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Susan Jaffe might blow up the entire way we think about ballet

The former ballerina’s vision for American Ballet Theatre could bring the acclaimed company into the 21st century

Susan Jaffe teaches at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in 2011. She will take over as ABT’s artistic director at the end of the year. (Rosalie O’Connor)
7 min

Ballet has never been especially swift in adjusting to social progress, but that seems to be changing. When Susan Jaffe takes over from Kevin McKenzie as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre at the end of the year, for the first time in history women will lead two of the nation’s three major ballet companies.

American Ballet Theatre names former dancer Susan Jaffe as director

This is a watershed moment for women’s progress in the field. Jaffe’s appointment, announced May 9, parallels San Francisco Ballet’s news in January that Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo will replace longtime artistic director Helgi Tomasson this year. The hiring of these women bucks a persistent trend, for up until now, women’s leadership gains have been overwhelmingly among the smallest regional companies. According to recent data from Dance/USA, the national service organization, troupes with budgets of $3 million and below are mostly led by female artistic directors. Ballet companies with larger budgets tend to be male-dominated, with very few exceptions.

This is the case, for example, with New York City Ballet, the obvious third member of the country’s top echelon of ballet. It has always been led by men, though in 2019 retired dancer Wendy Whelan became associate artistic director after applying for the top job.

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Jaffe’s selection feels significant for another reason. In a recent interview, the former ballerina shared a farsighted, well-considered vision for ABT that could quietly blow up the entire way we think about ballet. Jaffe, who recently turned 60, has in mind such steps as opening up artistic processes to the public and soliciting views from balletgoers and other stakeholders on the delicate task of updating thorny works from the classical canon. It’s an audience-first approach.

“I was there when people were wrapped around the block, sleeping overnight to see a performance,” said Jaffe, reflecting on the early 1980s, at the start of her professional career. Having left her hometown of Bethesda, Md., she joined ABT’s corps de ballet in 1980.

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Three years later, Jaffe was a principal dancer, at a time when ABT programs were headlined by such famed ballet partnerships as Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was then artistic director. Audiences were enraptured. Ballet was a hot ticket.

“The interesting thing about that,” Jaffe said of the broad fan base, “is those people were educated about ballet.”

Jaffe is speaking from her office at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where she has been artistic director since 2020. Before that, she spent eight years as dean of dance at the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Education is a primary pillar of her plans for ABT. She aims to fill in the gaps of public knowledge about ballet and dance, and build on that to leverage ABT’s programs.

“Ballet is a very intellectual art form and people don’t know it,” she said. “And when you don’t know much about it, it’s hard to understand, and I think that’s why it’s not as easily embraced as, for example, music. It takes a while for the eye to understand it because there’s so much going on. But if you have a little insight, you can do that much more quickly.”

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What’s interesting here is that Jaffe is looking at the larger systemic issue. It’s not enough to drum up excitement for a specific show. The bigger challenge is to groom potential audiences long term, and teach the public to appreciate and even crave the art form.

Is this a woman’s way of addressing a problem? It’s tempting to say so. Maybe it’s also smart thinking. Jaffe didn’t speak of ticket sales, programming or commissions. She talked about getting back to basics. Laying the groundwork for growth by building a knowledge base.

“I would like to do digital programs, maybe 15 to 20 minutes on the website. Like Cliffs Notes,” Jaffe continued. “To present the history, the lineage, the larger themes, and here’s what to look for in the ballet. I’d do this with the contemporary works, too. You could do so much: The lineage of teachers and choreographers. How one dancer passes it on to the next.

“Then you start to understand the lineage, and then you can see it in the movements and it starts to make more sense.”

In any performing arts organization, audiences are one part of the equation. Nurturing new work is another. To develop ABT’s repertoire and the careers of undiscovered artists, Jaffe is also considering launching a choreography competition.

“I’d really like for Ballet Theatre to discover new choreographers,” she said. “Often it’s safer to say, ‘Oh, somebody else discovered them — so now I can give them an opportunity.’ ” Instead, she said, ABT should lead the way in bringing talented new voices to light, “and give them a platform, along with a deeper educational component.”

As for ABT’s backbone — its long-held treasury of classic, full-length story ballets, many that date to the 19th century — Jaffe said she aims to shelve, temporarily, those that contain offensive stereotyping or run counter to contemporary sensibilities.

“I will definitely do this with a team, not on my own,” she said. The ballets she has in mind include “Le Corsaire,” which centers on a Greek woman sold into slavery and a pirate hero who is himself an enslaver, and “La Bayadère,” which is set in a fictionalized India among temple dancers and a morally questionable high priest. Some of the characters and religious depictions have drawn criticism from the Hindu community and others who see it as insensitive. Jaffe plans to make changes, possibly adjusting storylines and details, after undertaking research, discussions and surveys, “so that we’re really hearing from audience members.”

“The last thing we want to do is just ignore the issues and say we don’t care. We do care. And we want to be mindful about what we do.”

For ABT, which for decades has depended on the classics for its identity and bottom line, these will be major steps. They’re sure to draw some skepticism. Jaffe, though, is firm: This work needs to be done. She’s right.

“There’s so much to do around that,” Jaffe said. “And we will. And it will take some time till we present those ballets again. Not until the research is done.

“I don’t want to just do something because it is beautiful,” she added. “I want to make sure it has been thoroughly discussed, so that it is celebratory.”

Education, research, developing the new, re-examining the old. Jaffe is describing a big-picture outlook. It’s what the business community calls systems thinking: looking at how processes are interrelated, rather than scattering attention on separate details.

It’s the perspective, too, of a woman with an open and analytical mind. She is digging down into the sources of ballet’s perception problem, to address the core reasons it is generally not well understood. She’s approaching the issues broadly. And she’s placing value on listening.

Something else jumped out in Jaffe’s comments: She doesn’t seem to be motivated by the spotlight.

For example, she has no immediate plans to choreograph works for ABT, though she has created ballets since retiring from the stage in 2002. She choreographed a version of “Swan Lake” recently in Pittsburgh, with an unusual ending: After being betrayed by Prince Siegfried, the bewitched swan queen, Odette, throws herself into the titular lake, following tradition, but the difference is that it’s a heroic act, not a despairing one. In an unusual twist, Odette’s self-sacrifice releases her sister swan-maidens from their spell so they can be free women again.

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“She is teaching Siegfried what real leadership is,” Jaffe said. “She has become a woman of strength, and she says to him, ‘This is what you have to do for your people.’ ”

Asked whether this suggests her own leadership style, Jaffe laughed, and demurred, and spoke instead of the pleasures of nurturing.

“I do get great satisfaction out of helping others to grow,” she said. “It’s not about me anymore.”