In a March 1st Critics Notebook for the New York Times, Gia Kourlas wrote about Wendy Whelan and Jonathan Stafford’s hiring as the associate artistic director of New York City Ballet and the artistic director of the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, respectively. Kourlas did not falter from the honest critique she is known to share:
I’ve always supported the idea of seeing two people share City Ballet’s top position because of the job’s immensity. But there’s a problem here: equality. Mr. Stafford is to become the artistic director of both City Ballet and its affiliated School of American Ballet; Ms. Whelan has been named the associate artistic director of City Ballet.
The company has undergone much turmoil in recent months: Three male principal dancers were forced out after they were accused of sharing text messages of sexually explicit photos of women. In the current climate — something City Ballet and its board should know a thing or two about — elevating the job title of a man over a woman seems like a regressive, shortsighted and even cowardly act. It’s also a confusing one given that in an interview in The New York Times the two said that “they intended to work as partners.”
The critic’s sentiment is shared by many across the dance community. If the two are partners, why do their titles differ in hierarchy? It is indeed confusing. The article largely focused on Whelan and her diverse experience and interests. Kourlas sees room for error with Whelan controlling programming and coaching the dancers. She also can largely expand the company’s repertoire from its narrow, Martins/Robbins/Balanchine/Peck bubble.
Kourlas continued, “In her new position, she must be able to see the big picture. But there is reason for hope: Her recent project is a work by Lucinda Childs, the great postmodern choreographer. It’s possible that many City Ballet dancers, especially the younger ones, have never heard of Ms. Childs, who has been choreographing ballets in Europe for years. Ms. Whelan’s new job is an opportunity to impart, along with technique and musicality, some dance history beyond ballet, to be a bridge between the worlds of contemporary, or downtown dance, and its more classical uptown counterpart.
Ms. Whelan gets out into the world — recently, I’ve seen her at New York Live Arts and the Museum of Modern Art. It’s extremely important to know what’s going on in dance outside Lincoln Center: This is an art form that is not only about the body but also about ideas, and Ms. Whelan has demonstrated in her own career, especially post-retirement, a solid grasp of that.”
Surely, however, Whelan can get even farther outside of Lincoln Center. Beyond MoMa and NY Live Arts are remarkable commissions by regionally-emerging choreographers. See Stephanie Martinez and the perhaps better-known Penny Saunders choreographing for Charlotte Ballet. Many choreographers-in-residence do not get out of their small-town scenes to program work at the larger companies like NYCB with big-name connections.
Whelan, who has a clear passion for the overlaps between different mediums of art and mergers of classical with modern dance, should send company representatives to regional performances to consider bringing regional talent to New York’s world stage. Another international leader, American Ballet Theatre, is doing just this in June. Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre, which began in Canada at the Northern Ballet, will be brought to the Metropolitan Opera House by Ballet Theatre.
New York City Ballet’s new direction can take note.
Read Kourlas’ article in the New York Times.