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Cincinnati Ballet announced on Tuesday morning that Jodie Gates, founding director of the vaunted Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, will become the company’s ninth artistic director. She will step into the position on Aug. 1, when current artistic director Victoria Morgan retires at the end of her 25th season with the company.
Officially, her title will be Artistic Director of Cincinnati Ballet, as well as Artistic Director of Cincinnati Ballet Otto M. Budig Academy.
“I think we need – and have found – a candidate with a phenomenal breadth of artistic experience,” said Morgan, speaking late last week.” Not only is Jodie one of our great choreographers, but she has links and connections and experience like nobody else. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I had so much still to learn. But Jodie – she has already proven herself as a national leader.”
In the current competition for ballet artistic directors – there are many openings around the nation – Gates was in an elite echelon of candidates. Her background is more than excellent. It is downright extraordinary.
As a performer, she was a principal dancer with several major companies; the Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and was a founding member of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
After she stopped performing, her career and reputation continued to grow. She went on to assist choreographer William Forsythe, regarded as one of the very top handful of choreographers in the world. She became an in-demand freelance choreographer and founded the Laguna Dance Festival. In 2013, Gates landed the plum academic dance position in the nation as the founding director – and later vice-dean – of USC’s Kaufman School. Today, she is a tenured professor there.
In that position, she has become a champion of greater diversity and inclusion in ballet companies and schools. She continues as the facilitator for the Artistic Directors Coalition for Ballet in America, a group of artistic leaders who are “addressing systemic racism and inequities within the culture of ballet.”
She is, in every way, a dance world superstar.
“She is so well respected and so revered as an authority in our art form – she is a rarity,” said Scott Altman, Cincinnati Ballet’s president and CEO. “But what is just as important is that she respects our company’s history. I definitely think she is the right person for our company, our community and for all of Greater Cincinnati.”
Like every new artistic director, Gates spoke of getting to know the dancers, the staff and the city. You would expect nothing else. But when she spoke with the company dancers and board members during a visit in early December, she went beyond that, talking about those aspects of dance that are important to her, that she sees as essential to the future of ballet.
“We talked about the EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) work,” Gates said in a phone conversation last week. “It needs to be embedded into the entire organization.” And then, as if knowing precisely what the next question would be, she continued; “What does inclusion mean in classical ballet? It means really addressing the issues that are there; the racism, the male perspective telling the ballet stories, the lack of BIPOCs in our dance companies and in the front of the studio.”
She also spoke of the sort of repertory she imagines bringing to the company. She talked of beginning her professional career with artistic director and choreographer Robert Joffrey in 1981.
“It was an incredible system that Mr. Joffrey put into place,” she recalled. “It was a company that had no stars. But everyone in it was a star. What I truly am excited about is embracing this amazing American company. I mean American of every background. We’re not seeing representation – that’s going to take some time.”
It also means ballets told from a woman’s perspective, something that, under Morgan’s leadership, Cincinnati Ballet audiences have come to expect.
“I want to learn aspects of our America that we didn’t learn in school,” she added. “Along with loving the art form of ballet, I want to be sure it remains relevant. What that means to me is rethinking and re-imagining what ballet is.”
In some ways, the differences between Morgan and her successor couldn’t be starker. Outwardly, where Morgan is ebullient and unabashedly enthusiastic, Gates is more methodical and low-key. But make no mistake. When it comes to their commitments to ballet, they are identical; indefatigable, unbending and optimistic about the ability of dance to impact audiences of any stripe.
Although there is nothing “broken” about Cincinnati Ballet, Gates is sure to bring big changes to the company. And given her connections to scores of noted choreographers – Forsythe, Dwight Rhoden, Alonzo King, Agnes de Mille, Paul Taylor and Martha Clarke, among others – those changes are likely to be notable ones.
In her role as Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Ballet Otto M. Budig Academy, it is highly likely that she will bring significant changes to the academy’s curriculum, as well. She became known throughout academic circles for the curriculum she introduced at USC – The New Movement, it’s called – combining performance, choreography, research and rigorous academic studies in a dance conservatory environment.
Gates will inherit a company that is substantially healthier in every way than it was when Morgan arrived from San Francisco in 1997.
Then, the company was awash in debt, and almost immediately Morgan was forced to lay off dancers. Today, the company has a budget surplus and a projected $12 million budget for the 2022-2023 season. Its endowment is a respectable $14.8 million and the company is built around a stable ensemble of 28 dancers.
To top it off, just seven months ago, the company moved into the $30.8 million Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills.
“We had more than 40 applicants for this position,” said Debbie Brant, who co-chaired the company’s search committee with Joel Stone. “We finally whittled it down to four. Any one of them would have done a good job. But Jodie stood out. She’s a big deal, right? In the art community, she’s got to be one of the most genuine and humble people I’ve ever met. She can be direct. But it’s not driven by ego. And when you look at the whole package – the experience, the humility and the amazing work she has done over the past few years with diversity and inclusion in this industry, she was the unanimous choice.”
Gates is, as you might expect, enthusiastic about the challenges ahead of her.
“The company is really poised to move forward,” said Gates. “To me, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to help shape a vision and to really build partnerships and bring in collaborators. I love to dream big. And Cincinnati Ballet deserves national attention.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Ballet names Jodie Gates new artistic director