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Recent hirings illustrate there is no one approach to finding a new artistic director

By Steve Sucato

Pennsylvania Ballet in "Swan Lake" by Christopher Wheeldon, featuring Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench, photo Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet in “Swan Lake” by Christopher Wheeldon, featuring Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench, photo Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Hiring a new artistic director can be a daunting task especially if your organization has had little or no experience in doing so. Where to begin? Who to involve in the hiring process? What steps to take? These were some of the questions facing Pennsylvania Ballet, BalletMet Columbus, and Ballet San Jose recently when they went through a lengthy process of examining and defining company goals in order to lay the groundwork for an artistic director’s search. These three organizations’ searches each took what turned out to be very differing paths toward the same objective: hiring a new artistic leader. Here’s what happened.

The first step for each company was deciding who would be involved in the search. In the case of Pennsylvania Ballet, a seven-member search committee was chosen over a two-week period by Pennsylvania Ballet’s board chairs, who also co-headed the committee. The committee included current and former board members, ballet staff, and former Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa, who now helms The School of Pennsylvania Ballet. The decision to include a former dancer representative on the search committee was a valuable one said committee member and emeritus ballet trustee Michael C. Lillys. “We felt we needed a dancer on the committee to give perspective on what was important to the dancers,” he said. “Arantxa proved an asset especially in the interview process by knowing what questions to ask candidates about what goes on in the studio.” After all, dancers are the lifeblood of the company; without them – and their contributions to the artistic vision of the director – the company wouldn’t exist.

José Manuel Carreño, artistic director, Ballet San Jose, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

José Manuel Carreño, artistic director, Ballet San Jose, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

The dancer perspective was also important for BalletMet Columbus, whose 15-member search committee, also formed by the head of BalletMet’s board of directors, included two current company dancers along with ballet staff and board members.
Conversely, Ballet San Jose took a very different approach: essentially that of no search committee. That was because, says Millicent Powers, Ballet San Jose’s chair of the board of trustees, the company’s 10-member board and ballet administrative team had only one candidate in mind from the start: former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer José Manuel Carreño. Powers explained that as part of a recent overhaul in the way the company was run, the board had a desire specifically not have a position called an artistic director nor that of company manager. Instead the board adopted a team-based approach to managing the company. They redefined the position of “artistic director” with the specific vision of it being an artistic leadership position, minus the administrative duties most organization’s artistic directors are charged with.

Pennsylvania Ballet's new Artistic Director Angel Corella in class with soloist Lillian DiPiazza, Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

Pennsylvania Ballet’s new Artistic Director Angel Corella in class with soloist Lillian DiPiazza, Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

“There is a really question of semiotics when you come to using the title [of artistic director],” said Powers. Taking a more historical view of the position, she cites the role of artistic director in the late 1800s as one of a “dancer who was an ‘artist’ and carried that emotional content into their job as artistic director. Is an artistic director a business person? No, the title says artistic director.”

Powers says that when the board looked at what they needed, Carreño, who had been a guest dancer with the company, “really impressed them with his deep artistic knowledge and leads with that.” In the end, the board decided to retain the moniker of artistic director for the new position and Carreño was hired to fill it in June of 2013.

While Ballet San Jose had its new director in mind from the get-go, Pennsylvania Ballet and BalletMet Columbus’s search committees each initiated month’s-long processes to find theirs. To help in the search to replace retiring artistic director Roy Kaiser, Pennsylvania Ballet’s search committee turned to former Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser (no relation between the two, by the way) for guidance.

“The key thing I did for them was trying to get the search committee to be clear on what it is they were looking for in an artistic director and to outline those parameters to help narrow the search before moving into interviews,” said Michael Kaiser, who has an ongoing relationship with the company as a consultant. Lillys noted that the former Kennedy Center president “played a pivotal role in focusing our committee’s search efforts.”

BalletMet in Edwaard Liang's "Wunderland," Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

BalletMet in Edwaard Liang’s “Wunderland,” Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy BalletMet

Pennsylvania Ballet’s search started in late April of the company’s 50th year, and ended July 22, 2014, with the hiring of former Barcelona Ballet director and American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ángel Corella (López). Chief among the qualities Pennsylvania Ballet’s search committee outlined, they wanted someone who would serve as a mentor to the dancers. “We felt it was important that the new artistic director placed a high priority on the artistic development of all the dancers and selected staff (ballet master/ballet mistress) that would help accomplish that goal,” said Lillys.

They also didn’t want someone who was going to dramatically alter the company’s identity or change its programming mix, which Lillys described as a blend of Balanchine works, story ballets, contemporary and new works. The ballet, founded by Barbara Weisberger, had a long and deep affiliation with Balanchine, who generously gave a number of his works to help build up the company’s repertoire.

The organization and committee were also very much interested in improving Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistry and raising the stature of company, within its home city and on tour, to the level of renowned fellow Philadelphia arts organization The Philadelphia Orchestra, Lillys explained.

