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Models of artistic direction

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[This thread was moved from the Boston Ballet forum, where it had started as a discussion of ballet mistress Eva Evdokimova and morphed into a discussion of artistic directors in general.]

Some enterprising M.A. candidate should plot the growth of administrative staffs of ballet companies.

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Plotting the growth is easy - begin in the 60's with one admin staff to every twenty to thirty dancers and end today with one admin staff per dancer. Between marketing, development, planning, board relations, etc. the staffing has grown exponentially. Much of this is due to the funding organizations giving monies for organizational planning and stabilaztion, which is needed but the old adage of what is rewarded becomes habit...

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That's my impression without doing the stats :D The first time I realized this was when I started the Ballet Alert! newsletter and really looked at the programs and other literature companies send out. I noticed the one-for-one ratio too. Another thing driving this, I think, is that dancers are retiring, or being forced out, at younger and younger ages, and it's hard to start a new career at 42, much less 32, especially if you're a high school drop out -- as the "real world" might term you.) This trend has coincided/collided with the Baby Boomers, so all of a sudden there are four, five, six times as many retired dancers as ever before. Equals: one administrative staffer for each dancer.

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In a weird way dancers are seen as cost where admin staff are seen as revenue generating, especially those in marketing and development. Dancers are the product, so to me it is strange to cut the product and keep the sales force - what do they sell?

Similarly older dancers are seen as more costly - less minutes danced with higher salaries - and younger dancers dance more with much lower salaries. There is often a tension between older principals and younger dancers. The trend in most companies seems to be a chain - get rid of the older, more expensive, push the younger less expensive and fill in with the school at no cost. I cannot imagine the discussions held between artistic, executive and board on this issue. It is not fair to generalize, but this is in evidence in several companies over the last five years.

Of course in a dream world you keep the older principals to dance, coach and provide examples of work ethic, artistry and company loyalty. But many fields have this issue - look at upper, middle management in corporations, basketball teams, and the theater.

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Gosh, I wonder if there could just possibly be a connection to all of this and THE FACT THAT THEY'RE NOT SELLING TICKETS!!!!!

growl grumble grumble -- new emoticons needed!

It's not just older principals, it's older corps, too. There were corps dancers -- with satisfying careers, people doing a lot of soloist and demisoloist roles; "top corps" -- who danced until 40. Now you're out at 26. And that means the 25 year olds do their best to look and dance as though they're 16. (Not saying that 16 year olds aren't wonderful to watch; they are. I don't want a ballet company too have no one under 35. Diversity -- odd that in an age where everyone is clamoring to "put America on stage" ballet companies are becoming less and less diverse.

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As a Boston Ballet subscriber, I received a postcard about my tickets which included the note that the entire box office would be closed (can't remember if it was for 1 week or 2) for an unpaid vacation, which ALL staff would be taking at staggered intervals throughout the year.

I do know the school staff was pruned, and that they are not replacing some school administrative staff as they leave.

So I do think they are trying to make prudent cuts to the budget.

I've wanted for some time to start a new thread in response to an article in the Globe about Nissenen's changes at the Boston Ballet. Seems that many are leaving, some voluntarily. The issue raised in the article was that a new AD wants to form a company in his own image, as it were.

What is the relationship between building a company in the AD's image and the dancers with which he/she has to work? Is it an artistic vision being fulfilled, or is it similar to a new CEO replacing key staff members with his people?

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What is the relationship between building a company in the AD's image and the dancers with which he/she has to work? Is it an artistic vision being fulfilled, or is it similar to a new CEO replacing key staff members with his people?

Fendrock, you've pointed to one of the central changes/issues in ballet today. It's often the latter, I think. And in some cases there is no artistic vision, because often ADs get the job because they're dancers who've had to stop dancing and need a job, or they've spent the last five years of their career thinking, "If I were in charge...." but without having a view of ballet larger than their own careers.

Sometimes, of course, there is a director with an artistic vision -- Tomasson in San Francisco, Villella in Miami (although he was starting a company rather than changing an existing one, I believe), Ib Andersen in Phoenix, and now Chris Stowell in Eugene, Oregon. And then they may have to change artistic and even administrative staff to do this.

I really don't know which is the case in Boston. There, the board's vision seems to be, "We want a big time company. Make it happen." That doesn't mean Nissinen doesn't have an artistic vision, of course -- we'll know on a year or two :D He seems to be making the company over in the image of San Francisco Ballet, or using SFB as a model. That could be a very good thing. Irony is, it's not that different a model from what Bruce Marks was doing -- sometimes boards, who don't understand what it takes to make a ballet company run, but only look to externals -- box office receipts, press coverage -- don't look at the big picture either.

