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Subject: "Artistic Directors" Archived thread - Read only
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Susie Crow

08-10-01, 06:54 PM (GMT)
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"Artistic Directors"
   I am going to apaologise straight away for what will be a very long posting, but in the light of the long thread discussing Ross Stretton and his policies ( and the on-going situation of Scottish Ballet) I thought that posting an article that Jennifer Jackson and I wrote for Dance Now this spring on the role of the artistic director might contribute usefully to debate. It drew on a BIG Forum held in January which was extremely lively and thought provoking, and although the article came out in the spring, the issues discussed seem to be as pertinent as ever. I am very grateful to David Leonard of Dance Now for allowing the posting of this - for your information you can find the Dance Now web page at:

BIG Discussion Forum discusses The Role of the Artistic Director

Big changes sweep through ballet companies in Britain this year. Of the four major companies in England, three will see a change in artistic director and, in some cases, executive director. The new blood augurs fresh thought and it is vitally needed. Of the appointees, all have experience of directing – abroad; only one has substantial experience of ballet in the UK. What is the context in which they will find themselves? What is expected of them, and will they be afforded the resources and licence to fulfil those expectations? Do they have the right qualities and experience for the job - is a director ideally a choreographer?

To consider what it means to direct a ballet company in Britain today, the BIG Discussion Forum invited three distinguished speakers with particular perspectives on ballet and experiences of leadership. Reflecting on the changes of the last century and challenges of the current one for the art form and those leading its institutions were Lynn Seymour – dancer, choreographer, former Artistic Director of the Ballet at the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Judith Weir – composer, former Artistic Director of Spitalfields Festival, and Sir John Drummond CBE – formerly Director of the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival and Controller of Radio 3, member of BRB Board, author of Speaking of Diaghilev. BIG expands on some of the issues raised.

Currently major ballet companies are complex institutions whose aims spread wider than forging ahead with the making of art. Artistically such companies have a double duty, to look back as well as forward, acting as curators for the best of the past and as architects of the future. State patronage brings obligations - political, social and educational. Yet in the absence of sufficient public money companies are potentially at the mercy of individual or corporate sponsors - to say nothing of the demands of public taste as expressed in box office receipts. The voice of artistic priority can be drowned amidst a clamour of conflicting interests. Charitable status entails the placing of ultimate power, with financial accountability, in the hands of a board of directors. In USA the boards of dance companies are primarily there to bring in funds, individuals qualifying themselves for membership through generous personal contributions. In the UK fundraising is but one aspect of their contribution; board members are appointed to bring a range of experience, not necessarily artistic, to the governance of a complex organisation. Crucially they are responsible for the appointment of artistic directors.

The work of two great women, de Valois and Rambert, themselves influenced by Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes set society alight with new dances at the beginning of the twentieth century, laid the foundations for the infrastructure that supports current professional dance practice and informs our understanding of the role of an artistic director. But the breeding ground was very different from the established territory of today. Those pioneering days perhaps had more in common with the vibrant independent scene in which companies and projects are born of artistic imperative - to disappear or metamorphose a few years down the line. Artistic directors in such an environment are not appointed but emerge through individual conviction and a fortuitous combination of circumstances. Would their unique qualities and aptitudes, their being in the right place at the right time, be recognised by today’s boards and headhunters?

Potential hazards arise in the relationship of board and artistic or executive director, from a lack of definition of their respective powers and responsibilities. At their best, boards can give selfless support and valuable assistance guided by sympathy and informed enthusiasm. Drummond cited as examples the boards of some of the major museums and galleries. At their worst they are perceived by frustrated artists as arrogant, ignorant and interfering, using artistic organisations as tools for business and political power brokering, more interested in the social cachet and opportunities for corporate entertainment conferred by starry galas, than attending to the wider or long-term needs of an art form. Do board members have the requisite knowledge and understanding of the field to carry out their primary tasks of appointing and supporting the artistic director? What power should they have to circumscribe the director’s ability to take artistic decisions? Who holds responsibility for the health and development of the organisation? These were all questions that Seymour felt any candidate should address and attempt to answer before taking on a directorship, voicing the need for some kind of written artistic policy and contractual definition of responsibilities, to which both board and artistic director would adhere.

