Spring, the season of renewal. This year brings extraordinary changes to New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. In February the companies announced new leadership at both institutions with the appointments of Jonathan Stafford as Artistic Director of NYCB and SAB, and Wendy Whelan as Associate Artistic Director of NYCB, establishing the esteemed former NYCB dancers and SAB alumni as the next generation of artistic leadership at two of the world’s most acclaimed and storied dance institutions.
“New York City Ballet is proud to usher in this next generation of leadership with two of our own brightest luminaries at the helm,” said Charles W. Scharf, Chairman of New York City Ballet’s Board of Directors. “Jonathan Stafford, whose 20-year career with the Company includes remarkable work as both an exemplary principal dancer and indispensable ballet master, has done an extraordinary job as our interim artistic leader over the past year. Wendy Whelan is one of the most important and beloved dancers in our Company’s history who went on to build a dynamic post-NYCB career as an innovative and collaborative artist.”
The day after their appointments were announced, Stafford and Whelan sat with Playbill to discuss their plans for the future of the Company as it enters a new chapter in its history.
Jonathan, for the past year or so, you have, along with three other company members, been in charge of the day-to-day artistic life of the Company. What are the most important things you have learned during this period that will help you going forward?
Stafford: Communication is absolutely key, and during the past year we have been strengthening relationships with the dancers and across all departments, working very closely with all the great people who make up New York City Ballet.
Wendy, after your retirement from the Company in 2014, you have cultivated a number of multi-disciplinary performance projects. What new perspectives has that varied experience brought that will be of help as you take up your new responsibilities?
Whelan: At the end of my career with NYCB, I was interested in learning leadership skills. I was curious to find out about all the other parts that make the whole. Once I left NYCB I got the opportunity to learn these skills on my own. I was having to figure it out mostly by myself. From building a team, to creating projects, raising money, booking and touring the performances, all of it. I was also exploring different kinds of dance. I opened myself up as an artist, and in the process, I also made a lot of great contacts in all areas of the cultural arena. My M.O. in the last few years was: Be fearless.
The Company has had a single leader for virtually its entire history. Do you think the company as a whole will find it difficult to transition to having more than one person making artistic decisions?
Whelan: I don’t think so. It feels like it’s a natural moment for that. And the Company has gotten used to it already under Jon and the team.
Stafford: Two heads are better than one. Bringing multiple perspectives to all the issues we are going to face going forward is really critical.
Whelan: Jon and I are also coming in with complementary strengths, which is great. And of course we are going to learn from each other. So the strengths will get stronger.
Your tenures as principal dancers with the Company overlapped for several years. Do you think having known each other for 20 years now will help you establish a comfortable collaboration?
Whelan: As dancers we were always on the other sides of the room, strangely, never in the same zone for very long! Jon’s repertory was different from mine. We had different partners. And Jon, from a very young age, was also teaching class as well as dancing.
Stafford: I was always a little nervous when Wendy would come and take my class.
Whelan: He was wonderful, always smooth and cool.
New York City Ballet has, at least at the top artistic levels, been run by men—just two men, really, although one of the most famous Balanchine quotes is “Ballet is woman.” Now you, Wendy, are becoming the first woman in a position of artistic leadership. How significant is that, from your point of view?
Whelan: It’s time for this, for sure. It’s important for the art form and for this institution—and even more broadly: culturally.
Do you find the responsibility at all daunting?
Whelan: No, not at all. It’s exciting. A male principal dancer once said to me, “You are going to be a great leader one day.” I said, “What? Me? It has to be a guy.” I always imagined there had to be a male in charge. That’s just the way it was then, but it doesn’t need to be that way.
Jonathan, do you feel it was time for the Company to open up what had, at least until the last year, been a very small but exclusively male club?
Stafford: Absolutely. It brings a whole new dynamic to the leadership of the Company. I think having Wendy in this role is going to really inspire people, especially young women. To be able to look up to a woman like Wendy as a role model, to see that representation and have someone to aspire to be one day, I think it’s really exciting.
Wendy, can you elaborate on what your focus will be?
Whelan: I am going to focus on programming and the creative commissions. Bringing in collaborators of all kinds and of course choreographers. I will be asking myself, who can fuel the dancers and the audiences? That’s where I am going to dive in first and put my energy, as well as doing some teaching and coaching.
