Conversation: The State of Ballet in America, Part 2

BY Jeffrey Brown  June 25, 2010 at 11:00 AM EST

Here is part two of my conversation with Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founder and artistic director of Ballet Memphis; Ashley Wheater, artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet; and Ib Andersen, artistic director of Ballet Arizona.

Part one of our conversation can be found here.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing you have all raised when you talk about challenges, of course, is the economy, the financial downturn. Now, you were talking about how Joffrey has this great history of touring —

ASHLEY WHEATER: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: — national prominence through that. What has the economic downturn meant for either that or for what you’re able to do in Chicago?

ASHLEY WHEATER: It’s very interesting to see what happening because, and maybe because of the economy, that people are staying at home and not traveling so much. I think that we have a responsibility to provide the absolute ultimate in the art form that we are directing. I have seen in the last three years in Chicago an increase in subscriptions to over 20 percent. And I have really pushed the envelope in new work and taken some big risks and they have paid off. And I think that people appreciate excellence, so I think that Ib is absolutely right. How you program and how you bring the audience to new work — you cannot just throw so much stuff that it is so avant-garde and expect them to swallow it and say, yes I want to come back for more. And so I think that how all of us probably program the season is that there’s got to be a balance. But I think that it’s to do with values, really good values of the performance and in what we’re presenting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing I want to ask you about is the dancers. Where do they come from now? How do you find them? How do they survive? Again this is sort of an economic question, because you have to find ways to hold on to them, pay them, get them through a season. And I’ve, for the NewsHour, done some stories in the last few years with the economic downturn where some companies have just, a lot of companies laid off people, some companies have just folded.

IB ANDERSEN: Well, I mean dance, you know, has always been notoriously low pay.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was never really was —

IB ANDERSEN: No, I mean it always has been a vocation of love and if you don’t like dancing you are in the wrong in the business, you know. In America, you know, it’s always been, I mean, in my company we have nationality — I don’t know of how many — but it’s from all over the place. I would half of them are foreigners maybe and half of them are from America. There’s not as many American trained males.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s still an issue, you mean?

IB ANDERSON: It still is an issue. I mean, I think it’s much better than it has been, you know.

ASHLEY WHEATER: The stigma is going away. I think that there is a greater appreciation for actually how physically demanding to be a male dancer is and what it requires. And I think that you know you look at people that play soccer or football or baseball, and a dancer is so incredibly attuned. It’s a Ferrari of the human body and so I think that there is a greater appreciation and I think that the closer we’re able to bring our audience to us to what we’re doing, the greater appreciation they actually understand about what it takes to really be a great classical dancer.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re talking about men. I want to ask you one last question about women.

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: So glad you’re going to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: My sense is that there are not many women artistic directors.

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: There are not.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are not.

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: And what’s very interesting to me is that the predominance of students in America in the ballet schools are girls, and the chief ticket buyers are women, and many, many of many companies were founded by women and then handed over somehow to men.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hmmm…what happens?

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: I can’t profess to having gotten to the bottom of that. But someone posited a theory to me that perhaps it’s when companies become institutionalized and you have a board of directors — and that is also changing — if it’s mostly business people, it was men, and so men identified with men, so men picked men to continue leading.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you found a way.

DOROTHY GUNTHER PUGH: Well, I did, but I did my own way and I did it in my community. And I didn’t go where I had a professional job offer in Pittsburgh, and to this day now, I think I knew that I had something to say and I had to lead and I had to it my way and the place where I knew I was going to probably be able to do it with the smoothest sailing was in my own home, where I have generations of family. And so that’s what I have done.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We have to stop there, but good luck to all of you this weekend and in the future. Dorothy Gunther Pugh of Ballet Memphis, Ashley Wheater of Joffrey Ballet and Ib Andersen of Ballet Arizona, nice to talk to you.