Reliance on state funding now limits the artistic director's freedom of movement. Drummond highlighted the changed situation resulting from an expansion of interest in dance in all its forms since he joined the Arts Council dance panel in the 60s. Then there were only seven dance companies between whom to share the funding cake. Now numerous companies vie for inadequate provision, and decisions on allocation are dependent on politically influenced funding criteria demanding compliance with mantras of financial accountability, accessibility and social inclusivity. The "arm's length" funding policy that protected the rights of subsidised companies to pursue their artistic concerns has been successively eroded by governments either reluctant to recognise the role of the arts in society or wishing to control and use them: "The overt government demand on the arts is that they serve everyone and foster shared values in the name of social inclusion. The covert effect is to demote not just dissenting culture but also aesthetic integrity". Drummond saw this as a serious danger to the risk-taking which is essential to creativity.

The division of artistic and administrative responsibilities into two roles - Artistic and Executive Director - can, given a complementary partnership, engender fruitful collaboration. Recent successful examples cited in discussion were Matthew Bourne and Katharine Doré at AMP and Derek Deane and Carole MacPhee at ENB. However it was noted that such successful teams were more likely to arise organically from smaller shared beginnings and mutual sympathy and interest. Drummond also drew attention to the problems for a ballet company functioning in a shared house. It does not bode well that the ROH's newly appointed Executive Director Tony Hall has so little demonstrable interest in or experience of ballet that he could apparently complete his first press conference without referring to the Royal Ballet once.

It is not enough therefore, for a ballet director to have artistic vision and drive - although as Drummond maintained, "energy is the best card in your hand". In present circumstances, the challenge lies not in launching but in maintaining, in interfacing with existing structures, in protecting the generation of artistic activity from being crushed by a "mountain of bureaucracy" and resulting strategic manoeuvring that seems to eat up an artistic director's time. Weir's experience programming Spitalfields Festival taught her the value of arts administrators with the ability to handle the financial complexities of a sizeable modern arts organisation, and to devise the structures which filter managerial pressures and enable the artistic director to function artistically. But she did not wish to be totally protected from administrative matters, the result of a mistaken assumption that as a creative artist she would not be interested in the “practical”; such "kid gloves" treatment was in reality a withholding of power. Seymour had first hand experience of the problems of such powerlessness in her two years as Artistic Director of the Ballet of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where she was not given the administrative authority to take practical actions to forward her artistic policies, and was dependent on the decisions of a General or Executive Director.

Fundamental to the whole, is internal and external balance – consideration of the needs and desires of both artists and audience. Increasingly in a consumer-led culture, the audience leans towards an homogeneity of taste – fed a limited diet and then craving what it knows in a field in which it is not expert. Drummond commented that everyone has opinions about the arts in the way that they don’t about business. As Brian Hunt recently observed of today’s generation, “we have little incentive to know much about art, but every opportunity to decide what we like. …The rise of the public could precipitate the decline of art”. In this scenario elitism, in the sense of expertise and excellence, is victim.

If it is the artistic director who is to steer a course through these complexities and, far from retreating into a ballet ivory tower, interact with the real world, what qualities are required? A potentially useful list of attributes and definitions of leadership emerged from the discussion - facilitator, knowledge, motivator, unselfish, innovator, mentor, generous, editor, developer and preserver, strength in the face of bureaucracy ...

Sonia Arova (in an article written in 1969 that has remarkable relevance today) cites “authority and responsibility” as essentials. She also says “I believe that a good director must have, or cultivate, an enquiring, receptive mind … and be open to discoveries”. The descriptive ‘Artistic’ must surely hold a key to the responsibilities of the post and how they link to the notion of enquiry and discovery. Where ‘Director’ implies authority, what shape is that authority today?

The notion that power is ‘personally’ ascribed is dangerous. Arova says “It is not me, Sonia Arova, but my position – the Director – which has authority” . This is analogous with Harry Truman’s assertion that he occupied the “Office of the Presidency”. Distinguished by his decisiveness and willingness to accept responsibility for difficult decisions, Truman refused to stand for re-election in 1952; likewise Weir felt strongly that an artistic director’s term should be a limited and prescribed one. She stood down as Spitalfields Festival's Director after six years, during which time she wholeheartedly brought her personal stamp and opinion to the post – arguably liberated by the knowledge that the festival is guaranteed a fresh eye and evolution within a rolling programme.

