‘Our opening night would be our closing night’
By Lisa Traiger
12 May 2020
“I’m running a $52-million ballet company out of my San Francisco apartment,” Kelly Tweeddale said with a rueful laugh last week. “Even though we’re all at home and we might be in our sweats,” she added, “everyone is working harder than they’ve ever worked in their lives.” Tweeddale especially.The arts manager has 30 years of experience including as the former president of Vancouver Symphony, executive director of the Seattle Opera, along with leadership positions at the Cleveland Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony. In the early 1980s, she began her career as an administrator at an improvisational dance company.
Tweeddale just joined San Francisco Ballet, one of the nation’s oldest dance companies, September 2, 2019, where, as executive director, she oversees 350 employees, including 78 dancers, 49 musicians, faculty and teaching artists at the school, and administrative and artistic staff; at peak season, employees go up to 450 and payroll ranges between $2.3 million and $3 million a month. Then a global pandemic changed everything.
Talk about a first-year trial by fire.
She is undeterred, noting, “In some ways, having lived through the 2008 financial crisis, many of us feel we’ve been through something kind of like this. But, in truth, there’s nothing like this pandemic. I feel like everything in my career has prepared me for this moment. And nothing has prepared any of us for this moment.”
San Francisco was one of the earliest U.S. jurisdictions to face closures and, ultimately, shelter-in-place orders. The ballet felt the ramifications on the first day. “March 6 was opening night of our Midsummer Night’s Dream. As we were taking the stage, we got the call from the city that they were closing the War Memorial Opera House. Our opening night would be our closing night.”
Tweeddale said, “Helgi [Tomasson, the company artistic director] and I looked at each other and I said ‘We’ll either look at this, and say it was the biggest overreach ever or we’ll look back at this moment and say it was the most brilliant decision ever.’” Looking back, she feels fortunate that city leadership made decisions that erred on the side of health and science, even with the overwhelming ramifications those have for the 87-year-old ballet company.
To navigate uncertainty during this trying period, Tweeddale has relied on Tomasson, whose 35-year tenure at the company has been a godsend to her. She also included SFB’s 52-member board, and former dancer-turned-doctor Richard Gibbs, who started the company’s wellness center, as instrumental in providing guidance to help the organization navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Gibbs runs a free medical clinic in San Francisco and has offered essential advice to Tweeddale and the leadership team as it develops plans and protocols amidst the pandemic. “We thought about what social-distance seating might look like if that was the next step. Then the shelter-in-place [order] came March 16, to begin on March 17. We had 24 hours to notify everybody in the organization that we would be sheltered in place. That was a game changer.”
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