The majority of dance company directors have served their time as senior dancers, whether in the company they now head, or another. If history has taught us anything it’s us that being a good dancer has little bearing on one’s capacity as an effective director. There is no well-worn track to such a position; most directors take their own route, but the most successful ones are those that strike the right balance between being responsible, savvy, sensitive and knowledgeable.
Taking on the role of director means both taking care of and carrying forward the vision of those that have gone before; every decision must be made with the interests of the former directors in mind, while keeping an eye on the current artistic climate and taking informed steps towards the future. This is the reason so many companies have former dancers at the helm; they grew up with the repertoire and have a thorough knowledge of it in its context: As well as knowing the ballets in the company history, for more established companies there will be a certain style that is inherent – this will always be evolving and for someone that has come of age alongside that style, there will be an innate knowledge of what direction in which to take it, keeping an eye on the training and coaching the dancers receive. Suitable casting and promotion will also be informed by this knowledge. Two examples of this type of journey to artistic direction are Peter Martins of New York City Ballet and Monica Mason of the Royal Ballet – both were dancers in their respective companies for their entire careers, and then worked their way through the ballet staff ranks, taking with them a lifetime of knowledge. Wayne Eagling, director of English National Ballet, came from outside the organisation, but his experience as a dancer in the Royal Ballet and as director of Het Nationale Ballet would have given him a broader frame of reference. Either way, a thorough understanding of the art form, and to an extent the heritage of the company, is of paramount importance if the director is to take it on an appropriate trajectory.
Dancers are sensitive creatures; although they can be tough when it comes to their work, long days looking in the mirror means a soft-touch can go a long way. A career as a dancer will, hopefully, leave one with a lasting memory of the daily anguish that tends to go hand in hand with being under constant scrutiny. Once a dancer retires, their dancing life remains imprinted on their mind and body – for a dancer that goes on to direct, this imprint will inform their every decision. They will have peoples careers in their hands, and will have to remember what it is like to be in such a precarious position. They are also in the important position of being responsible for giving generously of their knowledge, passing on what they have learned to another generation; this is most important for those directors involved in coaching roles they themselves have danced. The director is someone to whom every member of the company looks for leadership – they should never forget what it is to be a dancer, or they run the risk of being unable to communicate sympathetically with their dancers.
Aside from the human and artistic understanding that is demanded for such a position to be effective, the role of director is also one of management. Knowledge of the organisation is required; in bigger companies there is a specific hierarchy, among both dancers and administration. While some of the more prominent organisations will have dedicated staff for the purpose, the areas of funding, philanthropy, outreach, development and marketing need to be considerations in taking a company forward in the competitive world of the arts. With dance companies being such public entities, the director is the one that will take the backlash of any failures: the position requires someone decisive, resolute and at ease with the fact that every decision made will have its detractors.
It’s hard to imagine a recruitment advertisement reading: “Wanted: Artistic Director. Must have in depth knowledge of company heritage, repertoire, coaching and arts administration. Parental warmth and clinical decisiveness needed on an ad hoc basis”, but this might just sum up what is needed.