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But an AD does have a taste in dancers, in a style of working and in a performance quality. It is not unusual for a new AD to take a year with the existing dancers and then start to work toward his (in this case) taste. This happens even without a vision for the company. It may also be that the board wants a big company and the AD uses his taste to fill the dancers and rep without having a urgent sense of what his big company should look like. Also dancers may find the new AD not what they want and move on. In my experience, most who leave after the first year do so for two reasons: they were leaving anyway but waited to see what was up with the new regime or they want to dance in a differing way or amount that the new AD requires.

Sort of like decorating a house one room at a time using the existing furniture, perhaps refurbishing some. One has taste and style, but does not yet have an overall plan for the house. Due to time, money or sentimental reasons one throws out only what one truly cannot stand and works with the rest. Until that moment when new furniture can be bought or made. And there are times when one room is so different and fantastic that you go back and redo others to match.

The difficulty is this is so subjective and most AD's are not communicative about what they want to see. Even Balanchine and Ashton did not answer directly questions about what their visions were. They did it and it evolved over time. Both however had favorite dancers and ways of doing things.

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I love your house-furnishing analogy -- I think it's very apt. (My only tiny quibble is that Ashton and Balanchine built very good houses which isn't always the case with our Home Improvement types today :D )

I'm going to break this thread off, because I'm afraid that our comments about directing in general might be taken as criticisms of Mr. Nissinen in particular, and, when we got into theory, I don't think that was the intention. So I'm going to move this over to Issues and will close the thread until the split/move has been accomplished -- thanks!

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Yes, but many thought the houses these two were building in the 30 - 60s (particularly Balanchine) did not fit in the neighborhood at the time.

To go further, these two did not have to deal with zoning, permits and building codes that most ADs deal with today - boards, unions, competion from other massive amounts of various entertainment media, etc.

Finally, I spoke with an executive director of over thirty years. His take on this was that he missed the practical "Ballet Russe attitude" AD - one who when faced with difficulties had a first responsse of how do we make this work for the best possbile performance? These days he finds that ADs (and dancers) have an entitlement attitude - well it has to be this way or it is not possible and that attitude does not allow for compromise to maintain quality while moving forward. It also leads to deficits and careless spending.

Here it is hard as companies differ in size, controls, etc.

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As a person who is not knowledgeable about ballet, I'd be interested to know the parameters within which these artistic directors are making adjustments.

I guess the most obvious is body type and a certain Look --

What are the others? Unsuitablility for dancing the repertory in which the AD is interested? -- but surely most experienced dancers in a top company would be flexible enough to adjust, and would in many cases appreciate the chance to try new thing.s

(As an aside, not sure that members of a ballet would appreciate being just "part of the furniture..." )

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Why do you buy TIDE instead of CHEER or OXYCLEAN? They all clean clothes. Often the same logic goes into selecting dancers at this high a level. At the level of a Boston or ABT there are soooo many good dancers that the AD's choices are this subjective.

That is the difficulty in forecasting casting and the fun in analyzing what goes on. There are definite things: technical ability with ease, acting ability, looks, physicality, musicality, work ethic, casting appropriateness, willingness to do what is asked for, willingness to keep quiet, all the things in a "normal" work environment also apply: office politics, team work, personal chemistry, etc. How many times have you looked at pormotions or casting and wondered how that happened because you thought that person did not deserve or was wrong for the part or other reasons it does not fit. It is not possible to guess the inner thoughts of the people in control of the decisions beyond a certain standard of dancer (and sometimes not even that).

It is very hard to make students understand that after a certain point it boils down to luck and taste. They must focus on making themselves the best they can be. If they are good enough to be considered, then that is about all they can control - there most probably is not an objective reason that you did not get the job or accepted into the program. Students (and dancers) are often frustrated when they ask "what can I do to get in" and are told nothing save that "you are a good dancer, but not right for us."

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In a weird way dancers are seen as cost where admin staff are seen as revenue generating, especially those in marketing and development.  Dancers are the product, so to me it is strange to cut the product and keep the sales force - what do they sell?

The company I work for, which has nothing to do with ballet, has exactly the same value system. It's trying to force those whose job it is to put out the product to concentrate instead on administrative matters. Those of us who still care about the quality of the product have to be surreptitious about the amount of time we spend attending to it. And we also have the problem of older, more experienced, higher paid employees being replaced by cheaper younger people without substantive experience.

