Dance and Family Life at Ballet Austin
By Gavin Larsen
“Our belief is that our dancers should not have to choose between performance career and parenthood. By working together, a solution can be found that benefits the company by enriching the lives of the team members.”
– Steven Mills, Artistic Director, Ballet Austin
Despite the daunting landscape for independent and freelance dance professionals, we’re seeing encouraging trends in how some dance companies regard the family lives of their employees. Lourdes Lopez’s passion in encouraging the dancers of Miami City Ballet to pursue career and family is inspired by her personal experience as a dancer and mother. But Ballet Austin, currently with three mothers and a father on its roster, has a male artistic director with no children of his own. For artistic director Steven Mills and executive director Cookie Ruiz, supporting their dancers in parenthood is a valued aspect of their organizational culture.
Ruiz notes that while it’s not hard to see why she, a working mother of two, is a strong advocate for generous maternity provisions, the core philosophies that shape Ballet Austin’s policies come from Mills. Taking the helm at Ballet Austin in 2000, he made the decision to eliminate rankings, creating an ensemble company that was, artistically and administratively “horizontal rather than vertical,” Ruiz explains. “As a producing choreographer, he wanted a team of collaborative, intelligent artists who shared a certain sensibility, positivity, and trust, and with whom he could create,” she adds. “With all that going on, when a dancer presents with something so normal in life as a pregnancy, how could we cut them off?”
While there are no formal or written guidelines on maternity or paternity at Ballet Austin and each instance is handled on a case-by-case basis, “Our policy is that if you come in and say, ‘I’m pregnant,’ we say, ‘Fabulous — and let’s make a plan.’ And we are as generous as we possibly can be,” Ruiz says. That plan is all about timelines. The critical factors are the point in the season when the dancer becomes pregnant, her desires for how long to dance into her pregnancy, when (or whether) to return afterwards, and her interests and skills in or out of the studio. The dancer is kept on salary as much as possible when not dancing, either by teaching, restaging choreography for Ballet Austin 2 or the company’s fellowship program, or interning in an administrative department. Since the company never lets the dancers’ health insurance lapse, losing medical care is not a concern. And, in a gesture that underscores the two-way commitment between the company and its dancers, “We pay through a grace period, so the moment the dancer walks back into the studio to take class and start getting back in shape, we start paying their salary again,” Ruiz says.
The company also encourages new mothers (in all departments, not just dancers) to bring their infants to work during the first year, and has made space available for babies and child care providers, as well as for breast-feeding. Ruiz notes: “It says to our parents, ‘We really want the mom to be with the child,’ and it just means so much to keep them close during infancy.”
The most striking element of Ballet Austin’s stance is its conviction that parenting is considered an inevitable and natural step in human life and adds value to the organization. Support of an employee through life events is an investment that reaps great returns, Ruiz insists. “The people we hire are the most important thing we have. Art and people — those are the only two places we spend our money. If you hire people you trust, believe in, and really love, you give them … the world. How could you do less? Why would we not be there for our employees when situations arise in their lives? It’s just not that hard. And when kindness and respect are paid to someone, more often than not, it is paid back. Not once have we gone through this and afterwards thought, ‘Oh, that was a bad investment.’ It absolutely gets paid back reciprocally.”
Photo, from left: Stephen Mills, Ballet Austin artistic director with dancers and recent parents Aara Krumpe, mother of Leo (5 years old) and Lucas (3 years old ); Michelle Thompson, mother of Ozark (3 years old) and Oxford (2 months old); Jaime Lynn Witts and Frank Shott, parents of Evaline (3 years old); and Cookie Ruiz, executive director. Courtesy Ballet Austin.
Gavin Larsen danced professionally with Oregon Ballet Theatre, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She retired from full-time performing in 2010 to focus on teaching, coaching, and writing about dance. Her articles and essays have been published in Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, and the Threepenny Review. She lives in Portland, Ore., where she is on the faculty of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.
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