For this season of Nutcracker at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Dec. 8 through Dec. 17), I had the great pleasure of speaking to the erudite and multi-talented, Susan Jaffe, American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Artistic Director and Interim Executive Director who has celebrated a year in the leadership position.
Because the future of the company is in cultivating their dancer’s artistic talents and abilities and nurturing its young dancers from 3-18 years old, we spoke about Jaffe’s plans for the company’s future and her recent addition of the extraordinary Susan Brooker, Artistic Director of ABT’s William J. Gillespie School, and how Brooker’s presence will add to Jaffe’s vision. I inquired about her journey and reflections from ballerina and artist to leader of one of the most powerful ballet companies in the world. Not since its beginnings with founders Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith in 1940, has there been such a fully prepared female leader in this position.
My early training at Ballet Theatre and Ballet Russes’ schools, when Lucia Chase headed Ballet Theatre, along with seeing the great dancers and choreographers of that time, of course made it a thrill to get Jaffe’s take on the future of American Ballet Theatre. We easily jumped into an informative discussion of the past, present, and future for her and for her company.
JD: It is so wonderful to speak to you Susan to get your wisdom and reflections on the past year and what you hope to accomplish. I am very interested in your vision and whether that has changed in the past year.
SJ: It has changed. But let me just say, when I was hired, I was hired solely as the artistic director, and then at the end of May I was appointed also interim executive director. So I get to see all the behind-the-scenes and what happens [in both the administrative and artistic area]. So yes, it has changed and enriched my perspective.
JD: Please tell me more.
SJ: Let me start with the artistic vision. It has so many different facets. Of course, we not only have the company, but we have the schools (ABT William J. Gillespie School and in NYC, ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School), along with the studio company.
One of the things that I had been focusing on, even before I got here, was that much of our choreography was done by white males. Because of that, I really am focused on leveling the playing field and bringing more opportunities for artists of color and women so we can really increase our diverse offerings to our audiences. It is important to me to bring in new and differing voices on our stages. So that is where I am focusing.
As for new works, one of my favorite things to do, even though I was known as a classicist, is innovative and contemporary work. I like to see that mixture of classical and contemporary. I think that each time you see a new piece in an evening, you get a fresh eye on the work. For me, that’s very important. Also, how do you balance an evening when you have a mixed repertoire. What is the right balance between classical and contemporary, between old and new, and between famous and up-and-coming. And as you know there are so many elements that go into it.
So not only will we be updating the classics combined with contemporary when we’re able, and when appropriate. This will really encompass a more diverse pool of choices, with lighting, with costumes, all of those things, while also bringing in new stories. This year we did “Like Water for Chocolate,” Christopher Wheeldon’s piece adapted from Laura Esquivel’s book. Also, next year at the Metropolitan Opera House we are doing a full-length ballet by Wayne McGregor, called “Woolf Works,” based on three novels by Virginia Woolf.
We’re really trying to bring a younger audience by doing pieces that are innovative, and cool, thus capturing a more diverse audience. For example, when we did “Like Water for Chocolate” so many Latine came to see the ballet, particularly those of Mexican heritage. They were so proud of this ballet adapted from the award-winning Mexican novelist, Laura Esquivel’s book of the same name. She also attended the performance. It was a wonderful mixture of the old and new. That is really my aim.
JD: I have a question about bringing back some of the old Ballet Theatre classics since I’m an old-time fan of Ballet Theatre. Not sure if I saw correctly that you brought back Czerny’s “Etudes”?
SJ: Yes, we brought that back in our Fall season of 2023 and we will do it in 2024.
JD: And that also brings up DeMille’s “Fall River legend” and Tudor’s ballets (Dark Elegies, Pilar of Fire, or Lilac Garden…).
SJ: Absolutely, but at this moment in time I have not been focusing on that, however, I absolutely will go back to it.
JD: I’m curious, about what skills you learned in your career that appear to be most valuable to what you’re doing now?
SJ: Well… I mean, I think all of them. Particularly in my role as interim executive director, but also as the artistic director, my role as the Dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts was the biggest education I have ever had about leadership. Really, about leading, innovation, strategy and about leading and taking care of people/students and all of the complexities around that. It was also where I got my programmatic tastes, because we had a contemporary division and a classical division in the school, and not to say that I didn’t also learn that from my theater background when I was a dancer, but it really gave me a much deeper appreciation of contemporary work. However, mostly it was really in developing and honing the leadership skills.
JD: I was very excited to hear that you’re thinking of bringing in more women choreographers, which has been very rare for the longest time. Now there’s the fabulous Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Crystal Pite, or Aszure Barton. Will they be part of your future season?
SJ: We do a lot of full lengths ballets. We don’t have as many opportunities to bring in new shorter works. Which would be a great place to bring in Pite, Lopez Ochoa, and Barton. But next year we will do a full length ballet by Helen Pickett, former Frankfurt Ballet dancer and Award winning choreographer who has created over 60 ballets (“The Crucible”, “Emma Bovary”, “Camino Real”, et al).
