Susan Jaffe, a former ballerina of the American Ballet Theater, will become the company’s artistic director when Kevin McKenzie steps down at the end of 2022 after serving 30 years, the company announced Monday.
Jaffe, 59, who has been Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater since July 2020, will become the seventh director to lead the company since its inception in 1939 by Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant. She takes over the company at a challenging time for the performing arts and will have to oversee the recovery from the pandemic, which has resulted in the cancellation of two seasons, as well as the loss of tour costs and millions of dollars in ticket revenue.
“It is a great honor to take the artistic helm at Ballet Theater, where I have spent 32 years of my professional life,” Jaffe said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh, where her company had just given the first performance of her new version of “Swan Lake.”
“The kind of ballets the company can do, the range from great classical works to repertory programmes, access to the greatest works and the greatest choreographers in the world; I am so excited to have the opportunity to program in an inspiring way.”
Jaffe was one of the few American ballerinas of her generation to build an international career. She had a fairytale showbiz break when she was 18 when Mikhail Baryshnikov, then the director of Ballet Theater, pulled her from the corps de ballet to dance a pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” with the star Alexander Godunov – “a sensational debut,” wrote Anna Kisselgoff in DailyExpertNews.
A principal dancer from 1983 to 2002, Jaffe danced with major companies around the world and worked with an extensive 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 has had a great career as a performer, is a great teacher and coach, has experience in academia and ballet, choreographed and built relationships. with choreographers.”
“She worked under three directors at Ballet Theater,” he added. “It feels like the organic continuation of a line.”
After he retired from performing, Jaffe became an advisor to the chairman of the board, 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 continues is through people,” she said. “I had worked with the legends of my field and 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, the head of the Ballet Theater’s search committee, described as “a global search that threw the net very wide.”
“We were looking for someone who understands the roots of the business but is forward-looking,” she said, “willing to embrace dance in different ways, as the pandemic has shown us, and willing to ask questions and the interesting conversations that are happening now. Susan had all of that.”
Fales-Hill added, “I love seeing a woman really take the stage in her best state.”
The pandemic has dominated most of Jaffe’s tenure as director at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. The experience was challenging, she said, but taught her the importance of building trust with the dancers. “I want them to feel we’re in this together,” she said. “I realized during the pandemic that it’s about continuously creating an environment.”
Before Pittsburgh, she was dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was an intensive preparation for a role as an artistic director, she said, and taught her about leadership and governance; she led a successful fundraising campaign, raising approximately $3.5 million in grants and endowments.
The Ballet Theater that will inherit Jaffe is undergoing an institutional change, having recently appointed a new Executive Director, Janet Rollé, and a new Chief Development Officer, Stacy Margolis.
It is also a company that has struggled to find an identity in recent years. Over the past decade, McKenzie has focused on nurturing homegrown dancers rather than importing the major international stars that have long provided Ballet Theater with its glamorous profile. The company alternates between the full-blown story balls required for the annual Metropolitan Opera House season, and a more varied, albeit scattered, repertoire for the fall season. Most of his notable new work comes from choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who hired McKenzie as artist in residence in 2009 and whose contract expires next year.
The broad strokes of Jaffe’s vision for Ballet Theater, she said, include increasing touring and educating audiences on those journeys by taking the work, in the form of demonstrations or short performances, to universities and other spaces. “It’s important to be out there,” she said, “we are America’s national ballet company.”
Jaffe also emphasized the need to update the classics – some of which have been criticized in recent years for cultural insensitivity – 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,” she said. Though she declined to name names, she said she would like to order full ballets as well as shorter pieces, and had her eye on “some amazing people, including women telling new and vital stories and people of color doing amazing work.”
She said she hadn’t spoken to Ratmansky, who she called “a great artist.”
Although Jaffe has choreographed more than 20 works since 2004, it wouldn’t be a priority for her at Ballet Theater, she said, adding, “My first job is to direct the troupe.”
Jaffe is not facing the deep debt and organizational chaos that McKenzie inherited when he took over Ballet Theater in 1992, though the company has taken a beating during the pandemic. The company, which has a $28.9 million endowment, 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, the chairman of the board of the Ballet Theater. “That’s the hope.”
When asked how the company could take a front-of-stage position to keep ballet an art of the present, Jaffe said innovative new work would clearly represent a step forward, and it was important to build on the “eye-opening” experience to see online work from around the world during the pandemic.
“It’s really important,” she said, “to keep reaching that wider audience.”