Washington Ballet Loses Tempest-Tossed Manager

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

After a stormy two-year tenure at the Washington Ballet, Executive Director Jason Palmquist has resigned, becoming the fourth chief administrator to quit since Artistic Director Septime Webre arrived in 1999. Palmquist will leave in May to take the top executive job at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, a modern-dance company, he announced late Tuesday.

Palmquist's decision "couldn't have caught me more by surprise," said Washington Ballet Board President Kay Kendall. "He couldn't have liked the first year he spent with us, but that's so long ago."

She was referring to Palmquist's inauspicious arrival at the company in December 2004, as well as much of his second year -- which must rank as the worst period in Washington Ballet history. Upon joining the group, the former Kennedy Center administrator became embroiled in a long-simmering labor dispute with the dancers that eventually shut down the 2005 "Nutcracker" performances and much of last winter's season. In an inelegant series of events, Palmquist oversaw the last-minute cancellation of a tour to Italy and months of bitter contract negotiations -- with the dancers airing complaints of injurious work practices -- that only a team of federal mediators managed to bring to a close.

Previously, Palmquist had managed the Kennedy Center's dance program but had neither run a company before nor crafted a union contract from scratch.

But he said the labor crisis, which resulted in the company's first union pact, had nothing to do with his decision to leave for the slightly smaller Chicago company. Echoing so many Washington officials who make abrupt career moves, Palmquist, 35, cited family reasons.

"The real motivation is that my sister and brother-in-law, who have been living in Southern California for the past decade, several months ago relocated to Chicago with my 16-month-old nephew, who I'm quite fond of," he said. "So I've been thinking of wanting to be closer to family." Acknowledging that this is an unusual step to take for a sibling, Palmquist added, "If I wasn't going to what I think is a world-class organization, I wouldn't have made the move."

Palmquist praised Webre as "fantastic" to work with. Of the acrimonious labor dispute, he said: "There's no doubt that that was a really difficult time. But I feel the company has come through that difficult time in an amazing way. . . . And it's the fact that the company has had such a strong rebound, from my perspective, that made me feel okay" about leaving.

He cited recent triumphs such as December's "Nutcracker" run -- in terms of ticket revenue, the most successful in the company's history -- and last week's sold-out "Noche Latina" series at the Kennedy Center.

In a statement yesterday, Webre lauded Palmquist for "his business acumen" and "his commitment to excellence." Asked in an interview about the seemingly high rate of turnover in the executive's chair, Webre said: "I had a great rapport with all of the previous executive directors. . . . I think this is a phenomenon that other ballet companies have experienced and one that I hope we can address to find out why."

Financially, the Washington Ballet is still feeling the effects of last year's shutdown. This year's $7 million budget is pared back from the previous two years. The company is still trying to find a director for its training arm, the Washington School of Ballet, a post that has been vacant since last year. Kendall said the board is "hopefully in the final stages" of that search.

Asked if Palmquist's departure, following the other top administrators who have left, means that Webre is difficult to work with, Kendall said with a laugh: "It might say that I am. I don't know. It's a really hard job."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company