Susan Jaffe, a former American Ballet Theater dancer, will become that company’s artistic director when Kevin McKenzie steps down after a 30-year tenure at the end of 2022, the company announced Monday.
Jaffe, 59, who has been artistic director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater since July 2020, will be the seventh director to lead the company since Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant founded it in 1939. She takes charge of the company in a challenging time for the performing arts and will need to oversee its recovery from the pandemic, which has caused two seasons to be canceled as well as the loss of touring fees and millions of dollars in ticket revenue.
“It is a profound honor to take the artistic helm at Ballet Theatre, where I have spent 32 years of my professional life,” Jaffe said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh, where his company had just presented its new version of “Lake of the Swans.”
“The types of ballets that the company can do, range from great classical works to repertory programs, access to the best works and the best choreographers in the world; I am very excited to have the opportunity to program in an inspiring way.”
Jaffe was one of the few American dancers of her generation to establish an international career. She had a break from fairy-tale show business, at 18, when Mikhail Baryshnikov, then director of the Ballet Theatre, took her out of the corps de ballet to dance a pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” with star Alexander Godunov. : “a sensational debut”. Anna Kisselgoff wrote 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 her qualities: “You have someone who had a great career as a performer, is a great teacher and trainer, has experience in the academy and the world of ballet, has choreographed and built relationships with choreographers.”
“She worked with three directors at the Ballet Theatre,” he added. “She feels like the organic continuation of a line.”
After retiring from acting, Jaffe became an advisor to board chairman Lewis S. Ranieri and taught at the newly formed ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
“When I started teaching, I realized that the only way this art form advances is through people,” he said. “I had worked with the legends in my field and felt like 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 understood the roots of the company but was looking to the future,” he said, “is willing to embrace dance in different ways, as the pandemic has shown us can happen, and is willing to ask questions and have the interesting conversations that are happening now. Susan had all of that.
Fales-Hill added: “I am delighted to see a woman who is truly in her prime take the stage.”
Most of Jaffe’s tenure as director at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater has been dominated by the pandemic. The experience has been challenging, he said, but it taught him the importance of building trust with dancers. “I want them to feel like we’re in this together,” he said. “I realized during the pandemic that it’s about continually creating an environment.”
Before Pittsburgh, she was dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She said she went through intensive preparation for an artistic director role, teaching her about leadership and management; she led a successful fundraising campaign, raising around $3.5 million for scholarships and donations.
The Ballet Theater that Jaffe will inherit is undergoing an institutional change, recently appointing a new executive director, Janet Rollé, and a new director of development, Stacy Margolis.
It is also a company that has struggled to find an identity in recent years. For the past decade, McKenzie has focused on nurturing local dancers rather than importing the top international stars who gave Ballet Theater its glamorous profile for so long. The company alternates between the complete ballets required for its annual season at the Metropolitan Opera House and a more varied, if scattered, repertoire for its fall season. Most of his notable new work comes from choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, whom McKenzie hired in 2009 as an artist-in-residence and whose contract is due to end next year.
The broad outlines of Jaffe’s vision for Ballet Theatre, he said, included increasing touring and educating audiences about that travel by taking the work, in the form of demonstrations or short performances, to universities and other venues. “It’s important to be there,” he said, “we’re America’s national ballet company.”
Jaffe also emphasized the need to update the classics, some of which have been criticized for cultural insensitivity in recent years, to preserve “the beauty and depth of classical ballet” as well as the importance of diverse choreographers and styles.
“I think we’re going to take a little more risk, choreographically,” he said. While he declined to specify names, he said he would like to commission full-length ballets as well as shorter pieces, and had his eye on “some amazing people, including women telling vital new stories and people of color making a difference.” great job”.
He said he had not yet spoken to Ratmansky, whom he called “a tremendous artist.”
Although Jaffe has choreographed more than 20 works since 2004, it would not be a priority for her at Ballet Theatre, she said, adding: “My first job is to run the company.”
Jaffe does not face the deep debt and organizational chaos that McKenzie inherited when he took over Ballet Theater in 1992, even though the company has been hit hard during the pandemic. The company, which has an endowment of $28.9 million, had an operating budget of just under $30 million last year, up from $45 million in 2019. “We’d like to get back to that,” said Andrew F. Barth, president Board of the Ballet Theater. “That’s the hope.”
Asked how the company could take a front-stage position to keep ballet an art of the present, Jaffe said the groundbreaking new work would clearly signal a breakthrough and that it was important to harness the “eye-opening” experience. to view online jobs from around the world during the pandemic.
“It’s very important,” he said, “to continue to reach that broader audience.”