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Who’s the Boss? Kathryn Bennetts, former artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders

Posted on September 20, 2012

In addition to the feature “Who’s the Boss” printed in the September issue of Dancing Times we are publishing on our website a series of supporting interviews between the author, Graham Watts, and those in administrative and artistic leadership within dance companies. The second of these interviews is with Kathryn Bennetts who was until recently artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

After a career with both Australian and Stuttgart Ballets, Bennetts first came to Antwerp in 2003 to set William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated on the Royal Ballet of Flanders, having worked for the previous 15 years as ballet master for Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. Eighteen months later Bennetts became artistic director and she quickly set about changing perceptions, insisting that the company danced to live music, wherever possible, and carrying out a rigorous overhaul of the repertoire. Towards the end of 2010, the Minister of Culture, Joke Schauvliege, commissioned a report that recommended the ballet company should merge with the Flemish Opera alongside significant cuts in the arts budgets. Bennetts fought against these plans in a high profile campaign.   

During her tenure as artistic director, Bennetts succeeded in significantly raising the company’s profile both at home and abroad (effecting, as the New York Times put it, “an astonishing transformation on a sleepy regional company”); but she was not able to raise the level of state funding she felt the company deserves and it was announced by the Board in January 2012 that Bennetts was to leave her post at the end of her contract on June 30, 2012 and that a new production of Giselle by resident choreographer David Dawson, scheduled for last June, was to be cancelled.

GW: What is required to have a balanced relationship between the managing director and the artistic director of a ballet company?

KB: A good relationship between what I call the executive director and artistic director is the key to any successful ballet company. Their respective duties must be clearly defined and I think that a failure to achieve this clarity is often the problem. As far as the artistic vision of the company is concerned – and the first priority must be “art” in any artistic organisation – then I believe firmly that the artistic director must be the boss. The problem these days is that too much focus is put on the money. Of course one must be responsible with spending, but one must keep the perspective that the main goal is to make art. I know that sounds very politically incorrect in a time when the “profit” mentality rules the world.

GW: Does the artistic vision need to be shared from the beginning?  

KB: Both directors must have a common goal in acquiring funding and support for the company. They must both believe in the company, but I do not believe the executive director should have any artistic vision: he or she is there to support the artistic director in his or her vision. They should keep out of any artistic decisions or choices.

GW: Is it just a case of integrated working or one where there are clear demarcations of responsibilities that should not be over-stepped?

KB: One must be able to have good discussions about the priorities of each season, and the executive director must be there to realise those priorities. I feel both the executive director and the Board are there to support the artistic director. Trust must be given to the artistic vision. Risk being allowed is imperative. If being “safe” becomes the priority then it is over.

GW: What are the best conditions in the best companies that enable a seamless relationship for the good of all?

KB: I must say the best conditions to make it all function are when there are at least adequate funds. If a company is always scrimping for money then incredible tensions arise throughout the whole organisation. 

GW: What is the role of the governing body in all of this? Does it just appoint the best people and let them get on with it? Does it set strategy? Does it get involved in operational matters?

KB: I feel in general in the arts “corporate” thinking has taken over to great detriment. Boards think it is just like any other business. That is so untrue. Ballet is an entirely impractical art form. It is very expensive and illogical. Boards should stop trying to make it sensible. Ballet companies are “non profit “organisations and they should remain so.

 

Photograph of Kathryn Bennetts: Marc Ohrem-Leclef

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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