American Ballet Theater appoints former dancer Susan Jaffe as director
This is a watershed moment for the advancement of women in the field. Jaffe’s appointment, announced May 9, matches San Francisco Ballet’s announcement in January that Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo will replace longtime artistic director Helgi Tomasson this year. The hiring of these women reports a continuing trend, as thus far, women’s leadership gains have been overwhelmingly among smaller regional companies. According to recent data from Dance/USA, the national service organization, troupes with budgets of $3 million and under are overwhelmingly led by female artistic directors. Ballet companies with larger budgets tend to be male-dominated, with very few exceptions.
This is the case, for example, of the New York City Ballet, the obvious third member of the upper echelon of ballet in the country. It has always been run by men, although in 2019 retired dancer Wendy Whelan became associate artistic director after applying for the top job.
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Jaffe’s selection seems important for another reason. In a recent interview, the former ballerina shared a far-sighted and thoughtful vision for ABT that could quietly blow up the whole way we think about ballet. Jaffe, who recently turned 60, has in mind steps such as opening artistic processes to the public and soliciting the views of ballet viewers and other stakeholders on the delicate task of updating the thorny works of the classical canon. It’s an audience-driven approach.
“I was there when people were rolled up on the block, sleeping in at night to see a show,” Jaffe said, thinking back to the early 1980s when his professional career began. Having moved from her hometown of Bethesda, Maryland, she joined the ABT corps de ballet in 1980.
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Three years later, Jaffe was a principal dancer, at a time when ABT programs were featured by celebrity ballet partnerships such as Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was then artistic director. The audience was delighted. The ballet was a hot ticket.
“What’s interesting about it,” Jaffe said of the large fanbase, “is that these people were educated about ballet.”
Jaffe speaks from her office at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, where she has served as Artistic Director since 2020. Prior to that, she spent eight years as Dean of Dance at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Education is one of the main pillars of his plans for ABT. It aims to fill gaps in public knowledge about ballet and dance, and build on this to leverage ABT’s programs.
“Ballet is a very intellectual art form and people don’t know that,” she said. “And when you don’t know much about it, it’s hard to understand, and I think that’s why it’s not as easy to understand as, say, music. It takes a while for the eye to pick it up because there is so much going on. But if you have a little insight, you can do it much faster.
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What’s interesting here is that Jaffe looks at the larger systemic problem. It is not enough to generate enthusiasm for a specific show. The biggest challenge is building potential long-term audiences and teaching audiences to appreciate and even desire this art form.
Is this a feminine way of approaching a problem? It’s tempting to say it. It may also be a smart thought. Jaffe did not discuss ticket sales, programming, or commissions. She talked about going back to basics. Lay the foundation for growth by building a knowledge base.
“I would like to do digital programs, maybe 15-20 minutes on the website. Like Cliffs Notes,” Jaffe continued. “To present the story, the lineage, the big themes, and here’s what to look for in ballet. I would also do it with contemporary works. You could do so much: The lineage of teachers and choreographers. How one dancer passes it on to the next.
“Then you start to understand the lineage and then you can see it in the movements and it starts to make more sense.”
In any performing arts organization, the audience is part of the equation. Nurturing new work is another. To expand ABT’s repertoire and the careers of unknown artists, Jaffe also plans to launch a choreography competition.
“I would very much like the Ballet Théâtre to discover new choreographers,” she says. “Often it’s safer to say, ‘Oh, someone other discovered them – so now I can give them an opportunity. “Instead, she said, ABT should lead the way by spotlighting talented new voices,” and giving them a platform, as well as a deeper educational component. “
As for ABT’s backbone – its long-standing treasure trove of classical and complete ballets, many of which date back to the 19th century – Jaffe said it aims to set aside, temporarily, those that contain offensive stereotypes or run counter to contemporary sensibilities.
“I will definitely do it with a team, not alone,” she said. Among the ballets she thinks of are “Le Corsaire”, centering on a Greek woman sold into slavery and a pirate hero himself a slaveholder, and “La Bayadère”, which takes place in a fictional India among temple dancers and a moralist. dubious high priest. Some figures and religious depictions have drawn criticism from the Hindu community and others who consider it insensitive. Jaffe plans to make changes, possibly adjusting storylines and details, after undertaking research, discussion and polling, “so that we really hear from audience members”.
“The last thing we want to do is just ignore the issues and say we don’t care. We care. And we want to be aware of what we are doing.
For ABT, which for decades has depended on the classics for its identity and results, these will be major milestones. They are sure to attract some skepticism. Jaffe, however, is firm: this work must be done. She’s right.
“There’s so much to do around it,” Jaffe said. “And we will. And it will be some time before we perform these ballets again. Not until the research is complete.
“I don’t just want to do something because it’s beautiful,” she added. “I want to make sure it’s been thoroughly discussed, so it’s a celebration.”
Education, research, development of the new, re-examination of the old. Jaffe describes a global vision. This is what the business community calls systems thinking: looking at how processes are interrelated, rather than scattering attention to separate details.
It is also the point of view of an open-minded and analytical woman. She digs into the sources of ballet’s perception problem, to address the fundamental reasons why it is generally not well understood. It addresses issues in a broad sense. And she values listening.
Something else jumped out from Jaffe’s comments: she doesn’t seem motivated by the spotlight.
For example, she has no immediate plans to choreograph works for ABT, although she has created ballets since retiring from the stage in 2002. She recently choreographed a version from “Swan Lake” in Pittsburgh, with an unusual ending: after being betrayed by Prince Siegfried, the bewitched Swan Queen, Odette, throws herself into the titular lake, following tradition, but the difference is that it is an act heroic, not desperate. In an unusual twist, Odette’s self-sacrifice frees her swan sisters from their spell so they can become free women again.
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“She teaches Siegfried what real leadership is,” Jaffe said. “She became a strong woman, and she said to him, ‘This is what you must do for your people.’ ”
When asked if this suggested her own style of leadership, Jaffe laughed, objected and spoke instead of the pleasures of nurturing.
“I get great satisfaction from helping others grow,” she said. “It’s not about me anymore.”