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Transformational Leadership
Episode 125
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Transformational Leadership

CI to Eye with Jonathan Stafford

This episode is hosted by Christopher Williams.

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In This Episode

Holding the artistic reins of an organization is no easy feat—especially when that organization has been around for generations and has a deep-rooted legacy. As a leader, how do you honor the rich history of your institution while effectively steering it into the future?

As New York City Ballet celebrates its 75th anniversary season, Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford reflects on the Company’s continued evolution, how they’ve adapted to this new digital era, and the unique challenges of leading such a storied cultural entity.

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CI to Eye Interview with Jonathan Stafford

CI’s VP, Managing Director Christopher Williams talks with Jonathan Stafford about programming for new audiences, modernizing marketing strategies, and navigating the power and complexity of today’s social media. Jonathan also shares his experience combatting imposter syndrome and growing more comfortable taking risks as a leader.

Karen McConarty: Like practicing the violin or tenderly restoring a painting, we nurture what we love—and Capacity Interactive’s Boot Camp is the best way to nurture our collective love for the arts. Created by and for arts marketers and leaders, a ticket to Boot Camp is more than a ticket to the leading conference for our industry. It’s a ticket to sold out shows. A ticket to connecting with new, bright-eyed audiences. A ticket to keeping instruments in tune and concert halls reverberating for generations. Join us at the Times Center in New York City, October 24th and 25th, for the only event where arts marketing, connection, and innovation collide. Save your spot at capacity interactive boot camp dot com. See you there!

Christopher Williams: Hi everyone, it’s Christopher Williams. Last month I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Jonathan Stafford, the artistic director of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. As a diehard balletomane myself, I can’t wait to share this with you. Jonathan is not only an accomplished and well-respected figure in the dance world, but he’s also a naturally warm and charismatic leader who genuinely cares about the wellbeing of his team and the future of City Ballet. Jonathan and I covered a lot of ground in this conversation. You’ll hear about New York City Ballet’s approach to programming, the digital transformation of their marketing, and how the company navigates the power and complexity of today’s social media. We’ll also touch on some broader leadership lessons that I think everybody can relate to, like ways to combat imposter syndrome and grow more comfortable taking risks. I personally found this interview so inspiring and I hope you will too. So without further ado, here is… Jonathan Stafford. Jonathan Stafford, welcome to the podcast. Welcome to CI to Eye.

Jonathan Stafford: Thanks so much for having me. Looking forward to talking with you today.

Christopher Williams: I have to tell—well, listeners of this podcast will not be surprised to hear me say that I am a balletomane, and in particular, I am a New York City Ballet super fan. So I will try to temper some of my excitement about being able to spend time with you today. But I’d love to talk about you personally just a little bit. Tell us how you came to ballet in the first place.

Jonathan Stafford: Sure. So I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania and my younger sister actually started with ballet. I was dragged along to her early classes and to her performances, and I started to be somewhat interested in what I was seeing on the stage. And there was one moment where the advanced male dancer in the school was just flying around the stage, was just doing this really cool piece. It was cool music, it was just flying around the stage. And I said to my parents that night, I think I want to try ballet. And I was not coordinated. I was not good at sports because I was tall for my age. I was very gangly. I had very long legs proportionately, and I had trouble with coordination and I started ballet and instantly my body, my mind, everything—my energy took to it. And then I just started to love the freedom of the movement.

Once you get a little more accomplished, you can fly around the room like the dancer I saw. And it just happened to be a very good ballet school, really accomplished ballet school that trains professional-level dancers. So I always had this idea in my mind that I really liked it, but I wasn’t really thinking of being a professional dancer. And then I saw New York City Ballet perform live for the first time when I was 15 and I called my parents that day and I said, that’s what I want to do. I want to be a dancer. I want to join New York City Ballet. And a few years later, the dream came true. I came up to SAB when I was 17 so I could go through the school and then was named an apprentice when I was 18 and had a 16 year career. And my sister, who was the one sort of responsible for getting me into ballet, she also joined New York City Ballet and was a very accomplished dancer for many years.