Looking to the history of Britain’s great Royal Ballet institution, it is interesting to note that after de Valois (whose vision and energy facilitated its establishment) Ashton and MacMillan’s tenures each lasted about 7 years. Both artists perhaps knew when to go and went. By contrast, has Dowell stayed for too long – suspended in the institutional inertia of a series of boards, and a flabby management? Drummond provocatively observed that “people who sit on boards aren’t short of a penny or two”, a cushion that perhaps stifles the kind of hunger needed to change the status quo. Heretically, we suggest that de Valois’ legacy of ‘the hierarchical figure who issues orders from on high and stays forever’ has become a negative one. It is salutary for those in power to be reminded of what puts and keeps them there – just as the poor dancer feels him/herself to be the most dispensable crumb in the cake, so may directors and boards muse on their dispensability. Paradoxically de Valois was a great champion of dancers' working conditions. Art is not a democracy!

So today, what does a ballet company “workforce” need from its leaders? Ballet’s survival appears to hang in the balance, its pool of creativity dried up, suffocating in an environment where as Seymour lamented, “Art is being treated as business, politicised or institutionalised. It’s seen merely as entertainment, its perpetrators as hardware, software and flesh” - the stuff of video games and mass produced machine entertainment. She suggested the artistic director’s role carries “moral responsibility for spiritual edification”. Ballet after all is an art that is premised on human endeavour in the realm of the body, but demands the absolute engagement of the whole being.

Creativity must be at the heart of artistic activity. How is it manifest in a ballet company? Most obviously, and reductively, with its choreographers, but this is to put the choreographer on a pedestal. By assigning to an individual a god-like responsibility, the rest are effectively disempowered - at the expense of recognising creative input at all levels of company practice. A company even when unified by schooling, a distinct style and repertoire, comprises individuals, each of whom has singular creative gifts that will flower at different times. Leading outwards, the individual spark informs the strength and vibrancy, literally the life, of the company which, leading inwards, is the structure that supports each person’s growth, giving it shape. As Roger Tully reminded attendees at the previous BIG Forum when he quoted Shantanand Saraswati, “Make men and they will make art” .

Creative development is clearly central to the director's role, but need not necessarily manifest itself in choreographic output. Rambert, "midwife" to Ashton’s and Tudor's choreographic talents, was described by William Chappell as "a very special kind of creator; a creator of creativity" . Diaghilev was no choreographer, nor even a dancer, but showed inspired creativity in his ability to bring together the right team of artistic collaborators to generate an unrivalled succession of innovative works. Echoing this was Weir’s call for the artistic director as mentor and editor – to provide an outside but knowledgeable layer of leadership for a collaborative team.

Some choreographers do make successful artistic directors; building on the achievements of Peter Wright, David Bintley thrives. Birmingham Royal Ballet has established a distinct repertoire of new and old work, and looks to the future through adding a school and providing opportunities for higher education for its dancers. However, it can be argued that directors should not make work on their own repertoire companies. Requirements for creation are sometimes best met where the choreographer is not also the person responsible for the overall health of the organisation. MacMillan felt frustrated by the administrative duties of heading a repertory ballet company. De Valois and Norman Morrice ultimately sacrificed their choreographic careers in order to concentrate on the creative task of artistic direction.

Seymour asked: Who is it that defines what expectations individuals (not just the Young) can realistically have within a ballet company? Who sets the standards and programmes for the development of the dancers, choreographers, repetiteurs, teachers and coaches from within? Even in a post with limited tenure, the artistic director, in the role of appointed expert and visionary, must have the managerial authority to put into practice policies to nurture the depth of enquiry and curiosity that breed creativity. Imaginative structures are needed, for instance to: embrace Weir’s practice of canvassing opinion; inspire creative classes; encourage ever greater yield from the distinct resource of ballet language; revitalise re-productions, availing dancers and repetiteurs of sophisticated technological aids and research into repertoire happening in educational establishments; programme fewer casts and more performances to allow for deep engagement with the canon. S/he is responsible for developing an environment where the individual flourishes thus ensuring the health of the whole.

The debate brought out the complexities and contradictions inherent in trying to define the role. Balancing the long and short term needs of both art form and practitioners provides a major challenge for any artistic director. The notion that the artist and art works are vessels through which passes the tradition, is a reminder of both the conservatorial and the creative function of artistic direction. Principles need to be safeguarded and enshrined in policy which enables the transmission of the tradition, its transformation with each generation and thus, the creative freedom of artists. Our discussion could only scratch the surface. Choreographer Steven Whinnery brought us back to people, who he said do jobs – but must be allowed to be people. His vision is of the artistic director as thinker, philosopher, artistic fool.

