Leadership Corner: Jodie Gates, Vice Dean and Director of the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, University of Southern California

Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its feature, Leadership Corner, disseminating the voices and experiences of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted below or on our Facebook page.

Jodie Gates is vice dean and director of the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, where she is also a professor of dance. She is the new school’s first director and was given unprecedented responsibility for implementing the artistic vision and creating a dance curriculum and faculty from the ground up. The resulting curriculum, called “The New Movement,” is a new hybrid model for dance — expressed in studio practice, music, choreography, performance, new media and scholarship. This new model immerses students in a variety of foundational dance styles and has them become fluent in technologies like animation and video, which increasingly impact the dance world.

Formerly a tenured professor of dance at University of California, Irvine, she has mentored and taught graduate and undergraduate students as well as designed initiatives in higher education since 2006.

A celebrated principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, Gates was also a principal guest artist with several companies around the world and she has worked with a host of renowned choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, Agnes de Mille, Paul Taylor, and Gerald Arpino. She also regularly stages the ballets of renowned choreographer William Forsythe for companies such as the Paris Opera Ballet, Scottish Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Prague National Theatre Ballet, Zurich Opera Ballet, Teatro alla Scala, Houston Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet.

As an internationally recognized choreographer, Gates has created more than 60 original dance works. She has been commissioned by dozens of dance companies and academic institutions, and her work has been performed at the Kennedy Center, the Juilliard School, Princeton University, American Ballet Theater, New York’s City Center Theater, Staatsballett Berlin, the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, the Vail International Dance Festival and many other venues. 

Gates is the founder and artistic director of Southern California’s award-winning Laguna Dance Festival. Since 2005, the organization has fostered artistic collaborations, furthered dance education and community engagement, and presented dozens of the nation’s top contemporary dance companies.

Dance/USA: Tell us a little bit about your role at the USC Kaufman School.

Jodie Gates: Approximately five-and-a-half years ago, I was recruited to lead the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California. And at that time, I was a tenured professor at UC Irvine in southern California. When I was offered the position, I wasn’t quite sure about the monumental task required. In fact, it’s been a huge amount of administrative, artistic, management and leadership responsibility. I have finished our third year of the Bachelor of Fine Arts, which is a four-year program. We also have non-majors and minors; more than 2,000 students take dance classes on campus in our state-of-the-art building. It is a private university with a very strong academic reputation. I’m primarily charged with leading the culture, teaching philosophy and methodologies in the School of Dance. I have steered the legacy toward progressive thinking, and that’s been very rewarding. I was prepared by my prior experience: I was experienced in academia and had started a non-profit organization in southern California dedicated to dance presentation and education. So, I already had the chops, so to speak.

D/USA: You were building from scratch, though.

J.G.: Yes. I was building from scratch for my non-profit as well, which was founded in 2005. I believe I have this ability for patience, for calling on my network and Rolodex, and also for just being incredibly tenacious and passionate about what I do and what I’ve been doing most of my life. I’ve been dancing professionally since I was 16 years old.

D/USA: Let’s go back to your beginnings. Tell us about your path in the dance world and about the skills and knowledge base you gained from your professional performing career as a dancer that prepared you for leadership. And was there anything missing that you needed?

J.G.: My path was completely unorthodox. No one would have guessed that I would be in the position I’m in now except for perhaps Mr. Robert Joffrey. However, it does make sense. At the age of 15, Robert Joffrey discovered me in northern California, outside of Sacramento where I grew up. My mother put her foot down about me moving to New York City at the age of 15, so I waited a year. I moved to New York City at 16 and joined the Joffrey II dancers, the touring company of apprentices. I was an apprentice in the company when Ron Reagan, Jr. [President Reagan’s son], was in the company.

Aside from leaving home for the first time, I was surrounded by Secret Service … dancing with the President’s son … meeting his father and mother. That was my entrée into the professional dance field. I joined the main company a year and a half later and had a 15-year career with the Joffrey Ballet. Robert Joffrey absolutely helped shape the person I am today. I think that he saw that in me. He saw that in many of us in different ways. For example, when I was 20, I was still a very young performer in the company. When we toured across the United States, the company would provide masterclasses for local schools. He would send me out to teach young students.