Christopher Williams: So at the end of your dancing career, when you stepped back, what did you actually think your transition was actually going to be?

Jonathan Stafford: Well, my knees started to hurt quite a bit as I was dancing. That was the thing that kind of pushed me out was, I just was having problems with my knees and I was a principal dancer, so I was doing really hard repertory. I loved it. I loved all the partnering, the jumping, the dancing. I loved it all, but my body was starting to break down a little bit. And I had gotten my degree in organizational leadership and I had started teaching at SAB. That was a key moment for me. I loved teaching. I loved giving back the information that had been given to me. I loved being involved and invested in the students and their growth and development, teaching also. And then an opportunity was presented to me by Peter, by our former artistic director, to potentially become a rehearsal director here.

So that really planted a seed as like, I have a future to go to. I have another step I can go to. And then I was getting to the point where I would do a hard show and I could hardly move the next day. I couldn’t straighten my knee in bed at night, and I just was like, I can’t do this anymore. I really was not fulfilled after a show as much as I had used to be. I was starting to feel my athletic ability slip a bit, and I was way more fulfilled with the teaching and coaching dancers. And so I picked a date, retired, and then the next day moved into my new role, and I was really fortunate to have that seamless transition.

Christopher Williams: Would you say your transition and how… I’ll call it smooth for lack of a better word… but is that unusual for dancers to be able to transition into something that still feels as satisfying? I guess I would speculate that a lot of dancers really mourn that moment when they have to step away from the stage.

Jonathan Stafford: For sure. And there is no replicating it. And that’s something I had to come to terms with right away. There’s just no replicating that feeling you get. And now it’s like when I watch the company and I have the nerves that I used to feel as a performer, I have the nerves watching them, wanting it to go well, desperately wanting them to be happy with their performance because I know how much work they put into it and I want them to walk away feeling good about what they did. And those are the nerves I feel, but it’s different. And the adrenaline rush you get that I get now being on the other side is different than what I got as a performer. What is a bit unusual for those transitions is there’s just not a lot of jobs out there for former dancers, no matter how accomplished they are. To step into a role as a rehearsal director, to step into a role as a teacher at a major dance school, and then eventually to step into an artistic director role… I mean, there’s only I think like 30 ballet companies in the whole country. So I was very lucky in terms of timing. I do feel like I did the work to set myself up to be ready if an opportunity came up. That was always my goal as I was going to college and as I was paying attention to things here in the company. I always would think to myself, if the opportunity ever comes up, which is a dream, but if it ever comes up, I want to at least be ready for it.

Christopher Williams: You are the artistic director of New York City Ballet and also of the School of American Ballet. Am I correct you are the third in history?

Jonathan Stafford: I am the third.

Christopher Williams: That’s incredible.

Jonathan Stafford: Which, when you think of 75 years of the company, 90 years of the school, just being the third does carry a lot of weight with it. And it was something that really sunk in when I was named to this role.

Christopher Williams: And I think also you’ve said you are the first American born and the first to come out of the school as well, right?

Jonathan Stafford: That’s right. First American born leader of both organizations and the first SAB alumni to be at the helm, which is something that Balanchine always desired, that those who were taking the school forward would have trained at the school, danced in company, and then came back to the school.

Christopher Williams: And you do this along with your partner, Wendy Whelan, who is a legend in and of herself.

Jonathan Stafford: Yeah, it was clear when we were going through the search process, both Wendy and I had a lot of mutual respect for each other, and as they were looking at the job description, they were looking at the demands on that one person. What we found was that it’s just going to operate and function better with two people really working as partners, and that’s how we see each other. I’m the artistic director, she’s the associate artistic director, but everything we’re really doing together, and it’s worked really remarkably well. And we didn’t know each other so well five years ago. We both danced in the company and I had always looked up to her. She was such a role model, and continues to be that role model for me and for everyone else.