JD: Wonderful! I began thinking about your responsibilities, it must be challenging being an artistic director and the interim executive director …along with working on both coasts.
SJ: A little bit. I feel a little bit like a ping pong ball. So, yes, I go from right brain to left brain very quickly. You know, I’m in the studio, and I’m right brain and the creative. Then, as the excutive director I’ve got to be linear and logical. All of those things to keep this behemoth moving forward. It’s a huge organization. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of components, and many areas that need attention. So it has been an incredible challenge. It’s also been very exciting for me, because I know this company so well. In fact, I was a student, then I was in the second company, then a company member, and then a soloist and principal. I then came back as a rehearsal director and a teacher here. So I’ve worn many hats and seen the organization from every possible angle. So I feel like I understand the various constituents and what their needs are. I want to use all my heart and soul to make sure that everyone is taken care of and are moving forward and yet challenged as well.
It’s been a real journey to be in this seat wearing both hats. We are now in the middle of a search for an executive director because this company is so large one person really can’t do it all properly. So I look forward to having a partner with me as we move forward, but at the same time I’ve been having a ball.
JD: Yes, and speaking of partnerships, just recently you brought on Susan Brooker, your new Artistic Director for the William J. Gillespie School of Dance. Such a valuable and wonderful addition. And how did that happen?
SJ: You know, I actually hired her when I was the Dean at NCSA to lead the Lower School of young kids up to the age of 13. I met her through some mutual teacher friends that I fully respect. I was looking for a new director for the lower school called the Preparatory Program. I called my friends, and I said, Help! I really need somebody excellent, and they said, we have the perfect person. So Susan came to NCSA. I interviewed her. I knew that she was absolutely the right person, and I said by the end of the interview. “You’ve got the Job.”
She came, and turned that school into a beautiful, and beautifully trained group. The teachers were all on the same page with the ABT International Training curriculum. She created a parent committee and always creates community around her, she’s an amazing teacher, and an amazing leader.
So, when the Gillespie School Artistic Director position was made available and after a proper search, interviewing other candidates, and watching them all teach class, they were all excellent, and Susan Brooker rose to the top of that group. I finally said Susan Brooker is your person.
JD: Yes, having spoken to her she’s such a brilliant and caring mentor and leader with an exemplary background and experience in ballet pedagogy while being so loving and enthusiastic. What was impressive was her inclusiveness with others and her understanding and caring for the whole child, bringing the parents along to understand the commitment either in becoming a dancer, or choosing not to do so, that’s the person’s choice. Her kindness was clear. She’s quite remarkable.
SJ: Yes, she’s a terrific leader, and I’m very, very happy for the Gillespie and for Segerstrom that Susan is there. It is really helpful for JKO (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School) and the Gillespie School to align in a much more comprehensive way.
JD: Now, before we end, please tell me a little bit about the studio company.
SJ: Yes, so really, watching the studio company is like watching college football. They’re the best of the best, you know. I have friends of mine who would much rather watch college football rather than the professionals, because you’re seeing the up and comers, and it’s all very exciting, you know. So they’re really the college football of ballet.
They are the most elite young people in the United States and they’re trained so well with our artistic leader Sasha Radetzky and his team and they are glorious. So when they graduate from that program after two years, and we have openings in the company, they always come into the main company because they are extraordinary dancers. It’s been wonderful for our pipeline.
JD: Well, I can’t wait to see them when they come to Thousand Oaks in 2024. Before we wrap up, do you have anything you would like to share?
SJ: Well, you know dance is a universal art form…a universal language. You can dance in any country and people will understand what you’re doing. It’s music in motion and these dancers are doing things that are not even humanly possible in so many ways, yet they are storytellers and conduits of beauty, strength and grace. So to come and sit in an audience and to watch dance and the dancers do great feats while telling a story. For example, the Nutcracker and really brings your heart and mind along through that story and it takes enormous skill.
It’s just a journey you know, and in today’s age where it’s just depressing to open a newspaper, dance, I think, is one of the great art refuges for people to really be inspired and uplifted. The other thing that people may not know about dance or about the arts is that the arts actually bring one trillion dollars into the U.S. Economy.
When I think about trying to take arts out of school, and only focus on STEM, we are doing our society a great disservice in more ways than one. It spiritually drains and deprives, but also the economic value that the arts actually bring to the United States is important. And the fun fact that people don’t actually know is that we bring a huge amount of drive and money to our country.
JD: So important to recognize…Thank you so much Susan. I’m very excited you and the company are here, and that ABT is actually on the West Coast now.
SJ: Yes, and as a reminder, the “Nutcracker” at the Segerstrom is not only just full of the most incredible music, I believe, but it is a story full of hope, wonder, love and community. So remember to bring the family out to enjoy the day that starts on December 8 through the 17th.
For more information about The Segerstrom Center for the Arts and to purchase tickets, please visit their website.
For more information about ABT, please visit their website.
Written by Joanne DiVito for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: ABT’s Susan Jaffe – Photo by Rosalie O’Connor