Navigating Change: Succession in the Ballet World, Part 2

Editor’s note: This special two-part report on leadership succession at ballet companies was originally published in the printed Dance/USA Journal, spring 2009. To begin with Part 1, please start here in From the Green Room.

By Nancy Wozny

When Iain Webb took the helm of the Sarasota Ballet in 2007, the founder was nowhere in sight as (Jean Allenby Weidner had separated from the organization in 1999) Webb replaced retiring Artistic Director Robert De Warren with start-from-scratch energy. He was hired to launch the company in an entirely new direction and he did exactly that. Harking to the past simply was not in the picture. “Once I took the job, it was a whirlwind,” says Webb. “I had two weeks or so to get the season together.” Webb took the company from 22 to 32 dancers, and launched 15 ballets, 13 of which were new. The first season included ballets by Balanchine, Sir Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, David Bintley, Hans van Manen, Matthew Bourne, and Dominic Walsh. “It was one of those crazy British things,” jokes the Yorkshire-born director. “I don’t make anything easy for myself.” Webb’s approach worked, attracting new audiences, an increase in subscriptions, and a feature story on the Ashton pieces in The New York Times. The company also received attention by being the first company in the U.S. to perform a work by Matthew Bourne. (Webb worked as rehearsal director for Bourne’s celebrated Swan Lake.) The learning curve was steep. “When I got here it was as if there were all these cracks under the wallpaper; the place was held together by sticky tape,” Webb recalls. “The degree of revamping I needed to do was enormous and there were days early on when I certainly felt despair.”

Webb streamlined the administrative structure by eliminating the executive director position, replacing it with a managing director. “This way there’s only one head on the chopping block when it comes to the bottom line,” quips Webb. “Plus, we can only afford one ax.” Webb knew he was on the right track when he received comments that the dancers had never looked this good. “It was like the audience was seeing a new company,” he says. “The dancers never cease to amaze me.” Rebuilding from the ground up is not for the faint of heart, yet Webb eventually proved successful in creating a very unique boutique company. He is currently overseeing an overhaul of the website that will include the full history of his company including the founder.

With five artistic directors in its 36-year history, Ballet West has undergone four successions. About once a decade, a new director has assumed the post. When Adam Sklute took the helm in 2007, the previous director Jonas Kage had already moved on. Sklute had spent the previous 25 years with the Joffrey rising from dancer to associate artistic director. When Sklute got the call, he was pleased and honored, but not that surprised. “My first thought was really, me? My second thought — of course, it’s me; it felt so right,” he remembers. “The dancers were so open, and responsive. We all just clicked.” Sklute credits his smooth transition to continued company stewardship by the then-interim acting artistic director, Pamela Robinson-Harris, who was not also vying for the job. Executive Director Johann Jacobs alludes to many factors that contributed to Ballet West’s successful transition, such as a diverse search committee, a search firm with experience in the non-profit sector, and a willingness to embrace change head-on. “I don’t believe in a terribly long transition. Make the change; it needs to be a clean cut,” says Jacobs. “The sooner the new person can implement her/his vision the better. Let the person come in and do what she/he is hired to do. If there’s blood along the way, so be it.”

Sklute speaks passionately about founder William Christensen’s contributions, not only to Ballet West, but to ballet in America. He is guided by the gifts of each previous director and is grateful for the opportunity to re-invent the company once again. Sklute, Jacobs, and the dancers relish the fact that Ballet West appeared on the 2009 February issue of Dance Magazine for the first time in 20 years. “Not a bad way to start the year,” boasts Sklute.

The Joffrey Ballet’s succession story rivals Ballet West in the magical fit category. In 2006, Ashley C. Wheater, the assistant to San Francisco Ballet (SFB) artistic director Helgi Tomasson, told the Joffrey search committee that he was not interested in the position. Wheater, a former dancer with Joffrey in addition to the Royal Ballet, London Festival Ballet, The Australian Ballet, and SFB, was an obvious choice, due to his contact with Robert Joffrey and his vast experience at Tomasson’s side. “I was so happy with my job, and SFB was at the top of their game.” All that changed during the Chicago Dancing Festival when Wheater happened to find himself inside the Joffrey studio teaching company class. “The dancers worked so hard; I could see they needed something here; there was so much talent,” remembers Wheater, about the fateful day that changed the course of his career. “I was so moved by the experience.” Executive director Christopher Clinton Conway talks about the experience with the same kind of enthusiasm. “You know the part in the movie when the angels sing, well that’s what it was like when Ashley came in front of the search committee,” remembers Conway. “Everything he said was spot on; there was no dissent or even discussion. It was a unanimous decision.” Today, Wheater and Conway look back at the process as extraordinary meeting of opportunity and fate. Co-founder Gerald Arpino lived to see the new building, the naming of the studio in his honor, Wheater’s first season, and his beloved company left in capable hands before his death in October of 2008.

D. David Brown, executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), describes the process of replacing founding directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell with former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal in 2004 with no such divine inspiration, but with a solid and systematic plan. Boal’s revitalizing of PNB is linked not only to his leadership abilities, but to the well-designed process that put him in the job. A year prior to the search, PNB formed an artistic task force that examined the role of the artistic director, which yielded key information that fed into the search process. “Kent and Francia encouraged us to do this,” remembers Brown. PNB did not use a search firm but relied on a decision-making tool developed by Carol A. Burch, a consultant and a former PNB board member. The tool defined a list of 90 attributes that were then narrowed down to ten. The top five candidates were evaluated based on those top ten attributes. The Leadership Task Force also developed a series of interview questions that would allow them to adequately gauge their judgment against the top attributes. The process was completely straightforward and transparent.

“The transition from the founder can be a dangerous time, and is quite often explosive, and can really set an organization back,” says Brown. “We did not want this to happen abruptly. We had time on our side.” Brown believes the best way to weather change is to really do it wholeheartedly. “I gave Peter a lot of space. I did not want to be the teacher, either,” Brown says. “It took about a year for the culture of the organization to shift.”

Boal credits his ease into the job to the support from the dancers, Stowell and Russell, the administrative and artistic team, and the freedom to start with a clear plan. Boal reached out to the city, getting to know as many people in Seattle arts scene as possible. “New Yorkers make people nervous,” admits Boal, “but really, there’s nothing scary about me.” Boal brought in10 new ballets his first year. “I didn’t think of it as discarding the great rep already in place, but adding to it.” Programs such as $5 Fridays allowing access to the behind the scenes process have greatly increased the company’s visibility in the city. In thinking back to the trials of his honeymoon year, Boal quips, “I wish I would have eaten lunch that first year.”

Nancy Wozny is a 2005 NEA Fellow of the Institute for Dance Criticism. She is also a 2004 recipient of the Gary Parks Memorial Award for Emerging Dance Critics, a two-time recipient of Artists Project Grants from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, a 2001 finalist for the Sommerville Award in Somatic Writing, and a 1994 Research Fellow at the Leonard Bernstein Center for the Arts and Education. Her work has appeared in The Houston Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Spirit, Artshouston, Culturevulture, Dance Source Houston, Dance Studio Life, Downtown, and other publications.


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