Christopher Williams: Leadership positions can be so isolating. I think if you’ve never been in one, you may not know that, but it is isolating. So it must be nice to have a partner in that.

Jonathan Stafford: It can be isolating. You hear that from everyone. I dealt with a bit of imposter syndrome, honestly, early on. I struggled at times to believe that I had what it took to be the next leader. And having someone like Wendy to talk through those anxious moments, those moments of, ‘I’m not sure what to do here. I just have no experience with this specific issue. Let’s talk through it.’ And she really helped me always. We used to say—she has a couch in her office, and it was my therapy couch. I would just knock on her door and say, ‘Wendy, we gotta talk.’ And I would go. And that’s been a constant in our partnership, is we’re just both an open book with each other and share everything necessary for us to both excel in our roles.

Christopher Williams: That’s really wonderful. I value so much that you have said that you’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. I think it’s very true for almost all leaders and many people probably wouldn’t say it out loud, so I think that’s really important.

Jonathan Stafford: One thing that was absolutely critical to me too is I worked with executive coaches, and I’ve worked with a few over the now six plus years, counting the interim time that I’ve been in this role. And I would recommend that to anybody. Nobody has all the answers. No matter how much experience you have, no matter how thoughtful you are about things, no matter how good your instincts are, there’s still things that are going to stump you. And those really good executive coaches, you walk away from a session, as I did with mine, feeling more confident and just bouncing ideas, role playing, saying, ‘Okay, let’s put ourselves in this person’s shoes that you now need to have this really difficult conversation with. How can we do it with sensitivity, with empathy, but also being really honest and direct?’ So that has been a huge, huge help for both Wendy and I.

Christopher Williams: Yes, a hundred percent. We have a culture of doing that as well. And another thing that coaches do for us is really help us see blind spots. They are able to say things to us that we are not bringing to the table, but things they can very much see in us that help us just be better leaders, especially in today’s world. So that’s fascinating to hear. It would be interesting, I think, for people who maybe are not so entrenched in ballet to understand: what does it mean to follow somebody like Balanchine who held this role—first of all, who founded the company, and who held this role for so long and has such an incredible global reputation? Does it feel haunted in that office?

Jonathan Stafford: Early on it was a bit terrifying because there’s not a lot of room for mistakes. Not only is it really well respected, but our patrons who’ve been coming to the ballet for many years expect a certain level of quality, expect the Balanchine ballets to look their best at New York City Ballet because if they don’t look their best here, what are we doing? That’s our history. That’s what we’re supposed to be the best at. But it’s also invigorating. I find that I come in to work and I haven’t had a single day in six plus years where I’ve walked in the door and been filled with dread, or thought, ‘I really would rather be somewhere else right now.’

Christopher Williams: What a gift.

Jonathan Stafford: And I’ve always been proud to know that I’ve never felt, no matter how hard of a day I have, or sometimes at the end of the day where you just feel like, wow, I’ve got some stuff wrong today. But I’ve gotten used to that more. Like, okay, that didn’t go as well as I would’ve hoped. Here’s how I do it better, as opposed to just wallowing in the frustration of something. And it is a pressure and a responsibility that feels pretty huge most of the time. But it’s also exciting and invigorating and I mean, it’s the dream job. I’ve gotten sort of past the moment of like, is this really happening? That happened a bit in the first couple of years. ‘I can’t believe I actually achieved this.’ But now it’s more, I’m just super focused on the work, focused on being better each day, helping those around me be able to be at their best each day and try to use those teachable moments to help somebody feel even more confident in their work going forward.

Christopher Williams: Yeah. When you were a younger dancer, what were you thinking, like, ‘If I ever had this job, what would I change? How could I make this better?’ Because you can do that now.

