American Ballet Theater Names Dance Veteran as Executive Director

American Ballet Theatre, one of the largest dance companies in the United States, has faced a series of challenges in recent months. Relations with dancers were strained, finances were strained, and the organization lacked a permanent executive director.

On Thursday, Ballet Theater announced it was tapping a dance veteran to try to overcome its woes: Barry Hughson, general director of the National Ballet of Canada, will join the company in this role in July. He succeeds Janet Rollé, who resigned suddenly last summer after 17 months of work.

Hughson, 56, a former dancer, said in an interview that he was not intimidated by Ballet Theater's problems.

“ABT is a company that I have loved since I was 10 years old, a ballet student, watching Baryshnikov,” he said, referring to principal dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. “It’s a very important institution in American dance, and it’s a difficult time for the artistic community right now.”

Ballet Theater executives said they chose Hughson, general director of the National Ballet of Canada since 2014, because of his extensive experience in the field. He has held leadership positions at Boston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet, among other organizations. They said he also showed a desire to work with Susan Jaffeartistic director of the Ballet Theatre, who has been interim general director since Rollé's departure.

“I expect and hope that it will be a wonderful, cooperative leadership team,” Andrew F. Barth, chairman of the Ballet Theater board, said in an interview. “We're going to have an opportunity to look at how to get our art out there, how to get this beautiful cultural aspect out there to more people, in a more financially sound way.”

Like most performing arts organizations, Ballet Theatre, founded in 1939, suffered from the pandemic, which led to the cancellation of two seasons and cost the company millions of dollars in ticket revenue and fees tour.

But while audiences have returned — attendance is averaging about 69 percent of capacity, compared to 63 percent before the pandemic — Ballet Theater is grappling with other financial challenges.

A major revenue source for the company — its summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House — has been curtailed since 2022, when the Met extended its performances into June. The move forced Ballet Theater, with a budget of $51 million, to cut its season at the Met from eight to five weeks. Overall, the number of performances for the widely touring Ballet Theater fell to 83 this season, down from 114 in 2018-19.

And Ballet Theatre's subscriber base, traditionally a significant source of revenue, has eroded, falling to 2,516 in the most recent season, down from 6,251 in 2018-19. The company has also seen its philanthropic donations decline, although it declined to provide details. Laura Miller, a spokeswoman for Ballet Theater, did not give a reason, saying only that detailed fundraising data was not available.

Relations between the Ballet Theater administration and the dancers have been strained recently due to heated negotiations over a new employment contract. The company reached a deal with the dancers last month, agreeing to raises and other benefits.

Hughson said he would work to stabilize Ballet Theater's finances and help the company find new audiences. He said he wants to expand the company's presence in the New York market, which New York City Ballet traditionally dominates. And he hopes to reexamine the company's touring model, which has long been the lifeblood of Ballet Theater, so that tours can be “artistically dynamic but also economically viable.”

“We know ABT's storied past,” he said, “but it's really about what stories are we going to tell, how are we going to support our artists and how are we going to create a sustainable model so that ABT will be here in another 80 years?

Rollé's resignation, just a week before the start of Ballet Theatre's 2023 summer season, came as a shock to the dance industry. Rollé, who had already served as chief executive of Beyoncé's entertainment company, did not provide an explanation, saying only that she would focus on serving on corporate and nonprofit boards.

Barth, the board chair, said the job “wasn’t quite what she expected” but that she left on good terms.

“I’m sure she’ll come see us at the ballet,” he said, “and I’ll greet her with a hug.”

Barth said the company considered keeping Jaffe, a former star ballerina at the company, as artistic and executive leader, but decided “it was just too much work” for one person.

Hughson, whose performing career began at the Washington Ballet, said he hopes to have a long tenure. “It seems like the right place to spend the last 10 years of my career,” he said, “and see if I can make a difference.”

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