Robert Joffrey saw that gift in me and he would talk to me about it. He saw much more in me than I saw in myself, perhaps my work ethic, my focus, my drive, my willingness to try things that, perhaps, hadn’t been tried before. I think about the people who also noticed [those qualities] when I was 18, which was when William Forsythe came to the Joffrey and staged a piece. He chose me when I was a newly hired dancer in the company.

I didn’t know what was happening. I was so young, but I believe that other artists, leaders and mentors saw something in me. That truly shaped and helped me sort out how I saw myself in the field. I always was willing to help people out and I very interested in either directing a dance company or becoming a choreographer. Later, I felt as though I had a valuable point of view and the skills to be a facilitator, which is something that I recognize and pride myself on: That it’s about the whole and about moving the field forward and it’s less about who we are as individuals.

Photo courtesy of Jodie Gates. Photo by USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance

Photo courtesy of Jodie Gates. Photo by USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance

D/USA: When it was time for to leave the stage, did you have a sense of what you were going to do and did you feel prepared?

J.G.: I retired at age 40 after a successful career in NYC, Philadelphia, then Germany, then returning to New York. Interestingly enough, I didn’t have a game plan other than being a creative leader. I felt prepared for the next step without knowing exactly what that was. I was finished with one more plie — done. Honestly, I felt, “I’ve done this and it’s been remarkable. Now it’s time to move on.” I trusted that I had essential skills that would transfer to my next phase of my life. Interestingly, when I did retire, I moved to southern California just to have a moment to reflect. I was choreographing and staging ballets for Bill Forsythe internationally, so it didn’t really matter where I was based. That year I founded a non-profit dance organization — Laguna Dance Festival. Not knowing exactly what that might mean, but people thankfully followed the vision. I believe I’ve always been very clear about leading and clear about the vision, and, essentially, I had gained skills that I learned [as a dancer], which were completely transferable.

Laguna Dance Festival still exists to this day. I continue to bring master teachers, companies and lectures to the community of Laguna Beach in Orange County. It’s won several awards. I have companies coming every year. And for me, what I saw was the lack of the art of dance being accessible to the general population and that was what drove me to launch that organization. Through my network of many years with the Joffrey and other companies, I called upon people I knew. Of course, I was learning as I went along.

D/USA: What are your thoughts on the dearth of female leadership in the dance field? Did you experience any pushback or discrimination as a woman in your path to leadership? What would you say to the field about bringing more women into top leadership positions?

J.G.: In the beginning, I did face challenges to being taken seriously, when I went on interviews, for example, for leadership positions. At one point I thought I wanted to lead a company as artistic director and I did feel scrutinized in a way that, perhaps if I was a man, I wouldn’t have been.

D/USA: Were you asked about family or children, for example?

J.G.: Exactly. And it’s inappropriate. There’s this idea that women just can’t lead a large group or a large team, right? Which is contrary actually. Women are incredible leaders because of their compassion and the ability to raise a family, for example. The number of women now leading, I think, is exponential compared to even five years ago. Look at all the women leaders in academia as well as in dance companies: in Cleveland, Richmond, Memphis, English National Ballet — all have women leaders. However, in the ballet world there’s still hierarchy, and, I believe, some misogyny. That needs to change. It will because it is changing in every other field, but that glass ceiling is still there. Personally, I feel a bit more empowered because of the [#metoo] movement that is going on and because of the recognition of how particularly misogynistic the ballet world has been in the past. Women were the muses, for example, and the men tended to be the choreographer/directors.

I’d love to see young female leaders and choreographers get out there more. I look for young women to mentor and very often they’re right in the school. I encourage them to create work. I encourage them to speak up. Everybody comes in with an opinion of the art form so I encourage them to articulate it. Don’t just dance it.

D/USA: Can you assess the state of the dance field? Are we moving forward or in stasis at this moment in time?

J.G.: We have work to do because the model is just shifting so quickly. As leaders we need to actually look to the younger generation to help us design new models and trust that they’ll take us somewhere. We have a ways to go. I trust that in the next decade exciting projects and companies will emerge. I’m not the only one thinking this way, which leads me to believe that there’s going to be a collective renaissance and certainly ballet, for example, is not dead. It’s still such an exquisite art form but companies — any contemporary company, really — will need to rethink its training, approach, brand and its model. I hear discussions on all levels about where dance is going and what’s next. Because those conversations are happening, I feel optimistic.

Lisa Traiger

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications including Dance, Dance Teacher, Washington Jewish Week and DCDanceWatcher.


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