Jonathan Stafford: Yeah. And fortunately, I was sort of thinking that way, mostly because I was going to Fordham to get my college degree while I was dancing. And I majored in organizational leadership and I was so just fascinated by that, shifting my brain from being a dancer and following the rules and just really trying to do what you’re told to do and being at your best that way, to thinking much more broadly outside of myself and what this organization means to each person and how it’s managed, how it’s run, what works really well and what maybe doesn’t. And in the course of pursuing that degree, I really thought of, okay, if I ever have some responsibility, here’s something I would like to change. And I started doing some of that even before I was in this role, where we started an apprentice mentorship program, for example. You have so much support as a young person all the way up through ’til when you leave the school, and then you get in the company and it was a little bit of sink or swim.

So it’s like, how can we put the dancers on a better path to be successful? That was one of the things I was really proud of before I was even in this role, was creating and leading this program. And more communication with the dancers. We never had evaluations. We were not given regular feedback about how to improve. So it was hard to know where you stood or what you needed to work on. So right away as interim, it was one of the first things I did, was establish dancer evaluations and start talking to the dancers about what we’re seeing and allow them to talk about what they’re working on, and be fully invested in each of their success, their development, and how we help give them the building blocks to get to where they want to get to.

Christopher Williams: When you think about how you want dancers to feel about the culture that you and Wendy are cultivating, what do you want that to feel like?

Jonathan Stafford: I want them to feel supported, uplifted, seen, and heard. And I want them to feel like they can be themselves and not try to fit into some other ideal of what either they think we want or they think they’re supposed to be. The dancers are at their best on stage when they can be vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable as an artist. You have to be willing to take risks. You have to be willing to fail. So providing a space where they feel safe to fail, they feel safe to take chances. We want to see people on the stage. We don’t want to see robots or cogs in a machine where every last finger is in the exact same place as the person next to them. We want to see some freedom, we want to see some individuality.

Christopher Williams: I kind of want to ask you a little bit about programming. Every time I get a City Ballet brochure, it literally always sits right here on my desk until that season is over. And I always wonder, how does this all come together? Every single mixed rep program, how do you all approach this? What goes into it?

Jonathan Stafford: Well, thankfully that’s Wendy’s… one of her real areas of expertise. So she takes a lead on programming, and what Wendy really looks at is connections. What connects those three or four ballets, those mixed rep programs, which we mostly do. We do a few full lengths a year, but that’s it. So much of our daily lives is these mixed rep programs that need to work with the production demands, need to work with the orchestral demands. When I started programming, I was like, oh my gosh, we have all these ballets to pick from, this is just going to be fun. It’s not fun. I mean, I think there’s some enjoyment in putting programs together, but it’s so tedious. It’s a months-long process. It has to go through multiple departments, multiple layers of edits and adjustments, because the other thing is we have subscribers. We have these great fans.

We can’t just start repeating the same works on their subscription night, so that’s complicated. Like this is the program we really want to do, but that one ballet hits this subscription from one season to the next, so we can’t do it. We have to figure out a different way. We think about the dancers we have, we think about, there are some ballets in the rep that really feature roles that are best performed by a shorter dancer, for example, or best performed by a taller dancer. So we can’t have a season with just rep for only the tall dancers., and then the dancers who typically would do this other rep are just left on the sidelines the whole season. So we have to look at that. And then Wendy and I love this because music has always been a leading focus for the company, and with Balanchine, the most important thing was the music matters first, then the steps come.

So she really looks at how the music on a program fits together so that there’s hopefully a flow through the program, that the one piece accentuates the other piece, or that there’s something interesting about how they’re paired together, both the dancing and the music, and that there’s nothing that feels just jarring or out of place on a program. Like ‘Why did that end up there? That doesn’t fit with everything else.’ We also think about, as we’re programming, what is a gateway performance, a gateway ballet? What is something that could get a new audience in here that’s never been in here before? Because we have this great base of people, but we have to always be cultivating and building, as you know. We recently did a collaboration with Solange, Beyonce’s sister, who created the music for a piece, but it was very successful in that throughout that first run, 70% of single ticket buyers were new to file.