Other criteria discussed included whether the committee wanted candidates to come from a background aligned with a particular school of ballet or not, and if they were interested in considering candidates who might still have active dance performing careers.  Finally, said Lillys: “We needed someone who was going to be a strong face of the company: a visible public presence who would be engaged in fundraising.”

BalletMet’s search committee echoed many of those same points. Alternately though, while BalletMet, which has a long history of hiring artistic directors who choreograph, saw continuing that trend as a bonus, Pennsylvania Ballet’s committee discouraged hiring an artistic director who choreographed, rather the group preferred an artistic leader who would curate the works of others. Added workload and the pressure on the AD, who would have to consistently turn out hit ballets, were cited as reasons for not seeking out an active choreographer.

Other criteria high on the list included candidate name recognition in the ballet world and prior experience in an artistic director. Both Pennsylvania Ballet and BalletMet felt these were desirable but not eliminating factors in their searches for candidates. In the case of Ballet San Jose, the company leaned more heavily on the personality traits and leadership skills they saw in Carreño as being the missing piece in their team management puzzle.

While BalletMet did not engage a consultant like Michael Kaiser for help in its search, one search committee member had been involved in the hiring of outgoing director Gerard Charles. The committee also reached out to other like-minded organizations for advice, including Kansas City Ballet, which was simultaneously going through an artistic director search in 2012.

None of these three organizations opted to engage a headhunting firm to seek out and vet candidates. To reach prospective applicants, BalletMet chose a mix of advertisements in trade publications and online, word of mouth, and directly approaching potential candidates to help gather its pool of 88 applicants, according to 11-year company dancer and search committee member Adrienne Benz.

Edward LiangOne of those directly contacted was internationally known choreographer Edward Liang, who after BalletMet’s eight-month search was announced as the company’s fifth artistic director in its 36-year history in February 2013. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Ballet’s search committee turned to then-Kennedy Center president and consultant Kaiser to get the word out about its artistic directorship opening. “The press really got the word out for us,” said Kaiser. “The dance world is not particularly large and once it was announced that Roy Kaiser was retiring from the position, the resumes started coming in.”

Michael Kaiser also used his connections in the dance world to spread the word and, like BalletMet, directly contacted individuals to apply for the post. Pennsylvania Ballet received some 35 applications during the three-month search that began in May 2014 and concluded two months later with a hiring announcement.

In narrowing the pool of 88 applicants, said Benz, BalletMet’s search committee went over each applicant’s resume materials and used a numeric ranking system to rate each applicant with regard to dance background and experience and among other attributes. The committee then narrowed the applicants to a short list of four with whom the committee discussed job responsibilities. These finalists had the opportunity to work with the company dancers in the studio. Then the company dancers offered feedback to the committee on each candidate. The four also met with local arts organizations and high tier donors who filled out rating a sheet on each candidate and expressed their individual thoughts to the search committee chairs who then relayed that information to the rest of the search committee. Pennsylvania Ballet’s search committee similarly narrowed its applicant pool to a shortlist of seven who then went through two stages of interviews with the committee.

Ballet San Jose in Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room," Alejandro Gomez, courtesy Ballet San Jose

Ballet San Jose in Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room,” Alejandro Gomez, courtesy Ballet San Jose

Applicant confidentiality was a key part in all three hirings. None more so than in Pennsylvania Ballet’s search said Lillys, which unlike BalletMet’s, did not have any of their short-list candidates work in the studio with their company dancers. All three organizations chose not to involve their former artistic directors in their hiring process and all reported due diligence in vetting their hires. In the final count BalletMet’s committee required a unanimous vote to approve Liang’s hiring. Pennsylvania Ballet’s final decision to hire Corella was a unanimous one made by the entire search committee. Ballet San Jose’s board approach unfolded much like the signing of a professional athlete; the company negotiated the terms of Carreño’s contract with his agent.

Looking back on the process Lillys offered this additional advice to dance companies that may take on a similar search: “Get someone who is experienced in executive or more specifically artistic director searches,” Lillys said. He felt the guidance the committee received from Michael Kaiser was an invaluable timesaver. Also said Lillys, “Limit size of your search committee to better foster consensus and avoid unwieldiness in process.”

Benz cautioned: “One of the biggest issues we struggled with as a committee was involving the company dancers in the process. It was a fine line because things tended to get personal. What some dancers failed to recognize was the search committee had a lot of information the dancers were not privy to. It is great to involve everyone in the organization in the process but know where you have to draw the line.”

Steve SucatoA former dancer turned writer/critic living in Ohio, Steve Sucato studied ballet and modern dance at the Erie Civic Ballet (Erie, PA) and at Pennsylvania State University. He has performed numerous contemporary and classical works sharing the stage with noted dancers Robert LaFosse, Antonia Franceschi, Joseph Duell, Sandra Brown, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His writing credits include articles and reviews on dance and the arts for The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), Erie Times-News (Erie, PA), Pittsburgh City Paper (Pittsburgh, PA) as well as magazines Pointe, Dance Studio Life, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Stage Directions, Dance Retailer News, Dancer and webzines Balletco, DanceTabs, Ballet-Dance Magazine/Critical Dance.

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