Posted on September 5, 2012
In addition to the feature “Who’s the Boss” printed in the September 2012 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 first of these interviews is jointly with Amanda Skoog, the managing director of Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), and Ethan Stiefel, former principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and now in his inaugural season as the artistic director of RNZB.
GW: What is required to have a balanced relationship between the managing director and the artistic director of a ballet company?
AS: A mutual understanding and respect of what each has to achieve – and the very real different pressures that they face. It also needs excellent communication, not only between each other but with their respective teams.
ES: I feel it is important that the communication is transparent and that trust is always inherent in this dialogue. Furthermore, being completely unified in what the goals are and what you are seeking to achieve, is conducive to a mutual synergy and success.
GW: Does the artistic vision need to be shared from the beginning?
AS: Absolutely. A dance company is about the art form and its aspirations for that art form. I believe a company that operates with a managing director or CEO that does not believe in the artistic vision is doomed.
ES: I believe artistic vision is initially inspired by the artistic director, hence the literal definition of the title. Does that vision require feedback and input from others, as well as everyone believing in it? Sure, that is the only way it can be successful on every level.
GW: Is it just a case of integrated working or one where there are clear demarcations of responsibilities that should not be over-stepped?
AS: You need definition otherwise it could get very messy, and when a call needs to be made it has to be clear who makes that call. Having said this I think it’s also important to listen to each other – I like to think that we can learn from each other, too.
ES: I truly believe that the two managers should promote and facilitate a collaborative spirit, yet we each have our own responsibilities and areas of focus, in order to be both efficient and productive. These responsibilities are unique to our specific roles, and do ultimately require definition and understanding, in terms of decision-making and who initiates certain directives.
GW: What are the best conditions in the best companies that enable a seamless relationship for the good of all?
AS: At the RNZB the artistic director and the managing director have complete parity and this means we work together even more closely – one is not the boss of the other – it’s about a partnership. The way I see my role is that of an enabler.
ES: I imagine it is the timeless pursuit of striking the balance between art and commerce, whilst not losing sight of what your primary mission is as an arts 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?
AS: Governance is not about operations but strategic input is needed. Once again, if the Board don’t buy into the company strategy it’s going to be hard to make it work. A lot of governance is about advocacy for the organisation and of course introductions to new partnerships.
ES: Each institution has its own approach and structure in terms of governance and protocol.
GW: How are the external influences and pressures (which could be state/public funding or audience expectations) best managed?
AS: Running a dance company is a business and there are some harsh realities about this – so once again I come back to respect – we work towards an artistic vision but with a close eye on the bottom line!
ES deferred to AS on this answer.
Ethan Stiefel in Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son. Photograph: Roy Round.