Jennifer Jackson and Susan Crow
February 2001

Ballet Independents' Group Discussion Forum events for 2001 are supported by London Arts. For information about the Forum and other BIG activities please call 0208 682 1385, or email susiecrow@easynet.co.uk or jenjackma@aol.com.

i Andrew Brighton, Towards a Command Culture, quoted by George Walden in The New Elites, Allen Lane 2000
ii Daily Telegraph, 13/01/01
iii Arova with Olga Maynard in Dance Magazine, May 1969. (Dame Sonia Arova died 4/02/01)
iv Ibid.
v Shantanand Saraswati, The Man who wanted to meet God, Element Books 1996
vi quoted in Secret Muses - The Life of Frederick Ashton, Julie Kavanagh, Faber and Faber 1996

We would welcome comments and further discussion on this...

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: Artistic Directors Jane S 10-10-01 1
     RE: Artistic Directors Brendan McCarthymoderator 10-10-01 2
         RE: Artistic Directors Susie Crow 12-10-01 3
             RE: Artistic Directors Susie Crow 14-10-01 4

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Jane S

10-10-01, 06:06 PM (GMT)
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1. "RE: Artistic Directors"
In response to message #0
   Susie, the sentence that really leapt out at me from your article was this one:

Echoing this was Weir’s call for the artistic director as mentor and editor – to provide an outside but knowledgeable layer of leadership for a collaborative team.

It's exactly this function that I've felt was missing from Dowell's directorhip. I once heard him say something along the lines of 'It's not my job to interfere with what goes on inside the studio', and although of course no-one would suggest that a director should be standing at a choreographer's elbow making helpful suggestions about the next step, we've all seen ballets fail at Covent Garden which could probably have been saved if someone had stepped in at some point and said 'No, that won't work'. I always had the impression that there was no mechanism between commission and first night to prevent a potential disaster.

(From your own experience as a young choreographer in SWRB, Susie, could you say something about the guidance you were given? Or were you just left to get on with it?)

I'm also interested by what Judith Weir said about six years being long enough in the job. I've been advised of this myself, in reference to time spent on the board of trustees of a charity, and I think she's right: you do find that your ideas about the company's direction, and the capabilities of the staff, become less flexible. Maybe six years is a bit short for an AD, but I'd certainly agree with a maximum of 8 - 10 years. Apart from anything else, it makes it less likely that any dancer will have to spend his/her whole career with one AD.

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Brendan McCarthymoderator

10-10-01, 07:11 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: Artistic Directors"
In response to message #1
   LAST EDITED ON 10-10-01 AT 10:33 PM (GMT)

Susie – I share Jane’s reaction to your piece and to your focus on the artistic director as editor. Perhaps I am wrong, but one does not get a strong sense that most ADs have a lively sense of editorship. On September 23rd. the Sunday Telegraph published a profile of Matthew Hart by Louise Levene (not available online). She painted a picture of personal lostness and of early promise run aground.

“The Royal Ballet’s tireless (and so far fruitless) search for a successor to Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan meant they were soon exploiting Matthew Hart’s precocious choreographic talent. He showed a surprising flair for narrative pieces and for making quirky and imaginative use of the corps de ballet. “I was very successful very early. I loved it. I ate it up”. But it was not to last. He lacked back up from a regime that was essentially laissez faire. “There really wasn’t the foundation in there. I was given lots of opportunities but I wasn’t given lots of support. They left me in a studio on my own and let me do what I wanted”. Hart contrasted the mismanagement of his early promise to the nurturing of Christopher Wheeldon at NYCB. “He has been handled very well. It’s wonderful but part of me is a little bit sad: that was me at one point. Will it ever be again?”

Jonathan Burrows spoke of a similar sense of isolation in an interview with the Independent last month and only felt he escaped this after leaving the Royal Ballet.

Choreographers seem to work in a more solitary way than do many other creative artists. Filmmakers are subject to executive producers, radio and television producers to editors, dramatists and novelists to script editors. Sometimes the attentions of an editor can be infuriating, but, more usually, editors and writers or film-makers are partners in a dialogue which assists the creative process.

A good editor may say, “this doesn’t work – lose it”. Or “Move A to below Q, Start with LMN; then go BC: drop DEF – it’s irrelevant: GH is terrific – could you do anymore with that?” These are the kind of conversations that can lift a work from the mundane to the exceptional, and I cannot see why they do not happen very much in the world of dance.