So I think the problem is not exclusive to arts organizations; rather, it's the corrupting influence of corporate America, which nowadays is being run by MBAs instead of people who care about the company. Whatever happened to the mantra of "excellence" so popular in the 80s?

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:D Ouch! Careful here, there are MBAs involved in this discussion (not I, however). One that I know about, though, is responsible for the creation of individual one-of-a-kind product masterpieces, so there's a vested, emotional, and artistic tie to the end user - the consumer!
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I agree with Ari to the extent that MBA's bring a quantifiable focus to the discussion, This is healthy, but there are unquantifiable, intangible reasons to keep people ona and continue to do things in the same way. It is hard to quantify the costs over the next wo years of releasing someone with ten years experiece . The new people must be trained, climb the learning curve and create cost through multiple mistakes and taking longer to do things - these add cost. A lot of this is fuzzy data, so not used in a cost benefit analysis. Not to mention the lessened productivity due to falling morale and shiifting loyalties. The people do follow the if it ain't broke don't fix it and these MBA's first job should be to explain why it is broken and how those doing the work should design the fix.

Mel - you do have an MBA - Master of Ballet Arts - harder and longer to achieve than my Master's of Business.

MBA's, like Executive Directors, are brought in from the outside as fresh, educated eyes. They do not know the history or culture of the company (dance or corporate) and that is often by design. Unfortunately they do not take the time to learn of these important things and are therefore seen as arrogant and disrespectful. In my consulting days, listening to the why and how of the company was crucial to explaing the why and how of changes necessary to change the company in the direction the analysis pointed. Rallying the troops to the cause gets more done than telling them what they have done for so many years is wrong.

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:D  Ouch!  Careful here, there are MBAs involved in this discussion (not I, however).

Mel, I'm well aware that mbjerk has an MBA. However, he no is longer employed in the corporate world, and speaks of it with detachment. It never occurred to me that he might think that my comments were directed at him; if he did, I apologize.

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Once upon a time, there was no New York City Ballet, no American Ballet Theater, no Royal Ballet, etc., etc. :dry: There came upon the respective lands people like Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith, and Ninette de Valois and Frederic Ashton. These were fiercely driven individuals with clear visions of ballet companies they wanted to develop. From nothing, they scraped together companies by gathering groups of dancers, creating repertoires, and ultimately, establishing administrative staffs. The early years were often touch-and-go, with short seasons and dancers having to find other jobs for most of the year.

This highly motivated generation of ballet entrepreneurs grew old and died :D and left behind major ballet companies, each with a distinct profile reflective of the founder/s, and each more secure than during most of the time they had been in existence. There was a new generation eager to head these companies. They did not have to define their vision. They did not have to expose themselves to the same degree of personal risk. They did not have to figure out how to keep a bare-bones organization viable. They just stepped in and were crowned King/Queen (in Jane Hermann's case, and now Monica Mason's) of the ready-made company.

I really believe that the survival of the fledgling companies was due to the intense drive of its founders and intense vision of its early artistic staff. The new generation never had to prove its worthiness in ways that the the pioneering generation did. And when people were noticing that all three were declining at the same time -- all with the departure of the first generation ADs -- it was no mere coincidence.

Under the circumstances, I don't know how you find a person who can wear all the necessary hats. The New York companies have elevated the the status of the administrative head, but these tend to be imported personnel. But I don't believe that nicely pointed feet and clean double air-turns qualify anyone for any behind-the-scenes job. :shrug:

Edited by carbro
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I did not take any offense Ari. Actually, I was trying to figure out who the MBA was that created the products!

As with any academic education, there are many gaps when presented with the real world. The same for dance students who arrive at a company - what a difference than school or even apprenticeship!

Cabro's post is great! It happens in business also. How many start up manufacturing firms are there? It is all hi-tech as that is the open field.

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there are lots of thought-provoking posts here, on a type of topic which i normally shy away from reading. (i feel " :devil: " for monica mason, when i read carbro's words, though...she really IS someone who is every bit as driven and dedicated etc etc as those revered/named ballet founders.)

i recognise SOME of what's talked about here, but i think our situation in australia is not as extreme as yours. certainly ballet companies started out with ONE PERSON at the helm, with the vision - but with lots of UNPAID helpers and amateur enthusiasts to fill out gaps - i don't mean onstage (although that happened too).

now, where i live, a ballet company would have perhaps half as many staff as dancers...until you got up to the larger companies, when the figure might become something like 1 staff to every 4 dancers. it certainly is a major shift, when looked at that way, in not-so-many years, really.

my take on it, is that this change has been driven here by:-

1. financial need (as volunteer efforts got stripped away, and government funding has been repeatedly slashed), and

2. increasing audience sophistication. i don't mean that the BALLET audience is increasingly sophisticated, but that the public in general has more choices about what to do with its time, and is far more demanding now, than it used to be (thanks to TV, movies, special effects, computers, MTV, etc etc)

i appreciated reading this profile:

...the practical "Ballet Russe attitude" AD - one who, when faced with difficulties, had a first response of 'how do we make this work, for the best possible performance?'

