A New Day and Change of Culture for NYCB? Long Overdue Focus on Women Choreographers & Emphasis on Safe Atmosphere
After a year of interim leadership by a team of four, New York City Ballet has selected Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan as the company’s new leaders. Stafford has served on the team of interim directors over the past year, alongside Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall, and Justin Peck. Whelan retired from her role as principal dancer with the company in 2014 and has since developed a wide range of freelance projects with artists like Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo, Lucinda Childs, Daniele Désnoyers, Javier De Frutos, David Neumann, Annie-B Parson, and Arthur Pita.
Stafford will serve as the Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet and its affiliate school, the School of American Ballet (SAB), while Whelan will serve as Associate Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet. Justin Peck will also tackle a new role as the company’s Artistic Advisor.Whelan’s statement in the press release recognized the rare responsibility of a woman moving into the artistic leadership. She said, “The magnitude of what my appointment represents for female dancers, and all women, is of critical importance to me. The moment for change at New York City Ballet is now, and I am excited to help welcome it with Jonathan Stafford.”
Whelan’s primary role will include “conceiving, planning, and programming NYCB’s annual performance season; commissioning new work from choreographers, composers, and other artistic collaborators.” Whelan’s control over new commissions and NYCB’s repertoire is likely to lead to more commissions of female choreographers, whose representation has been largely absent from the majority of the company’s seasons.
Protecting the female artists that were punished by Peter Martin’s continued influence following his departure is also essential to the reaffirmation of the company as a leader in America abroad. Ashley Bouder, the principal dancer who was recently pulled by the former artistic director from the company’s first-cast of his Sleeping Beauty, released a statement on Instagram, writing, “It was a long and often difficult road, but finally NYCB has a solid direction. I cannot express how THRILLED I am to have such a strong woman, Wendy Whelan, as part of the new era. With this news, our team is as optimistic as ever that the culture at New York City Ballet will change to emphasize safety, transparency, and equity both on and off the stage.”
The need for a change in the company culture has been made clear to the Board during this year of dramatic scandal and division at NYCB. The union of Ms. Whelan and Mr. Stafford is one marked by optimism, as, according to the New York Times, the pair campaigned independently during interviews with the search committee for a management partnership. Their desire to balance the roles of an Artistic Director was apparently convincing, though it is notable that the pair’s titles do not reflect the equal partnership the company’s statement describes.
Dance Magazine contributor Lauren Wingenroth, who, along with the publication, has been at the forefront of truth-telling amidst talks of inequity in the dance community, pointed this out. Wingenroth wrote, “The set-up begs the question: If the two leaders will truly be ‘partners,’ why are they not co-artistic directors? Considering the company’s recent scandals — and the troubling historical gender dynamics of the company — the arrangement sits just a bit uncomfortably.”
Oversight on which title to give which leader seems unrealistic from the esteemed organization. Therefore, only time will tell whether or not “associate” will indicate an imbalance of power between these two leaders. If the Board has played its cards right, Whelan will possess equal control, and NYCB will turn a new page towards equity.
Read the company’s full press release here.
Read the New York Times article “City Ballet, Shaken by Turmoil, Chooses New Leaders” here.
Read The Washington Posts article “City Ballet names its #MeToo-era leaders: a man-woman team” here.
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