it’s all about the work and I think that’s terrific,” Baff said. “Every company has new work or works every year. You always look forward to what a particular company is going to do next or what this choreographer is going to do next.”

“Here it will be what is the next project? That will become their signature,” Baff said. “It’s a very interesting idea.” But other observers, while cautioning that they were still interested in seeing how the company fared, said the new model may be placing focus on the wrong thing. “I understand they’re in a bizarre situation. They want to keep the company going and they’re doing their best not to fold it, but is this really the answer?” said noted dance scholar and writer Mindy Aloff. “As far as I’m concerned this is all about product not about the art. It’s misunderstanding the entire human process of the dance company.” She added, “Dance is a process art. Dance is not a product art. Dance requires an ongoing continuity and connection. It requires the continuity of standards, of an aesthetic point of view.”

That discussion and reexamination of how things are done as well as questions of if and how the model can be changed is all part of the plan, said Morphoses’ director and co-founder Lopez. While these were issues she had been thinking about, Lopez acknowledged it was Wheeldon’s departure that pushed her to consider shaping her ruminations into a structure that could work for Morphoses.

“I feel that it’s not going to be just one artist who is going to change ballet and modern dance, but there will be many artists who are really going to contribute to the … forward movement of dance,” Lopez said. “I think it’s a concern that anyone who loves the art form has.” Lopez, a former principal ballerina with the New York City Ballet and a product of the company’s affiliated School of American Ballet, said she was well aware of the irony of someone from her highly structured  dance background now questioning the structure that essentially shaped her as an artist.

“I’ve been very lucky in my career. I was at a school where you were taught by individuals who gave their lives to this art form. It was your passion. It was your religion. That’s the environment I grew up in. And then I was in a company with two geniuses choreographing and those guys never looked back,” Lopez said. “But with Mr. Balanchine, even though there was a real sense that this was akin to a religion and there was reverence to be paid to the art and sacrifices to be made, it was also about moving forward constantly.

“For me now the important thing is really the future of this art form and where it’s going to go. Our mission statement [at Morphoses] was always about revitalizing dance and bringing in a younger audience and a broader audience if possible. I think we have to look at ways to do that and step outside of the box.”

The Morphoses solution – to be a project-based dance company that invites collaborations with artists from a variety of disciplines – is still a work in progress.

While Lopez selected the first two projects herself, she said she’s now putting together a small advisory group to help select future directors. Also open is the concept of what length works would be created. “Our hope is to get away from the multiple-bill repertory (format),” she said. “But having said that, we are not placing strict parameters on the resident artistic director. If he or she feels strongly that, artistically, a work should go next to another, then we would look at that option. The idea is always to stay as open, flexible, and unencumbered as possible.”

Lopez said Morphoses’ annual operating budget will remain at or below $500,000, continuing a “lean and mean” business philosophy, as she put it. “We continue to keep a very low overhead and put all of our resources and energy into the art and our artists,” she said. “We are here to feed the choreographic muse in an affordable way.”

The company’s initial announcement said the new structure was partly inspired by Jerome Robbins’ American Theater Laboratory. The ATL, formed in 1966, was a short lived model in which Robbins tried to explore ways to create an alternative to commercial theater productions by melding the performing arts into a single collaborative unit.

Observers and even Lopez acknowledged that no major dance companies are utilizing a structure anything like Morphoses today. One long-time arts consultant though pointed out that rather than creating a new model, Morphoses was actually reaching back into history even further than Robbins and his ATL. “This is not particularly new. The presenting world does this all the time where they’ll commission works and will work with other presenters and sometimes do co-productions where they hire an artist or in some instances a company. This is merely a variation on a theme,” said David Mallette, senior associate for Management Consultants for the Arts, based in Stamford, Conn. “It’s producer driven rather than artist driven or a choreographer driven kind of process. It’s not a model that’s used a lot in the non-profit dance world right now.” Step back 100 years in history though, Mallette said. “If you want an example of it in the dance world look at the Ballets Russes. The Ballets Russes was run essentially by a producer with a great vision. Diaghilev didn’t choreograph. He was not a dancer. But he was smart enough to identify and provide a place for these other artists to create and showcase their work.”

Historical comparisons aside, many connected to the dance world said the new Morphoses model holds tremendous potential for addressing some longstanding issues. “I’ve started to question the whole single artistic director model really. I’ve wondered about the structure itself and how it’s set up and if it’s really the most conducive way for an artist to create work,” said Shelton of the Joyce. “In some cases, it’s fine and it works beautifully. But in other cases, I think it’s hard for an artistic director or a choreographer to constantly be  coming up with the amount of new works that are necessary every single year.”

“And then they’re surrounded with people who are paid by them so there’s no room for criticism in that model at all,” Shelton added. “I don’t know what the right model is. Maybe it’s healthier for the artist to create work and maybe not have to worry about the stress and everything else that goes with running a company. I think the whole model has to be looked at.”

Veggetti, the Morphoses company’s first resident artistic director under the new plan, said he saw the set up as an artistic win-win for the company and the choreographic community. “I’ve always defended my freedom and paid a price for it over the years. So this model corresponded to my needs and aspirations,” he said. “There are many like myself who aren’t interested in running a company and would see this as a great opportunity.”

The new Morphoses model has much to offer. “On the surface it might not seem that different from a commissioned work,” Veggetti said, “but the reality is with this [set up] you have more time, more resources at every level to do it. I think, for many, it might be a more interesting way of working.”

And, Veggetti pointed out, another intriguing aspect of the Morphoses plan for him was that the resident artistic director did not necessarily have to be a choreographer. “It could be a stage director who unlike myself is not also a choreographer,” he said. “Then it would be a matter of finding the right choreographer to embody that [director’s] vision. To me that’s the most interesting aspect of all of this, that this may engender new things simply by the fact of putting people together and striving towards an artistic goal.”

Karyn D. CollinsKaryn D. Collins has been a journalist for 26 years. A native of Chicago, Collins specializes in feature writing including dance, fashion, entertainment, and diversity. Her work has been published by the Associated Press, Jet Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Dance Magazine, Inside Jersey Magazine, Nia Online, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Newark Star-Ledger, Dance Teacher Magazine, InJerseyMagazine, and the Asbury Park Press. She is assistant editor of the webzine The Diversity Factor. She is a former chair of the Dance Critics Association and the founding chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ Arts and Entertainment writer’s task force.


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