These days ...ADs (and dancers) have an entitlement attitude - "well it has to be this way, or it is not possible"...

i think a lot of THIS attitude change stems from legal changes (such as union laws which prevent amateurs appearing onstage with professionals), and increased sophistication about legal matters (such as copyright, for example).
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I'm an MBA too. Trust me - the MBAs involved with ballet companies are there because they truly love the art form and want to use their skills, energy and connections to help arts organizations succeed. There are many other (higher paying) options one would pursue otherwise...

The primary focus of an MBA is development of leadership skills - how to inspire others, how to build a cohesive organization, how to create a vision and an actionable plan to achieve that vision. If you look at the great ADs and EDs over time, they have exhitibed these capabilities.

I live in Boston. I feel sorry for the dancers and the administrative team. Morale is clearly low, and the dancers' employment and professional development prospects have been unstable for many years now with the numerous changes in direction. You can feel their stress from the audience. I don't think the company can be turned around overnight.

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Quick administrative note -- gigi (and others reading this thread who are also dedicated MBAs, I hope you've noticed the new Arts Admin forum).

More substantive comment. I know that there are people working in arts administration who are truly dedicated and care deeply about the art form. But there are also some who don't know much about the art form beyond loving it -- don't know how ballet companies as institutions work, don't understand the difference between art and hamburgers.

Re the Boston situation -- I think gigi is absolutely right. The situation (here, or anywhere with a similar situation) can't be changed overnight. We can only hope that the new direction wants to stabilize things and pay attenton to morale, and will be able to do so.

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Alexandra stated what I meant - that one must experience the industry in order to be most effective. Also in professions, without that experience the professionals will not listen no matter how beneficial the advice. Believe I know how hard it is to give up that mid-range six figure salary for the salary I have now!

I like to say that companies are like ocean liners - hard to turn about quickly. What one can do is change a deck or two (or sometimes even just a stateroom) and start the tugs working on turning the ship. The captain (AD) must have a clear course in order to use the tugs effectively. Where MBA's can help is in how to place the tugs, which decks need attention, and what/when to tell the passengers, crew and owners as the ship changes course.

Sometimes it helps to send out the launch to see what is ahead too!

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This topic, to a certain extent, has come full circle.

How do we know that the situation at the Boston Ballet is akin to an ocean liner changing direction?

Is something dreadfully wrong, or is it simply a case of an artistic director who wants to make a mark?

If the direction is changing, what might be the nature of that change, and why does it require a change in dancers?

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I resonate with Carbro. I might point out that the original regional companies --- just about everything but the original efforts in NYC and SF --- had a different genesis from, say, NYCB. They were not started on a shoestring by a visionary. Rather, they were started after Balanchine had made a splash and there was funding to establish ballet companies in the rest of the country. These companies appeared on the scene relatively quickly. Many major, well-funded American ballet companies NEVER had a visionary period like that of NYCB and George Balanchine.

As for changes with new AD's and stuff --- one has to expect that when management changes, dancers will change. Dancers came because they liked what they saw in the old management. When the new management comes, they may not like it as much --- it is a choice foisted upon them, rather than one they made. This is not to say anything good or bad about the new management. It's only natural to look around at that time and ask "is this really what I want?" I think this happens in any corporate setting. Similarly, the AD should have some leeway in working with dancers he thinks he can work well with.

Personally: if my AD were replaced, I would almost certainly leave with him --- or simply leave.

Is something dreadfully wrong at BB? I have no clue. But I see little evidence of it from what people have said in this thread. There's nothing worse than being hired as a manager or director of something and then not be allowed to manage or direct as you best know how.

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I was not referring to Boston in particular, only to large companies in general. To my knowledge there have been no cases where a director has come in and changed dancers, rep, board and vision in only two years. Usually it is a three to five year process and that is why most new ADs request a four to five year contract. It takes time - that is the nature of the beast.

With respect ot Boston, those that I know in and around the company are supportive of what is happening and understanding of the budget compromises necessary in these times. I make no judgement as I am not there, nor have any personal connections. Please take my opinions as generic for large, classically based companies. These companies are very different from smaller, choregrapher/AD based.

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