Stafford: One thing that will be critical for Wendy is spending time with the dancers—getting to know them, listening to their concerns. And believe it or not we both like fundraising. They are not going to have to drag us along!
Whelan: I’ve enjoyed establishing relationships with donors for my own projects. They are all leaders themselves and they have been encouraging with their advice.
Wendy, you have referred to your appointment as a “homecoming” of sorts. What’s most exciting to you about returning to the fold?
Whelan: Honestly, that I can watch New York City Ballet perform every night! I remember when I was 14 and saw Agon for the first time, I thought, “I want to live in this world.” And I did for a long time, and I left, and it was hard. Now I get to live in that world again. What I was drawn to as a teen—that umbilical cord is now reconnected.
Jonathan, given the magnitude of the jobs of heading the Company as well as the School, there was some speculation that the chores might be divided. Why do you think it is important that the leadership of both remain in the same hands?
Stafford: The relationship between the School and the Company is so unique in that without the School there would be no New York City Ballet. The identity of both organizations is absolutely connected. The Company would look very different if the dancers were coming from different backgrounds with different training. It’s essential for the school to train the dancers in a way that they will be able to join the Company and be successful from their first day. So having a shared vision for both organizations is absolutely critical.
Historically the leaders of the Company have also been choreographers. You are both accomplished dancers but not choreographers. Do you think this marks a significant change?
Stafford: We can put all of our energies into commissioning the best possible artists without worrying about how “my work” will fit into it. That’s the best way for this organization to go forward, and we have the resources to commission the best choreographers from both inside and outside of the Company.
Whelan: I think it’s a positive change. Our egos won’t be in the mix in that way. It will be, “How do we feed this company?” not “What do we want to say through our own choreography?”
And of course, Justin Peck, currently Resident Choreographer, adds the title of Artistic Advisor.
Stafford: Justin really understands the Company, and has great insights into which outside artists might work or not work with our current dancers.
Whelan: Yes, Justin has great ideas about where we are today. That’s apparent in his work. He’s really on that pulse of a new, very energized generation of artists.
New York City Ballet has an unparalleled repertory of classic ballets, but it has always strived to keep from becoming a mere museum. How do you plan to strike that balance?
Stafford: In terms of traditional repertory, it’s about providing the dancers with as much direct knowledge and attention as possible. That’s why we started bringing in former dancers who created these roles for coaching, and we will continue to do that. The core Balanchine and Robbins ballets will be at the forefront of future programming. We will make sure they get the attention and care they deserve. At the same time, we are very lucky that we can also commission exciting new work. Not every company is able to do both at the level that we do at New York City Ballet.
Whelan: Yes, the work that the Company is most known for, the Balanchine and Robbins repertory, will always be first and foremost, and then we will focus on the new work that is also such a vital part of who we are. I’m excited to bring in the right choreographers for this particular, unique institution, to continue to fuel the speed and precision that epitomize the Company.
All companies, artistic or otherwise, need to evolve, and there is always room for improvement. Where do you see that changes or improvements need to be made as the Company goes forward?
Stafford: We have addressed much of it: improving communication, making sure little details don’t slip through the cracks, from scheduling to casting and logistics. Everyone needs to be able to do their job at the top level, because it’s a massive organization that is always operating at full speed ahead.
Whelan: As I’ve been watching the interim team during the last year, I’ve often thought “I would have done that.” I feel that we are really in sync and I look forward to now adding my voice and ideas to the change that has already begun.
Stafford: I have learned that when issues present themselves, face them. That’s been crucial: move quickly and address any problems immediately.
New York City Ballet is one of the city’s artistic jewels, and its many fans have very strong feelings about it. Change can be unsettling. What would you say to longtime City Ballet-lovers to put to rest any anxieties?
Stafford: The next few years are going to be some of the most exciting in the Company’s history. We are bringing energy to the organization that will have an impact. Change is good in a lot of ways—which isn’t to take away from our incredible history. During the many challenges of the past year, everyone here at the Company really bonded together and lifted each other up, and that’s going to continue.
Whelan: Change is hard, but change is natural. It’s not always easy, but it is transformative. And ultimately, it’s healthy. It’s part of life.
Charles Isherwood has been writing about theater, as well as ballet and other art forms, for more than 20 years. His theater reviews can currently be accessed at Broadway.news