Which is huge for us. But we programmed it—hoping that that would happen—strategically with one of our tried and true, most iconic classic Balanchine works, Symphony in C. Complete polar opposite to what people were coming to see, but also showed the company off utilizing our strengths. And people were saying, “Oh my gosh, I came to see Solange, but I was blown away by Symphony in C.” So trying to show an audience not only something new, an exciting collaboration that gets them into the theater, but give them a little taste of what we do throughout the rest of the year and what we’re really good at. And that kind of approach is also really important.

Christopher Williams: Is it hard for you because you are, I mean, you’re the ultimate insider. Is it hard for you to understand what might appeal to someone who’s a hundred percent new to ballet?

Jonathan Stafford: It is. I love coming into my seat—I sit in the back of the first ring at every show—and I love coming into my seat, and I just sit there. I don’t go on my phone five, 10 minutes before the show starts. And I just look around. I love just looking around the theater, looking around the first ring, looking to see who’s there, what they’re talking about before the show starts, just getting an idea of who they are and trying to figure out why they’re here, what made them come in. Because it is really hard. I have those things that I love that I feel like make a great impact, and I love being sort of an anonymous fly on the wall. I love sometimes when I leave the theater and people don’t know who I am and I hear what they’re saying about what they saw, and it is really largely mostly positive. And hearing what on that program they’re talking about when they walk out the door. I try to use that as a gauge. But yeah, it’s hard. It is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who’s never seen the company before and how they might receive what we put on that night.

Christopher Williams: One of the things I’d love to ask you is, if you find yourself with a stranger to ballet that says one of those classic questions like what does this dance mean? Something that’s just a contemporary piece or a neoclassical piece that doesn’t necessarily have a narrative. How do you answer that question?

Jonathan Stafford: I say to them… and sometimes I have to preview a program that’s all abstract works for a group of donors or one of our corporate sponsors, anything like that. And I say, the beauty of this work is it allows each audience member to feel the way they want to feel about it, to create a narrative if they feel that there is one there, instead of just being told a very generic story that you’re supposed to follow along with. Those ballets, obviously The Nutcracker is incredibly important for us, Swan Lake, something like that where there is a story that’s easy to follow. But so many people I talk to, what they really fall in love with is our abstract work because you can feel something different every time you watch it based on who’s dancing it. And if you want to just be transported away, even the abstract works can do that because of the beauty of the music, the beauty of the choreography and the dancing, and the individuality that I talked about before. And I love hearing that from audience members who say, “I can’t wait to see this dancer in this ballet. I’ve always wanted to see them in that ballet.” And I love that they’re that in tune with each of our dancers, and they’re excited about how that dancer is going to dance that ballet.

Christopher Williams: Your career at City Ballet certainly predated digital transformation. You and Wendy certainly have experienced what it’s like to sell ballet to the public both in a traditional analog approach and certainly how dramatically that has changed on the other side of digital transformation today. But I’m just curious to hear what the process of digital transformation felt like to you over the course of your career.

Jonathan Stafford: It was hard. It was hard to know how people were going to consume and what would attract them to us, because things change so fast, as you know. And we just… seeing that with our dancers, how can we harness that? Because they have so many followers, some of them. How can they harness being a dancer at New York City Ballet for their own feeds and their own brand development stuff? How can we work together? How do we reach more eyeballs? How do we get more people interested? How well are our feeds being curated? And then when we put our marketing efforts out there, it’s got to look like New York City Ballet. So when someone looks at it right away, they know what they’re looking at. But it still has to be innovative. I mean, people are not okay with you doing the same thing. We just have to shout out Karen Girty, our senior director of marketing, because she’s just as good as it gets.

Christopher Williams: Yes. Super fan!

Jonathan Stafford: And she’s built a great team around her. The artists we collaborate with, the directors we collaborate with, the short films we do… It’s just really top notch, and we’re really lucky to have such a good team here and be able to just keep up with the ever, ever evolving trends out there.

