Looking for leaders

Heading a ballet company isn’t easy. Mess it up and the end can be brutal. Sarah Crompton meets directors who have stayed the course, and some who didn’t, asking what it takes – and why it goes wrong.

Football managers are used to being judged on their team’s performance. Results count, and if you don’t score, you’re out, in a merry-go-round of revolving doors which sees people appointed in a fanfare of hopeful glory, only to head home a short time later with ambitions unfulfilled.

Ballet’s artistic directors too are being judged on results, and companies suffering from similar high-profile and acrimonious departures. In 2016 alone Benjamin Millepied left Paris Opera Ballet after two and a half years in post, while Mauro Bigonzetti resigned from La Scala after just eight months as artistic director, citing a back problem. Johan Kobborg controversially left the ballet company at the Bucharest National Opera, while Francesco Ventriglia announced his intention to quit Royal New Zealand Ballet after a dispute about his treatment of dancers. Meanwhile in Berlin dancers at the Staatsballett have vigorously lobbied against the appointment of the contemporary choreographer Sasha Waltz, due to replace Nacho Duato as artistic director in 2019 (working alongside Johanna Ohman, from a classical background).

Dance history is littered with the corpses of directors who were defeated by internal and external politics and had to move on – think of Kenneth MacMillan’s unhappy time at the Royal Ballet, or Rudolf Nureyev’s in Paris. More recently; look at Alexei Ratmansky at the Bolshoi, never mind the subsequent tragic attack on Sergei Filin. Yet the current relentless churn seems to indicate a genuine problem around leadership in dance.

Luke Rittner

Luke Rittner. Photo: Spiros Politis

Leadership is an especially pressing concern at a time when there is a general sense that ballet must renew itself if it is to survive. As troubleshooter Michael Kaiser points out, ‘the field is struggling. It’s dealing in many instances with reduced audience size and trying to find ways to involve younger people who are not getting the same level of arts education in their schooling. It’s competing with forms of online entertainment which have so many people not going out of their homes. It is a very challenging world.’ This uncertainty underlies many specific leadership difficulties.

‘The qualities you require are so numerous,’ says Luke Rittner, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Dance and a wise counsel in such matters. ‘You need incredible artistic ability and integrity; but you also need to have the respect and trust of your staff. More than any other sort of leader, the head of a ballet company has lives in their hands. You also need to be someone who can attract sponsors and audiences. It’s a very demanding role.’

Assis Carreiro

Assis Carreiro. Photo: Sylvaine Poitau

Assis Carreiro knows the difficulties first hand. After 13 successful years at DanceEast, where – ironically – she founded and ran seminars for dance leaders, she took on the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2012, but left after a bruising two and a half years. She is still, to some extent, licking her wounds. ‘I have to not beat myself up. I presented fantastic repertoire and felt I gave them a new lease of life,’ she says. ‘I had successes and made mistakes, I know. But every mistake I made was too big for the board. There was never any thank you or recognition. That’s fine, but it means you don’t trust anyone and you’re constantly fire-fighting and it’s very difficult.’

Looking back Carreiro recognises that she walked into ‘a volatile, politicised company’ where trouble had been brewing under previous artistic director Kathryn Bennetts, who had walked out over plans for a merger with Flemish Opera. Carreiro agreed with the merger, but faced different opposition. The dancers resisted her because she hadn’t danced, and because she delegated taking class and rehearsals to the ballet masters. ‘My view is that the ballet world is stuck in the way they are educated, the way that they think about their art form, it doesn’t help it. I really wanted to shift things.

‘Diaghilev showed us it can work. Opera and theatre show us it can work. It comes back to the education of the dancer, that the director is god and has to tap you on the shoulder. That godly figure may have been
a huge star, but a huge star does not always make an artistic director.’

Johan Kobborg

Johan Kobborg. Photo: ONB

Indeed. Johan Kobborg’s international reputation as a dancer couldn’t help him with the political climate in Romania which meant that, despite having increased ticket sales and improved both the repertory and standard of dancing, he found himself on the wrong side of an argument that involved everyone from the Prime Minister downwards. ‘I think I learnt too much about politics in Romania,’ he says, talking for the first time about his decision to resign.

