Susan Jaffe, a former ballerina with the American Ballet Theater, will become the company’s artistic director when Kevin McKenzie steps down after a 30-year term at the end of 2022, the company announced on Monday.
Jaffe, 59, artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater since July 2020, will be the seventh director to lead the troupe since it was founded by Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant in 1939. She takes over the company at a difficult time for the performing arts and will have to oversee its recovery from the pandemic, which caused the cancellation of two seasons, as well as the loss of touring fees and millions of dollars in box office revenue.
“It is a profound honor to take on the artistic direction of the Ballet Theater, where I have spent 32 years of my professional life,” Jaffe said in a phone interview from Pittsburgh, where his company had just given its first performance. of his new version of “Swan Lake.”
“The types of ballets the company can do, the range from great classical works to repertoire programs, access to the greatest works and the greatest choreographers in the world; I’m so excited to have the opportunity to program in an inspiring way.
Jaffe was one of the few American ballerinas of her generation to establish an international career. She got a break from fairytale showbiz, aged 18, when Mikhail Baryshnikov, then director of the Ballet Theatre, pulled her out of the corps de ballet to dance a pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” with star Alexander Godunov – “a sensational debut,” wrote Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Times.
A principal dancer from 1983 to 2002, Jaffe danced with major companies around the world and worked with a wide range of choreographers including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jiri Kylian, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris.
“But can she sing?” McKenzie joked in a phone interview, after listing his qualities: “You have someone who has had a major career as a performer, is a great teacher and coach, has experience in academia and the world of ballet, choreographed and established relationships with choreographers”.
“She worked under three directors at the Ballet Theatre,” he added. “It looks like the organic continuation of a line.”
After retiring from performing, Jaffe became an advisor to board chairman Lewis S. Ranieri and taught at the new ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
“When I started teaching, I realized that the only way this art form evolves was through people,” she said. “I had worked with legends in my field and I felt it was almost a calling, a responsibility, to pass on that knowledge.”
Jaffe was appointed after a nine-month process that Susan Fales-Hill, head of the Ballet Theatre’s search committee, described as “a global search that cast a very wide net”.
“We were looking for someone who understands the roots of the business but will be forward-looking,” she said, “be willing to embrace dance in different ways, as the pandemic has shown us that may happen, and be ready to ask questions and have the interesting conversations that are happening right now. Susan had it all.
Fales-Hill added, “I’m thrilled to see a woman who is truly in her prime taking the stage.”
Most of Jaffe’s tenure as director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater has been dominated by the pandemic. The experience was difficult, she says, but taught her the importance of building trust with dancers. “I want them to feel like we’re together,” she said. “I realized during the pandemic that it’s about the continuous creation of an environment.”
Prior to Pittsburgh, she was Dean of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was intensive preparation for an art director role, she said, teaching him about leadership and administration; she ran a successful fundraising campaign, bringing in about $3.5 million for scholarships and endowments.
The Ballet Theater which Jaffe will inherit is in the midst of institutional change, having recently appointed a new executive director, Janet Rollé, and a new director of development, Stacy Margolis.
It’s also a company that has struggled to find an identity in recent years. For the past decade, McKenzie has focused on educating local dancers rather than importing the big international stars that have given Ballet Theater its glamorous profile for so long. The company alternates between the full-story ballets needed for its annual Metropolitan Opera House season and a more varied, if dispersed, repertoire for its fall season. Most of her notable new work has come from choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, whom McKenzie hired in 2009 as artist-in-residence, and whose contract will end next year.
The outlines of Jaffe’s vision for Ballet Theatre, she said, included increasing touring and educating audiences on these trips by taking work, in the form of demonstrations or short performances, in universities and other spaces. “It’s important to be out there,” she said, “we’re America’s national ballet company.”
Jaffe also stressed the need to update the classics – some of which have been criticized for their cultural insensitivity in recent years – in order to preserve “the beauty and depth of classical ballet”, as well as the importance of various choreographers and styles. .
“I think we’re going to take a little more risk, choreographically,” she said. Although she declined to specify names, she said she would like to commission full ballets as well as shorter pieces, and had her eye on “incredible people, including women telling new and vital stories. and people of color doing a great job.”
She said she had yet to speak to Ratmansky, whom she called “a terrific artist.”
Although Jaffe had choreographed more than 20 works since 2004, that wouldn’t be a priority for her at the Ballet Theatre, she said, adding, “my first job is to lead the company.”
Jaffe doesn’t face the deep debt and organizational chaos McKenzie inherited when he took over the Ballet Theater in 1992, despite the company taking a hit during the pandemic. The company, which has an endowment of $28.9 million, had an operating budget of just under $30 million last year, down from $45 million in 2019. “We’d like to get back there. above,” said Andrew F. Barth, chairman of the Ballet Theater Board of Directors. “It’s hope.”
Asked how the company could take a leading position in making ballet an art of the present, Jaffe said innovative new work would clearly signal a step forward and it was important to build on the “revealing” experience. to see work online from around the world during the pandemic.
“It’s really important,” she said, “to continue to reach that larger audience.”