Christopher Williams: It’s a lot. What goes into managing just the power of social amplification that dancers have in their own hands? And as you say, so many of the dancers have massive followings. What is the push pull in that for you all as a company? What has the friction been? What must be the power of some of that?

Jonathan Stafford: It is tricky because they are themselves. They curate their feed as if they’re in a way an independent operator, an independent employee, but every single one of them represents New York City Ballet, has New York City Ballet on their name, talks all about their performances at New York City Ballet and stuff. So how does that relationship between the organization and the employee work when they are public figures? So where are the boundaries? What can you say? What should you shy away from?

Christopher Williams: How do you all navigate that? Do you have systems in place? I can imagine there are people listening, being like, how do you do it? How do you navigate that? Because you are particularly public. There’s such a bright light on the company.

Jonathan Stafford: We don’t have enough systems in place, but it’s something we’re working on. I mean, we’re doing strategic planning around digital strategy as we speak, and really our dancers are unionized. So there’s a collective bargaining agreement. So something we didn’t have before, we now have a code of conduct as part of that. And what’s laid out there is how the dancers are representatives of the company in their public lives and private lives to a certain extent. And there’s a social media policy in there, what’s allowed to be filmed, what’s not allowed to be filmed, what’s allowed to be posted, what’s not allowed to be posted because of permissions, because of copyright, because of respecting your colleagues’ privacy. I mean, our dancers are really thoughtful for the most part, and are really good, and do want to amplify the company in the best light possible, not just amplify themselves. They understand their role in that place. And then when something happens that’s a little bumpy, we try to learn from it and we try to use it as a moment where everybody can learn from it about maybe something to avoid in the future. But walking that line is really complicated. So I mean, having a union workforce helps because there are policies and protocols in place just because of the collective bargaining agreement. So there is an understanding of what’s not only allowed, but what’s possible. And we just keep experimenting.

Christopher Williams: In sports, they talk about something called the Star System where you really rely on some of the marquee value of certain players. And I always wonder, how are you thinking about that internally? What’s the friction for actually taking advantage of some of that so that you don’t sort of ‘other’ any of the dancers? Is this something that you guys think about or talk about?

Jonathan Stafford: We do, more so now than I think before. So yes, we need to try to highlight those beautiful artistic collaborations that happen and those dancers that come up, rise through the ranks, come up out of the corps, and are the ones that are going to take this company forward. But we can’t forget about the corpse de ballet. We can’t forget about what we do call the backbone of the company, that holds the group collectively at a really high level. And so we do really try to focus on everybody in our marketing efforts. We try to focus on everybody, and we’re much more based around the importance of the ballet and the success of the ballet than the importance of one dancer. And it doesn’t matter what they dance, they’re always going to be great. It’s like we just want the caliber of our ballets to be as high as the caliber of our dancers.

Maybe in some other companies, there’s that lead dancer that dances those few full lengths a year or something. That’s what someone goes to see. They go see the dancer, not the ballet. In most cases, we have people, yes, they come to see certain dancers, but they come to see the ballets over and over again, which is really great. But it is tricky, and in this age of visibility across everyone in the company, managing and harnessing a star dancer who has a big following, who people do come to see, while also not ignoring or ostracizing the other dancers in the company who are working just as hard and who are just as excellent in their work.

Christopher Williams: I want to talk about your brand really quick. I remember the moment in time, I can’t remember how many years ago, when the brand of New York City Ballet was reimagined, and I just love it. It’s one of my favorites. I think it might be one of the best visual identities of any arts organization. Tell me what you strive for consumers to take away from the identity you all have cultivated.

