Susan Jaffe, a former American Ballet Theater ballerina, will become the artistic director of that company when Kevin McKenzie steps down after a 30-year tenure, at the end of 2022, the company announced on Monday.
Jaffe, 59, who has been the artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater since July 2020, will be the seventh director to lead the troupe since it was founded by Lucia Chase and Richard Pleasant in 1939. She takes over the company at a challenging moment for the performing arts and will need to oversee its recovery from the pandemic, which has caused the cancellation of two seasons, as well as the loss of touring fees and of millions of dollars in ticket revenues.
“It is a profound honor to take the artistic helm at Ballet Theater, where I have spent 32 years of my professional life,” Jaffe said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh, where her company had just given its first performance of her new version of “Swan Lake.”
“The kinds of ballets the company can do, the range from large classical works to repertory programs, the access to the greatest works and the greatest choreographers in the world; I am so excited to have the opportunity to program in an inspiring way.”
Jaffe was one of the few American ballerinas of her generation to establish an international career. She had a fairy tale showbiz break, at 18, when Mikhail Baryshnikov, then the director of Ballet Theater, pulled her from the corps de ballet to dance a pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” with the star Alexander Godunov — “a sensational debut ,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times.
A principal dancer from 1983 to 2002, Jaffe danced with major companies all over the world, and worked with an extensive range of choreographers, including George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jiri Kylian, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris.
“But can she sing?” McKenzie joked in a phone interview, after enumerating her qualities: “You’ve got someone who had a major career as a performer, is a great teacher and coach, has experience in academia and the ballet world, has choreographed and has established relationships with choreographers.”
“She worked under three directors at Ballet Theater,” he added. “It feels like the organic continuation of a line.”
After retiring from performance, Jaffe became an adviser to the chairman of the board, Lewis S. Ranieri, and taught at the newly formed ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
“When I began to teach, I realized that the only way this art form moves on is through people,” she said. “I had worked with the legends of my field, and felt it was almost a calling, a responsibility, to transmit that knowledge.”
Jaffe was appointed after a nine-month process that Susan Fales-Hill, the head of Ballet Theater’s search committee, described as “a global search that cast the net very wide.”
“We were looking for someone who understands the company’s roots but will be forward-looking,” she said, “be willing to embrace dance in different ways, as the pandemic showed us can happen, and be willing to ask questions and have the interesting conversations that are happening now. Susan had all that.”
Fales-Hill added, “I am thrilled to see a woman who is truly in her prime take the stage.”
Most of Jaffe’s tenure as director at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater has been dominated by the pandemic. The experience has been challenging, she said, but taught her the importance of building trust with the dancers. “I want them to feel we are in this together,” she said. “I realized during the pandemic that it’s about the continuous creation of an environment.”
Before Pittsburgh, she was the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. It was an intensive preparation for an artistic director role, she said, teaching her about leadership and administration; she led a successful fund-raising campaign, bringing in about $3.5 million raised for scholarships and endowments.
The Ballet Theater that Jaffe will inherit is undergoing institutional change, having recently named a new executive director, Janet Rollé, and a new chief development officer, Stacy Margolis.
It is also a company that has struggled to find an identity in recent years. Over the last decade, McKenzie has focused on nurturing homegrown dancers rather than importing the major international stars who gave Ballet Theater its glamorous profile for so long. The company toggles between full-length story ballets needed for its annual Metropolitan Opera House season, and a more varied, if scattered, repertory for its fall season. Most of its notable new work has come from the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, whom McKenzie hired in 2009 as artist in residence, and whose contract will end next year.
The broad strokes of Jaffe’s vision for Ballet Theater, she said, included increasing touring, and educating audiences on those travels by taking the work, in the form of demonstrations or short performances, into universities and other spaces. “It’s important to be out there,” she said, “we are America’s national ballet company.”
Jaffe also emphasized the need for updating the classics — some of which have been criticized for cultural insensitivity in recent years — to preserve “the beauty and depth of classical ballet,” as well as the importance of diverse choreographers and styles.
“I think we are going to have a little more risk-taking, choreographically,” she said. While she declined to specify names, she said she would like to commission full-length ballets as well as shorter pieces, and had her eye on “some amazing people, including women telling new and vital stories and people of color making great work.”
She said she had not yet spoken to Ratmansky, whom she called “a tremendous artist.”
Although Jaffe has choreographed over 20 works since 2004, it would not be a priority for her at Ballet Theater, she said, adding, “my first job is to direct the company.”
Jaffe does not face the deep debt and organizational chaos that McKenzie inherited when he took over Ballet Theater in 1992, though the company has taken a hit during the pandemic. The company, which holds an endowment of $28.9 million, had an operating budget of just under $30 million last year, down from $45 million in 2019. “We would like to go back to that,” said Andrew F. Barth, the chairman of Ballet Theater’s board. “That’s the hope.”
Asked how the company could take a front-of-stage position in keeping ballet an art of the present, Jaffe said that innovative new work would clearly signal a move forward, and that it was important to build on the “eye-opening” experience of seeing work online from all over the world during the pandemic.
“It’s really important,” she said, “to keep reaching that wider audience.”