English National Ballet Preps Future Dance Leaders With Its New Mentorship Program

October 29, 2020

English National Ballet first soloist James Streeter has practically grown up with the company. Since completing his training at the English National Ballet School, he went on to join the main company in 2004, rising up the ranks to first soloist in 2018. He’s danced his favorite roles, including Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet and Albrecht in Akram Khan’s Giselle. He even met his wife while dancing with the company, ENB lead principal Erina Takahashi. What’s left to do when you’ve accomplished so much as an artist? For Streeter, it meant learning more about the business side of the company. In November 2019, Streeter was named the first mentee of ENB’s Dance Leaders of the Future mentorship program. The program offers ENB’s dancers the opportunity to develop leadership skills and gain a greater understanding of the running of an arts organization.

Streeter says he wants to give back to the art form. “I’ve always been interested in how the company works as a whole,” he explains during a phone call from London. “I have a desire to enable this art form to continue and be able to do something bigger than what I can as an artist.”

Filling a Gap

The inspiration for the program came from a need to help more dancers prepare for the next step in their careers.

“One of the aspects that I felt was lacking in the industry was towards leadership,” says ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo. “Dancers rarely get the opportunity to experience all the other aspects that are necessary for a show to go on, like marketing, fundraising and finance. We wanted to offer those in the company who have leadership aspirations to shadow myself, be present at board discussions, converse with different departments, and then eventually produce something.”

Prior to taking the helm of ENB, Rojo shadowed National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain through a program called Rural Retreats, organized by UK organization Dance East. The program brings together international dance leaders to discuss and prepare for the future of the industry. It was an enlightening experience for Rojo, which she hopes to pass on through ENB’s mentorship program.

Tamara Rojo, in a white dance dress, and James Streeter, wearing a gray shirt and pants, face each other and crouch down, holding hands. A group of costumed dancers surround them in a half circle.

Artistic director and lead principal Tamara Rojo with Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

“What was a revelation for me was seeing all the other areas of a ballet organization and how intrinsically linked they are,” she says. “I learned that a good artistic vision will inspire the marketing department; will allow the development department to fundraise successfully; will allow a finance department to make the sums add up. A healthy ecosystem between all the different departments is what makes a strong organization.”

Learning the Ropes

For Streeter, preparing for a leadership role began as soon as he applied for the program. All applicants had to submit a curriculum vitae and undergo a panel interview.

“They were really giving us insight into what to expect for the future,” Streeter.

Once he was selected, he was immediately immersed in the various facets of ENB’s business. In addition to working with Rojo, Streeter also shadowed executive director Patrick Harrison and chief operating officer Grace Chan.

“One of my first meetings was with some of the trustees who were reviewing the company’s finances,” says Streeter. “One of my big questions has been ‘How can we maintain our artistic value while still meeting our financial needs in order to sustain as a company? How do we decide on repertoire that strikes that balance?’ Being in that meeting was eye-opening in understanding how to persuade someone who may not necessarily understand the artistic value of something but can understand the financial value. They are two different things but need to be understood equally. Grace Chan, our COO, is absolutely incredible at doing that.”

His big project was working as producer of the Emerging Dancer competition, held via livestream in September due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was a full-circle moment for Streeter, who had had a lot of experience with the competition as both a finalist and a mentor in previous years.

“I oversaw the whole workings of it, from the stage to marketing to ensuring that guests were ‘COVID-secure’ on arrival. We spent a long time making sure the building was extremely safe for everyone,” says Streeter. “My role was to tie all the departments together, making sure everyone was on the same page and enabling them to do their job while being supported by the other departments.”

Wearing green tights and tight green T-shirt, James Streeter jumps up in fifth position with his arms up in a V-shape.

Streeter in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated

Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB

Preparing to Lead

For dancers interested in learning more about leadership, Rojo’s advice is twofold. If you have an interest in a certain area of your company (e.g., marketing, development), reach out to individuals in those departments to gain more knowledge or offer help. Second, be aware and learn from other art forms so you are not just a “ballet specialist.”

Streeter says the experience with Dance Leaders of the Future has made an impact in how he approaches his career moving forward.

“The more understanding you have of how things work, the more you can appreciate people for what they’re doing,” he says. “So when things don’t necessarily go the way you feel they should have, you can understand the reasons for why that may have happened, and you can work with those people to either rectify or work around it.”

Rojo believes it’s imperative to invest in future leaders. “It’s one of the aspects that is not considered and often we think it’s a natural progression, but it’s not always that simple. It’s good to inspire those that have that ambition and invest in their knowledge so that when the time comes, they are prepared to lead the next generation.”