Jonathan Stafford: Well, we have to walk that line between giving them something fresh, innovative, exciting, while also making sure they know it’s New York City Ballet, but it has to be dynamic. We can’t come up with something that feels stayed. You have to feel the energy of New York City Ballet come through the page. You have to feel that the dancers are able to present that… kind of what’s asked of them, and why they are at the top of their game, which is that really clear, dynamic movement quality. And it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do in a picture or hard to do in something that is a still shot. There’s even, with our 75th anniversary, that lineup of dancers that’s on the front of our theater and on the brochures and stuff. It is them just standing in place. But there’s still something about it. There’s like an attitude that’s very clearly New York City Ballet. There’s a freshness as you look across the lineup of dancers, and it feels very current.

Christopher Williams: How do you specifically work across marketing? As a marketing person myself, what does it mean to you to work across that department given what they need to do for everyone?

Jonathan Stafford: We’re just really honest with each other, honest about what we need to see. I try to trust my instinct of what hits me when I look at an image or I look at a video treatment or something like that, trying to step out of my artistic directorship role and just be a consumer. But just trying to look at it as objectively as possible because we’re trying to reach the broadest group as possible. And while we do do very targeted marketing, of course, to specific groups of our audience, the overall brand identity, all that, stays very consistent.

Christopher Williams: It’s a busy time for you all. It is New York City Ballet’s 75th anniversary. It’s the School of American Ballet’s 90th anniversary. You had a big event this week, did you not?

Jonathan Stafford: We did. Still recovering from it. On Monday we did a stage production unlike anything we’ve done at the school before.

Christopher Williams: And it was the ball that you guys have every year for the school, yes?

Jonathan Stafford: Yeah, but an upgraded version for the 90th anniversary.

Christopher Williams: Amazing. Amazing. It’s so incredible that it has been around for that long. I think for a lot of people, they may be surprised to know how much longer than the actual company it has been around.

Jonathan Stafford: Yeah, it was really important to George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. They were very thoughtful in how they wanted to establish a performance company, but very thoughtful about their idea of creating an identity for that company. And that comes with the dancers, and the dancers have to be trained a certain way, and so they started building a real pipeline of dancers that then were able to eventually populate the company. And that’s what we still do today. We hire really exclusively from the School of American Ballet into the company because they’re trained in a way that they can be successful.

Christopher Williams: What do you think is going to be happening at City Ballet in the next five years? What can we expect that may not be on anyone’s radar and might change the paradigm?

Jonathan Stafford: Well, we have two of the most important creative voices in classical ballet with Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky here in-house now, which is huge for us. I mean, that’s a game changer for us to have those two icons, leading voices who are going to experiment and do all kinds of fun things here in the company and push each other and push the dancers and push us as an institution forward. I think one thing that we’re trying really hard to do is be a bit more curatorial with our new works and be really strategic in how they roll out so that they have a better chance of success. And not just… Sometimes City Ballet throws new works out at such a high rate, maybe they didn’t have the time they needed to really be as good as they could have been if they’d gotten a bit more time, a bit more care, a bit more focus of how they get from creation to the stage.

So that’s a bit of a shift for us where we’re actually doing slightly fewer new works going forward, but really focusing our time and resources on each one so that each one can be as successful as possible. But what I’m really excited about is how we stay fresh and edgy and at the cutting edge of the classical ballet world. And I think we have a great sense of momentum here. I think we need to have another… we want to have another high profile collaboration down the road. It takes sometimes years of planning to get something like that to come together, but we’re really focused on that. We’ve made great strides in building our audience, like audience development. Our audience is younger than it’s ever been on record, and it’s the youngest on campus at Lincoln Center, in terms of our demographics. And so what do we do with that now?

So we’ve got the people in the building, how do we keep them? How do we cultivate them? What kind of partnerships with other brands, corporations, things that are really important to us? Those are down the road. We’ve got some really great ones in the works, some ideas that we’re just starting to flesh out that could be game changing for our brand, and then what’s the next generation of dancers going to look like? And we’ve got so much talent in the corpse de ballet. I’ve never seen the corpse this talented, but also this unique and individual and strong, but they also work really well together. So there’s that individuality. But they work really well as a group. And we’ve done some ballets this season where I’m just like, wow, the future looks really bright. We’re never going to rest. We’re never going to sit back and say, okay, we’ve done it, now we can just ride it out. And I love that about this organization. We’re always like, okay, so that went really well, but how are we going to do it better next year? Or how are we going to do it better next time? Or what more can we add to what we’re doing well already? Not only maintaining a level of excellence, but striving for more. And again, it’s what makes me excited to walk into the theater every day, even though I know it’s like I have 13 meetings today. It’s going to be a long day, but I’m still really excited to come in every day to work.

