Company Life: A Change of Directors

When an artistic director moves on, company members have to ask themselves: What’s next?
Published in the February/March 2012 issue.

Joffrey Ballet director Ashley Wheater rehearses company dancer April Daly. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Company dancers share a special bond with their artistic directors. For years, even decades, they spend every moment trying to impress that one person at the front of the room—and benefiting from that person’s mentorship. When a director leaves, it can seem like the world has been turned upside down.

With a change of the guard imminent at Miami City Ballet (founding director Edward Villella will leave at the end of the 2013 season), another group of dancers is about to face the upheaval that follows a leader’s departure. The new director will have his or her own taste in dancers and repertoire, and a particular vision for the company—one that might have little to do with his or her predecessor’s.
But while a change of leadership can make you feel suddenly vulnerable, it’s also an opportunity. The reevaluation process isn’t a one-way street: It’s a chance for you to reassess your place in the company, too. It can be the push you need, either to rededicate yourself to the path you’ve been following or to be proactive about finding a new one. And whether you end up staying with the company or leaving, you’ll get to work with a new person who will stretch and challenge you in different ways.

What Does the New Director Want?
So what can you expect when a new director takes over? “It can be tricky,” says Ashley Wheater, who took the helm of The Joffrey Ballet in 2007. “I started by meeting with each of the dancers, telling them about myself and my vision.” Listen closely to the new director; it can help you decide for yourself whether the company will still be a good fit for you.

Director-dancer chemistry can be difficult to decode. But nearly every director is looking for dancers who are hard workers. If you think you’d like to stay with the company, make a point of showing the new director your dedication. Wheater spent his first year at The Joffrey assessing the company, and disciplined dancers quickly rose to the top of his list. “I started to look at their work ethic, and eventually it all became transparent,” he says.

Even the smoothest transitions have their bumps, so you should expect some upheaval. Under Wheater, The Joffrey’s company roster changed significantly. “I got flack, especially from the press,” Wheater remembers. But the decisions, he emphasizes, were professional, not personal—an important, albeit difficult, thing for dancers to keep in mind. Today, half of the company is made up of new hires. “I did not come to drill an army,” Wheater says, “but to further an artform.”

If You Leave
If you thrived under your old director but have trouble seeing eye to eye with the new one, it might be time to move on. Amy Fote, who danced with Milwaukee Ballet for 14 years, chose to leave her longtime home after Michael Pink came on as artistic director in 2002. He had a new vision for the company and she felt the tone changed quite a bit. (“He has a strong personality,” she says.) She wasn’t enjoying the work anymore, and realized MB was no longer the right fit.

If you decide to leave—or are let go, as several of the MB dancers were—take advantage of a chance to plan your next step. Are you looking for a company that resembles your former home in size and repertoire, or do you want to make a bigger change? Are you willing to accept a demotion or a lower salary at a company that will give you the artistic opportunities you want?

Craving a change, Fote knew that she needed a place where she could rediscover her love of dance. “I was wavering between trying for Houston Ballet or the Royal New Zealand Ballet—or retiring,” she says. After much deliberation, Fote joined Houston Ballet in 2005. She took a demotion to first soloist in the process, but felt the diverse repertoire at HB was worth it. In Houston, Fote found herself busy learning a number of ballets, with less rehearsal time and higher expectations. She flourished in the fast-paced environment. And she worked well with artistic director Stanton Welch, who eventually promoted her to principal.

Even if the circumstances of your departure are less than ideal, try not to burn bridges. “Michael and I ultimately parted on a good note, which was important to me,” Fote says. “I was even invited to MB to dance in a gala a few years ago.”

If You Stay
If you decide that you’d like to stay on under the new director, you can do more than just hope he’ll choose to keep you. Make your feelings known. Set up a meeting to discuss your interest and the reasons you would do well under his leadership.

For Sarasota Ballet principal Kate Honea, the transition from Robert de Warren to Iain Webb in 2007 brought much trepidation. “I didn’t want to leave—I knew this was my home,” she remembers. “But I was nervous. I was used to Warren; I was so comfortable. And I worried that Iain wouldn’t like my style.” Honea’s fears were assuaged after she arranged a meeting with Webb. “He was very positive about me,” she says. “He was also full of great ideas. Because he wasn’t a choreographer, he had plans to bring a lot of work to the company, including ballets by Ashton and Balanchine. I was excited by that.”

Even if you and your new director do reach an agreement, there will be an adjustment period, which is often as challenging as starting over at a new company. Honea remembers being surprised by the sea of new faces that appeared at SB after Webb took over. “They were all younger than I was,” Honea recalls. “I had to step up my game.” With Webb’s rank-blind casting style, Honea often found herself in the first cast for one role and the third for another. “The whole environment was different. I had to get used to sharing a role, which was new for me.” And Webb demanded a different style of dancing, as well. “I had to learn to use more of my body, especially for the new Ashton repertoire,” she says. “I needed to bend more and use my épaulement.”

Give yourself time to adjust to the new situation, and embrace it as a chance to grow. Honea doesn’t regret her decision. “Iain pushes me in a different way.”