‘It is so corrupt. I made a choice. I wasn’t fired, I left. It was a far from easy decision but I knew there was no way I could function under the kind of leadership that had walked into the building. The theatre director who had hired me was ousted and anyone who had anything to do with him had to go.

‘It was crazy. There were two or three interim directors. I think the ballet became too popular too quickly, in terms of the audience and in terms of the attention it got, not just from local people but also internationally. But if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything.’

Like Carreiro, Kobborg found himself on the wrong side of some of the dancers, who resented the way he recruited new dancers from abroad. There were ns dancers when he took over ‘but half could not dance
and I never saw them so the minute you start to demand something it is tricky:’ Any small change was resisted: casting used to be announced on a pencil-written sheet of paper; when Kobborg moved to email, ‘a handful of people were close to striking because how dare I introduce change.’

Though the situations Carreiro and Kobborg faced were in their different ways extreme, the essence of their dilemma is common to many dance leaders who are appointed to initiate change. They arrive with a vision to implement, yet face dancers who resent that vision – not least because it often threatens their own short careers and status within the company.

‘I think dancers are becoming very different people,’ says David McAllister who has guided the Australian Ballet since retiring as a dancer with the company in 2001. ‘When I was dancing we were very well behaved. We did what we were told and didn’t question much. I think this next generation are quite different and I like that.’

Angel Corella

Angel Corella. Photo: Alexander Izilaev

Managing dancers is a tricky proposition, to which Michael Kaiser has given some thought. He became known as ‘the turnaround king’ after encouraging financial and administrative stability at companies such as American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey and London’s Royal Opera House, before assuming his current role as chair of the Devos Institute of Arts Management. ‘In ballet, almost more than any other art form, an artistic director will have their own particular and unique point of view and prejudices about the kind of dancers they want to work with,’ he says. ‘There’s very often a period of artistic discontinuity when a new director tries to bring in the kind of dancers they want.’

This happened at Pennsylvania Ballet, as the board decided it wanted to change its reputation from a company specialising in Balanchine into a broad-based company with a mixed repertory of story ballets and new one-act works. They hired Angel Corella who almost immediately ran into difficulties. Of the company’s 43 dancers, 17 left at the end of his second season in charge: Corella chose not to renew 12 contracts and five others quit. ‘It was a very tough decision,’ he says. ‘Throughout I could see which dancers wanted to be part of the change and which didn’t – it was really tough but it was necessary. Dancers have to be athletes and you have to be able to do different kinds of styles and different kind of choreography. Some people understood right away and some people didn’t – and those people went to the press and they talked.’

Karen Kain

Karen Kain. Photo: Karolina Kuras

Even the most experienced artistic directors such as Karen Kain, in charge at the National Ballet of Canada since 2005, still find dealing with dancers’ hopes and aspirations one of the hardest aspects of their job. ‘I wish that I were tougher,’ Kain says. ‘I very often wish in this job that I’ve been trained in psychology. It’s the hardest thing. I get very emotional.’

She recognises that it is important to promote the young even if that is difficult for more established dancers. ‘There is resentment around the promotion of talent,’ she says. ‘But part of the legacy you want to leave your company is to expose the next generation while having respect and admiration for those at the end of their careers. That’s a very difficult balance.’

McAllister concurs. ‘You’ve got to make everyone feel valued,’ he says. ‘You have to be so honest with people and that’s what I found difficult. I wanted everyone to feel good about themselves but you can’t make everyone’s dreams come true. You have to put your bets on the dancers you think are going to be most successful. But I love it when dancers prove me wrong.’

David McAllister

David McAllister. Photo: Kate Longley

Crucially, as artistic directors pursue their course, they need the support of the staff and the boards or institutions that appointed them. At Pennsylvania, Corella has retained such backing, and with ticket sales rising and favourable reviews he may now be on his way to a more settled time which will enable him to fulfil his vision. He is very clear about his responsibilities: ‘It’s a combination of bringing great choreography and keeping the dancers challenged every day. And for them to see that the artistic director is there. That he has a direction and he is very present.’