Christopher Williams: That’s wonderful. We have run out of time, so we have reached what we call your CI to Eye moment. So the question is, if you could broadcast one message to the artistic and executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what would it be?

Jonathan Stafford: Be courageous. I think it’s so nervy to sit in this chair sometimes, knowing that people are not going to like what you do, knowing that dancers are going to be unhappy with casting, knowing that there could be board members who don’t like the most recent commission you did, knowing that you can’t keep everybody happy, but you have to have the courage to go for it, especially in the arts and with what’s going on in our world right now. We have to put what we believe is beautiful out there. We have to put what we believe is interesting, what sends a message, what tells a story, what uplifts something or somebody… we have to put it out there. We cannot play it safe. Performing arts organizations, the minute you become too safe, you become irrelevant and you fade away. Prudency, thoughtfulness, not being impulsive, of course. As a leader, you have to be really careful with certain things, but you can’t just play it safe with every decision you make.

Christopher Williams: That’s very inspiring. Beautiful, and well said. Jonathan Stafford, artistic director at New York City Ballet, thank you so much for spending time with us today. Thank you.

Jonathan Stafford: Oh, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to talk about the company and to talk to someone who’s such a fan and believes in what we do. I don’t ever take that for granted, that there’s so many of you who find joy in what we do, and it makes me continue to stay focused and enthused for what we’re doing. So thank you.

Christopher Williams: Absolutely. A pleasure. Thank you so much.

Dan Titmuss: Thank you for listening to CI to Eye. This episode was edited and produced by Karen McConarty and co-written by Karen McConarty and myself, Dan Titmuss. Stephanie Medina and Jess Berube are CI to Eye’s designers and video editors, and all work together to create CI’s digital content. Our music is by whoisuzo. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take a moment to rate us or leave a review. A nice comment goes a long way in helping other people discover CI to Eye and hear from experts in the arts and beyond. If you didn’t enjoy today’s episode, pass it on to all of your enemies. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube for regular content to help you market smarter. You can also sign up for our newsletter at capacity interactive dot com so you never miss an update. And if you haven’t already, please click the subscribe button wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, stay nerdy.


About Our Guests
Jonathan Stafford
Jonathan Stafford

Jonathan Stafford is the Artistic Director of New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. A former NYCB Principal Dancer, he retired from performing in May 2014 and was named one of NYCB’s Ballet Masters. In December 2017, he was appointed to lead NYCB’s interim artistic team and in February 2019, he was named Artistic Director of NYCB and SAB.

During his performing career with NYCB, Stafford performed an extensive repertory of leading roles in works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, and Christopher Wheeldon, and also originated featured roles in works by Mauro Bigonzetti and Alexei Ratmansky.

As an educator, Stafford served as a member of SAB’s guest faculty beginning in 2006 and joined the School’s permanent faculty in 2007. In 2015, he was named SAB’s first-ever Professional Placement Manager, a role created to assist students with the transition into their professional careers. Stafford also spearheaded a mentorship program which partners current NYCB dancers with new apprentices from SAB to help guide them through their first year with the Company. He graduated summa cum laude from the Fordham School of Professional and Continuing Studies with a B.A. in Organizational Leadership.

Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Stafford studied at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet before first entering SAB in the summer of 1996. Named an NYCB apprentice in October 1998, Stafford joined the Company as a member of the corps de ballet in February 1999. He was promoted to the rank of Soloist in March of 2006 and became a Principal Dancer in May 2007.

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