Leading Ladies

Are ballet companies different when led by a female artistic director?

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Karen Kain at National Ballet of Canada. Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC

Before becoming its artistic director, Karen Kain danced for every director in National Ballet of Canada’s history, then staged ballets, did fundraising and observed the administrative offices under her predecessor James Kudelka. But she wasn’t ambitious for the top job. Although she had a strong female role model in founder and first director Celia Franca, Kain says she didn’t have huge confidence in her own management abilities. “I may have been naïve, but back then I was happy to be learning and to support James,” says Kain. “I didn’t necessarily think he was grooming me.”

While ballet has always put a premium on female dancers, until recently few companies looked to women for the leading job. But there are some exciting changes today, from major appointments like Julie Kent at The Washington Ballet, to international ones like Aurélie Dupont at Paris Opéra Ballet and regional ones like Hope Muir at Charlotte Ballet. Will having more female directors have an impact on the field? Of course, leadership qualities vary from woman to woman. But many female directors share a history of creative perseverance, which can give them a desire to listen and learn from the limits placed on them. Besides acting as role models, these women often bring a more open-minded management style to an industry infamous for its stiff hierarchical history.

A Wealth of Experience

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Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet. Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB

For decades, former ballerinas watched as principal men transitioned straight into artistic directorships, often without any outside job experience in-between, while the few exceptional women who made it usually did so with dazzling and varied resumés. The result is that most women who helm companies right now arrived with finely tuned visions. For example, when Lourdes Lopez took the reins of Miami City Ballet in 2012, she’d spent time reporting on the arts for television, managing The George Balanchine Foundation as its executive director and co-founding the contemporary ballet company Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon. Virginia Johnson founded Pointe magazine (Dance Magazine’s sister publication) before relaunching Dance Theatre of Harlem’s company. Dorothy Gunther Pugh of Ballet Memphis earned a degree from Vanderbilt University and a fellowship from the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

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Victoria Morgan at Cincinatti Ballet. Matthew William, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

“At one time, the few women running ballet companies of some size in America—Victoria Morgan, Stoner Winslett and myself—we all had college degrees, which was sort of unusual for artistic directors anywhere,” says Pugh. “Did we have a different inclination from men that made us want a different toolset to enter that world? I don’t know, but I was interested in so many things and knew I needed to be a leader.”

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Emily Molnar at Ballet BC. Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC

Likewise, Emily Molnar felt the pull of leadership early on, but spent 10 years exploring various artistic management opportunities first: She ran a youth company, and worked as a solo artist and freelance choreographer. She feels these outside experiences influence the way she directs her dancers at Ballet BC today. “I am not interested in a top-down or fear-based structure,” she says. After organizing a retreat for her dancers recently, Molnar has begun to ask them more about what they need and how they can contribute to the company. “Who wants to teach? Who wants to choreograph? Who wants to lead? We sat together, not producing work but discussing the vision they have for themselves and for the company,” says Molnar. “Innovation comes not only from the stage but also the culture in which we make the work.”

An Eye for Diversity

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Virginia Johnson at DTH. Quinn Wharton for Pointe

Because they know the so-called glass ceiling so intimately, many female directors are serious about fostering diversity in ballet. For instance, Johnson is reinvigorating DTH with “Women Who Move Us,” an initiative aimed at fostering new work by female choreographers of diverse backgrounds. At English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo recently presented a triple bill by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Aszure Barton and Yabin Wang, provocatively titled “She Said.”

Since arriving at Grand Rapids in 2010, Patricia Barker has brought 50 works into the repertoire, more than half of them by women, including Ochoa’s first full-length ballet. “The previous director was a choreographer and he took all of his work with him, which left nothing in the repertoire,” she explains. Barker has embraced the agility of being a small company not bogged down by tradition. “The dancers have flourished by doing so many different works, and as a regional company, I want to provide the audience with a wide spectrum.”

For Pugh, programming begins by considering the Memphis community. “We don’t just say, ‘Oh my gosh, we need a woman on the bill.’ The program is set up around ideas we want to have a conversation about,” she says. “Next fall we will chew on the ideas behind romantic and classical ballet, exploring the characteristics of these ballets while looking at both gender and racial imbalances.”

A Nurturing Leadership Style

Whether or not they become mothers, women are often brought up to have more nurturing qualities. Yet, ballet remains a demanding field filled with tough choices and direct conversations. Stereotype or not, dancers often find women use greater empathy in their language and approach.

For Molnar, solving any difficult personnel puzzle is about having a deeper conversation surrounding artistic fulfillment. “Is someone happy? Are they inspired? Do they want to be in the studio?” asks Molnar. She resists referring to company members as girls or boys, believing it is important to treat her dancers as accountable, self-directed women and men.

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Dorothy Gunther Pugh at Ballet Memphis. Carla McDonald, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

“I always get a variety of opinions when I am giving feedback,” says Kain. “I try to be sensitive to my relationship to the person—how much trust we have and how much they can accept what I am saying.” Pugh agrees: “Never mind HR rules, you have to understand that young artists are vulnerable and be kind first. They might not be able to see what you see.”

This type of compassion can help to maintain the health of organizations in trouble or transition. “A lot of times, directors come in and they really want to change a company,” says Jeanette Delgado, principal dancer with MCB who spent much of her career under the direction of Edward Villella. “But Lourdes was so thoughtful about how the transition would affect everyone and so it has been a gradual shift instead of a storm.” In the studio, the company has adjusted to a new way of working. “Lourdes is more thought-oriented—she takes her time to break phrases apart, she really asks us to think,” says Delgado. “Edward was more about the energy and the attack, but Lourdes invites us into a more pensive process.”

The Results

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Patricia Barker at Grand Rapids Ballet. Courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet

The effects these women have had are promising. While Barker has grown both the size of Grand Rapids Ballet and its stature (with more than 400 dancers showing up to this year’s open audition), both Ballet Memphis and Miami City Ballet have recently toured to New York City to much acclaim. Kain recently celebrated her tenth year with a healthy company of 76 dancers. And a new generation is growing up under the influence of these powerful women.

“It makes me excited that, for the younger generation of dancers starting with Lourdes, the gender issue isn’t even a thing,” says Delgado. “They don’t realize it wasn’t always the way it is now. I always thought ballet mistress was the next step, but now there is this spark of possibility.” 

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