Passing ABT’s Torch: A Conversation With Susan Jaffe and Kevin McKenzie
American Ballet Theatre is starting the New Year with a new leader: Susan Jaffe, who last May was named as the successor to Kevin McKenzie after his 30-year tenure as artistic director. Jaffe isn’t new to ABT—she joined the corps at 18 and was a beloved principal dancer and international star there for 22 years. Since retiring from the stage, she honed her administrative skills while serving as a founding partner of Princeton Dance & Theater Studio, dean of dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Jaffe and McKenzie’s relationship is long and varied: They danced together at ABT, and she was still a principal when he became artistic director in 1992. Now their close friendship is easing the transition as she steps into one of the biggest roles in ballet. In this exclusive interview, they spoke to Pointe about what’s on the horizon for the company and for them as individuals.
Susan, you’re very passionate about story ballets. What rep are you planning for the future?
Susan Jaffe: I’m going to continue doing our Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, Manon, a lot of MacMillan rep, Neumeier. We’re getting [Christopher Wheeldon’s] new Like Water for Chocolate. And one of the things that’s going in the Koch fall season in 2023, which Kevin curated, is a new story ballet by Cathy Marston—Summer and Smoke, based on the Tennessee Williams play. But I also love abstract, contemporary ballet as well as classical short works—Theme and Variations and things like that. I love all of it. If it was only ballet with tutus, I wouldn’t be fulfilled. It’s the array that we have to offer that makes it more interesting.
You shadowed Kevin through last December, including the fall season and Nutcracker. Did that experience cause you to revise any of your original ambitions?
SJ: My overall dream would be to do a full season that I would want to dance. Kevin said, “Susan, I have these fantasy seasons that I would want to dance, that I never got to do.” There are time constraints—how many rehearsal weeks can you have, how many studios, how much new production can we actually get done in one season? Not only financially, but also wear and tear on the production team, the stagehands. There are many different limitations.
It’s easy to assume that with a company that has so many resources and amazing artists, you’d be able to write your own ticket. But, actually, in a bigger organization there are more limiting factors.
SJ: Yes, and I didn’t understand that until I got there. You want to maintain as much creativity as you can while working within those constraints. I’m not saying it’s not creative to do the same works year after year, but you want to make sure you’re not doing something so often that people get tired of it.
When you’re repeating productions, do dancers find that they’re able to mature in those roles, and there’s a benefit to it?
SJ: Oh, for sure. When you are able to do something more often, you become more secure in the role. And the more secure you are in the role, the more it teaches you. The characters teach you new things about who they are. When I was young at ABT, we were touring four months out of the year, and I was doing eight Swan Lakes a year. Now, they’re lucky if they get two, or four.
Kevin, what kind of guidance have you been providing to Susan during the transition?
KM: I hate to say it, but I haven’t been all that organized. Susan and I have a shared understanding about so many artistic experiences that it’s been a very organic process. I’m really just back-filling information. She needs to plan for 2023–24, and as much as I can, I give examples from the planning I did for 2022–23 to help the continuity. There’s been a fair amount of change in admin people, so Susan is actually inheriting a new team. The information I have is kind of obsolete, really. That’s the kind of conversations that we have. Would you concur with that, Susan?
SJ: Oh, absolutely. Most of this team is either a year old or less—executive director (Janet Rollé), marketing (Lourdes Liz), development (Stacy Margolis), a brand-new person working on contracts and touring. In a way that’s really good, because oftentimes we get set in our ways. “We tried that, and it doesn’t work.” But with a new team, you might find another way around something.
KM: Yes, and I think probably a little bit of an advantage on the artistic side is that there’s not that much change. And that’s the part Susan knows, anyway.
You’ve known each other for such a long time and in so many capacities. I imagine there is a lot of trust between you, and nonverbal communication.
SJ: I trust Kevin.
KM: But I don’t trust her! [laughter] We did our first Romeo and Juliet together, in 1981. There’s a long history there. When you work with somebody that long, and you know them well, and you have respect for one another, there’s trust. There’s a lot that doesn’t need to be said, in that way.
SJ: I agree. We’re different people and we have a different style, but we did grow up in the same company. And that is in our bones.
Kevin, will we see you back onstage at ABT as Don Quixote anytime soon?
KM: Look at me now! [laughter]
SJ: If he wants to be Don Q, I would be very happy to have him.
KM: I won’t even have to put on makeup!
SJ: Exactly—he’s got the beard and everything. Once Kevin gets a little bit of rest, we want him to come back and guest-coach. He’s so brilliant, especially with men and partnering.
Kevin, how are you feeling about going back to civilian life?
KM: I’m kind of excited about the novelty of it. Because 30 years of directorship is 30 years of service. You’re on call 24/7. And 20 years of a dancing career is not the same level of responsibility, but you’re responsible for your art form and you have to take care of your instrument. In my adult life, I have never not been in service.
Susan, you’re now the one on call 24/7.
SJ: Yes. Kevin says it with such grace—it is a life of service, especially if you’re the leader. You’ve got all these people who need to be taken care of and nurtured, and helped to grow and feel safe, and develop into important, vital artists. It’s a labor of love. But we love it, and that’s why we do it.