American Ballet Theater Names Dance Veteran as Executive Director

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

On Thursday, Ballet Theater announced it was bringing in a dance veteran as it tries to move beyond its woes: Barry Hughson, executive director of the National Ballet of Canada, will join the company in that role in July. He succeeds Janet Rollé, who resigned suddenly last summer after 17 months on the job.

Hughson, 56, a former dancer, said in an interview that he was undaunted by Ballet Theater’s troubles.

“A.B.T. has been a company that I’ve loved since I was a 10-year-old ballet student watching Baryshnikov,” he said, referring to the star dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. “It’s such an important institution in American dance, and it’s a challenging time for the arts community right now.”

Ballet Theater’s leaders said they chose Hughson, executive director at the National Ballet of Canada since 2014, because of his extensive experience in the field. He has held top positions at Boston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet, among other organizations. They said he also showed an eagerness to work with Susan Jaffe, Ballet Theater’s artistic director, who has served as interim executive director since Rollé’s departure.

“I expect and I hope it’ll be a wonderful, cooperative leadership team,” Andrew F. Barth, chairman of Ballet Theater’s board, said in an interview. “We’re going to have the opportunity to examine how to bring our art, how to bring this beautiful cultural aspect, to more people in more ways that are financially sound.”

Like most performing arts organizations, Ballet Theater, founded in 1939, suffered during the pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of two seasons and cost the company millions of dollars in anticipated ticket revenue and touring fees.

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

A major source of revenue for the company — its summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House — has been curtailed since 2022, when the Met extended its performances into June. That decision forced Ballet Theater, with a budget of $51 million, to reduce its season at the Met to five weeks from eight. Overall, the number of performances by Ballet Theater, which tours extensively, has fallen to 83 this season, compared with 114 in 2018-19.

And Ballet Theater’s subscriber base, which has traditionally provided an important source of revenue, has eroded, falling to 2,516 in the most recent season from 6,251 in 2018-19. The company has also seen philanthropic donations decline, though it declined to provide specifics. Laura Miller, a spokeswoman for Ballet Theater, did not give a reason, saying only that detailed fund-raising data was not available.

Relations between Ballet Theater’s administration and dancers have been tense recently because of heated negotiations over a new labor contract. The company reached a deal with dancers last month, agreeing to raises and other benefits.

Hughson said he would work to stabilize Ballet Theater’s finances and to help the company find new audiences. He said he wanted to expand the company’s presence in the New York market, which New York City Ballet has traditionally dominated. And he hopes to re-examine the company’s touring model, long Ballet Theater’s lifeblood, so that tours can be “artistically vibrant but also economically viable.”

“We know the glorious past of A.B.T.,” 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 A.B.T. is here in another 80 years?”

The resignation of Rollé, just a week before the start of Ballet Theater’s 2023 summer season, came as a shock to the dance industry. Rollé, who had previously served as general manager of Beyoncé’s entertainment firm, did not offer an explanation, saying only that she would turn her focus to service on corporate and nonprofit boards.

Barth, the board chair, said that the job “wasn’t quite what she was expecting,” but that she had departed on good terms.

“I’m sure she’ll be coming to watch us at the ballet,” he said, “and I’ll greet her with a hug.”

Barth said the company had considered keeping Jaffe, a former star ballerina with the company, in place as both artistic and executive leader, but decided “it’s just too much work” for one person.

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

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