Kobborg’s backers left the Opera House before he did; in Paris, it appears that Millepied, moving very quickly at an august institution, was abandoned before his reforms could take effect. In London, Tamara Rojo who has now been in charge of English National Ballet for four years, has made radical changes to the company she inherited, but her board has stood solidly behind her. ‘The board has to be consistent. If they chose a vision, they have to support that, as scary as it might be,’ she says. ‘They must commit to it, at least for the time it takes for the leader to develop that vision. Sometimes it is very beautiful on paper and quite scary in reality, and I have to tell you many of the things we have done have been scary for us as an organisation, when we are investing money and resources in them.’

Kaiser notes that boards also need to think about what they require in leaders. ‘Maybe we haven’t thought through fully the implications of changing artistic vision,’ he says. ‘You’re not just changing artistic leaders: you’re changing dancers, audience expectations, donors’ expectations. There’s an awful lot implied by all that.’ Echoing Carreiro, he also believes that leaders need formal training and support. The qualities that make people great dancers – single-minded focus, a perfectionist’s pursuit of their art – do not necessarily prepare them for mentoring others or transforming an organisation. ‘We expect people by osmosis to absorb it in their careers but we don’t actually teach them,’ says Kaiser. ‘And we don’t have number two positions in organisations which allow people to move, learn with a mentor and then eventually become an artistic director.’

Interestingly; many dancers who have adapted best to leadership have had some form of training. As an associate artist at the National Ballet of Canada, Kain saw all aspects of company administration up close before taking over herself; McAllister had been involved in fund­raising during periods of injury and took a degree in arts management before applying for the directorship.

Tamara Rojo

Tamara Rojo. Photo: Matt Holyoak

Rojo was always the kind of dancer who analysed what was happening around her, but she actively prepared for management, taking a degree in the performing arts and then applying to shadow Kain (‘someone I admired as a dancer and a director’) in Toronto. ‘I didn’t just shadow Karen, I shadowed the head of marketing, the head of development, the financial director, the executive director, I was able to attend board meetings and hear what private donors expected. It was very interesting.’

Like McAllister, Rojo found the DanceEast retreats for leaders incredibly valuable; places to share ideas and discuss difficulties, not only with other directors, but with executives in different fields. McAllister still quotes what he learnt from Gail Rebuck, chair of Penguin Random House. ‘As a director, you need to have a very clear picture of what you want to do and then talk about it to everyone so that they understand. That took me a long time to realise. I felt if I said something once or twice then everyone knew what I was talking about.

‘Gail Rebuck taught me that when people are saying back to you what you have been saying, that’s the moment you don’t have to say it anymore. That’s when the penny dropped that you have to keep communicating all the time. No matter how much you say it people are always going to forget the important thing.’

The other half of communicating, he adds, is to listen – and be prepared to change. ‘I really appreciate when people have those hard conversations. Sometimes I shut up and listen – then go home and analyse how we can make things better. Then start communicating all over again.’

Rojo agrees that communication and empathy are essential, not just for the smooth running of companies but for the broader aims of dance. ‘One of the things that attracted me to this job is the long-lasting impact that you can have in this art form,’ she says. ‘When I look at the past directors that inspire me, like Ninette de Valois, Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre, Nureyev in Paris, they had a very clear vision about the art form, they had courage, they were risk-takers, they developed the talent within their organisation.

‘Those are practices I like to emulate. To see people’s dreams coming true. Transforming the art form and moving the audiences in a way they didn’t expect and giving them an experience that is surprising and exciting and makes them want to come back.’

Assis Carreiro sees the problem of changing to cope with the modern world as lying at the heart of dance’s leadership issues. ‘It is a bigger question. Until we’ve moved away from this fantasy of being princesses and princes, and become a vibrant, intelligent art form with thinking people, we’re stuck.’

This article appeared in Dance Gazette, Issue 1, February 2017.