Navigating Change: Succession in the Ballet World, Part 1

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. Please revisit From the Green Room on Thursday this week to read part 2 of this report.

By Nancy Wozny

Whether a ballet company is replacing its founder or the person that put the company on the map, change at the top doesn’t come easy. Even if a search firm is on hand to smooth the process, transitions have their trials. As no company wants to stay in the same place, succession points toward the future — for its company, its board, and its dancers. There’s also a healthy reshuffling of talent as various leaders change places, creating a sharing of the national ballet brain trust in the field. Along with the promise of a new beginning, a revitalized rep, and a fresh face re-branding, comes the often rough terrain of transition, ripe with pitfalls, but almost always, a good story.

The history of regional ballet in America has reached an age where founders have either retired, are about to retire, or, in many cases for older companies, face a changing of the guard that has become business as usual. Unlike modern companies, which often bear the name and personality of their founders, ballet institutions may have stronger ties to their home cities than allegiance to one individual, which may ease these transitions. The fact that ballet remains steeped in tradition creates an obvious tension toward the new. Like every organization, a ballet company follows a life cycle, which demands periodic renewal to maintain health and relevancy. Each succession story, although distinct and rooted in the organization’s unique history, successfully navigated the surly road of change, while keeping an eye on tradition with respect to technique, repertory and community connections; respecting the past, but not being defined by it; and pushing forward with grace and grit in bold new directions.

When Ben Stevenson, the then-artistic director of Houston Ballet, announced his retirement at the conclusion of rehearsal on the afternoon of February 27, 2001, there was no shortage of histrionics leading up to that point. Stevenson was not the founder of Houston Ballet, but with a 27-year tenure, he might as well have been. Drama or no drama, the behind the scenes executive team had already begun planning. “We started to think about a succession plan before Ben’s contract was over. He was 65 and it was time we starting the thinking process,” remembers Cecil C. Connor, Jr., Houston Ballet’s managing director. “We also put a guaranteed pension plan in place for Ben, a key move.” For Connor, who steps down in February 2012, succession was larger than replacing the artistic director; it provided valuable discourse for the future of the organization. Of course, the artistic and administrative staff felt considerable pain, regret, and sadness in bidding farewell to their esteemed director, but the move offered a well-needed time for organizational reflection and strategic planning. “After all, we were not looking to stay in the same place; the next director had to reflect where we were heading. We needed to figure what that would look like before looking for the director to take us there.” Connor formed a search committee of board members, donors, two dancers, and Stevenson. In more than 30 meetings, the committee hashed out the future along with the criteria for their new director. “Interestingly enough, being a choreographer was not a requirement, nor was previous experience having run a company,” says Connor. “We looked back to the organization’s founding mission, which is to advance the art form.”

Stanton Welch rose to the top of the list of eight finalists fairly quickly. No stranger to Houston, Welch had already set Indigo and Bruiser on the company, and was even setting his Madame Butterfly during his three-day interview process. Welch got the news in person from the board, which he responded to with a mixture of shock and gratitude, followed by a tinge of nausea. “It’s so rare as a dancer to get exactly what you want,” recalls Welch. Having witnessed several successions at the Australian Ballet, he knew the potential land mines. “Change needs to be gradual,” says Welch. “The dancers needed to feel honored for their past work.” Still, a few ruffled feathers came with the territory. Welch brought in his own artistic team, a handful of dancers followed Stevenson to Forth Worth where he assumed the post of artistic director at Texas Ballet Theater, and principal Dominic Walsh left at the end of Welch’s first year to concentrate on his own company. Connor had left room in the rep for Welch to make his mark right out of the gate. In a happy coincidence of sorts, the latter part of Welch’s first season featured Tales of Texas, a work commissioned by Stevenson way before Welch landed his predecessor’s job. “It made a nice connection to Ben,” said the choreographer.

Stevenson did not go quietly into the night without a Texas-sized party. Houston Ballet threw him a tribute performance that people still talk about today. Tears were shed, pointe shoes put back on by former ballerinas, and the organization hailed its outgoing leader in grand style. The academy was renamed in Stevenson’s honor as Welch walked in the door. Houston welcomed the Aussie in equally bold style with an enormous banner of the boy wonder’s handsome face draped from the ballet’s Wortham Center home. Since then Welch’s stamp on the rep has been profound, with a focus on works by Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Glen Tetley, Christopher Wheeldon, Christopher Bruce, Mark Morris, Natalie Weir, Julia Adam, and others. He has turned out a steady stream of his own works, both abstract and new story ballets. Welch has since learned to drive, a truck to be exact, and evens owns a pair of cowboy boots. “It’s official,” Welch quips. “I’m a southerner now.”

Not only did Septime Webre of The Washington Ballet have the problem of filling the past director’s shoes in 1999, founder May Day’s feet where still in them, next door, in fact, as she stayed on as the director of the school for his first five years. Webre speaks with utmost respect at any mention of Day’s legacy. “It was her baby. It was so important that she be the first to know about the changes I was making,” says Webre. “Although she was ready to retire, I had to ensure she still felt engaged.” During those first years, Day visited classes and rehearsals and gave her ideas on casting. Webre took a twin mission approach, to establish a new course, yet keep a philosophical link to Day. He took a few years off from the Choo-San Goh repertory, which he felt necessary in order to bring in new voices. Despite a need to be deeply mindful of Day’s presence, Webre was still able to make a strong mark that first year. That first season the company broke ticket sale records. As the first company to perform in Cuba since 1960 in the fall of 2000, Washington Ballet garnered national attention. Under Webre, the budget expanded from $2 million to $8.5 million, and the repertory reaching in fresh directions including new productions of Giselle, Coppélia and Romeo & Juliet. By increasing outreach programs and partnerships with local arts organizations, Webre has been hailed as a bridge builder, and quite the man about town. When Day died in 2006, Webre honored her by dedicating that next season to her. In addition, her name appears on the logo and the school is named for her. “The care taken to preserve her legacy as the founder is imperative,” insists Webre, “it needs to remain part of the DNA of the organization.”

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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