Dance appears too readily to accept that creativity is a ‘virtuoso’ or solitary act, when the reality is often otherwise. Susie and Jennifer draw attention to the more widely dispersed capacity of a company for creativity. Good ideas may come from anywhere. Ask the dancers! Ashton did. Suzie Raymond was a member of the Royal Ballet in the 1960s. She describes Ashton adorned with a mouse’s tale, dancing around the studio when he was making Tales of Beatrix Potter, saying “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a tail, think of all the things you could do with it, you could pick things up and carry them, you could skip rope with it’.. and she adds ‘That’s how we found a lot of things for that dance. And in the Pig’s scene he made us all go around doing piggy things, and he’d say, “Yes, that’s good, use that”, then put all the bits together that he had chosen”:

Opera is of comparable theatrical complexity to ballet. Yet Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “The Silver Tassie”, one of the most successful contemporary operas, came out of the crucible of the ENO’s Studio workshop. It was two years in development with endless studio sessions and pre-rehearsals to test the material. Is there anything like this at the ROH? The ADI at the Clore might evolve to fill a similar need. I think of a piece given at First Drafts last May, Vanessa Fenton’s ‘Frozen’. Fenton clearly has ability; she deserves space, time and investment. Crucially she needs a choreographic editor. This could be someone who is not a choreographer, but who has a good eye and who has the judgement to help a choreographer to clarify his or her ideas. Young composers routinely have mentors. Why then should choreographers uniquely have to find their way in the world without the benefit of any kind of structured apprenticeship? My instinct is that Fenton will be left to wander in the desert like Hart and Burrows before her.

There is only one instance of the choreographic editor of which I know. Peter Boneham of Ottawa's Le Groupe Dance Lab. runs structured workshops that allow choreographers to explore the creative process. They work with Le Groupe's dancers and are given rehearsal and performance space, a technical team, the services of the company's Visual Director, and the undivided attention of a senior artistic monitor. There are people here in Britain who I suspect would be inspired editors in similar vein. Irek Mukhamedov and Deborah Bull both strike me as likely candidates; they have intellect, authority, openness to new experience, and are sufficiently grown up not to be offended by greater talents.

A crucial dimension of the management of creativity is love. Ashton had intense loyalty from dancers. At the Memorial Service for Dame Ninette de Valois, Peter Wright spoke pointedly of her love for her choreographers and her pride in their achievements. But I’m certain that it was tough love and tender love by turns, and not lacking in frankness. As Mark Morris said in a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review, Artistic Directors cannot dissemble or be fake:

“There’s no use in saying something like “You are so fabulous, you can d no wrong”. Such praise may work with ordinary people, but that’s no way to manage a gifted artist. With them you have to be honest and say, “Hey you were a little bit flat there, so let’s fix that”. Of course, nobody wants to tell a big star to crank things up, because he is such a big star. But the fact is, real artists or geniuses or whatever you want to call them especially need the truth. They’re not fooled by false praise and empty encouragement. Only honest recognition of their real accomplishment means anything to them at all”

Maybe dance companies should have "artistic mentors" on the Director's staff. But it goes without saying that such mentoring is a core responsibility of the AD. Doing it well requires judgement and imagination, and - crucially - vast reserves of emotional intelligence.

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Susie Crow

12-10-01, 08:24 AM (GMT)
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3. "RE: Artistic Directors"
In response to message #2
   In haste - very keen to answer some points raised but my internet connection is proving erratic, and I have only just managed to get online as I am on the point of leaving...
Will hope to respond over the w/end...

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Susie Crow

14-10-01, 03:28 AM (GMT)
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4. "RE: Artistic Directors"
In response to message #3
   Re Jane's question: when Jennifer and I were with the Royal Ballet companies I think that there was a pervading assumption that choreographic talent was God-given and would out - and there was apparently at that stage no shortage, with Ashton and MacMillan still making, Bintley and Corder emerging, Jonathan Burrows and quite a substantial cohort of our generation interested in making work - more than could ultimately be accommodated with opportunities. There were no regular composition classes or workshops at the Royal Ballet School when I was there, no teaching of choreographic skills. Once in the company the Choreographic Group under the aegis of Leslie Edwards provided opportunities for anyone in the companies who wanted to to make and present work - but there was no guidance given or formal feedback. One had little idea of what people really made of one's work. When making work for SWRB (thanks to the opportunities provided by Peter Wright), after preliminary approval of choice of music and discussion of casting one was still very much left to one's own devices. The only formal feedback received was reviews.

In recent years there have been more choreographic opportunities and choreographic competitions at the Royal Ballet upper and lower schools, with Norman Morrice particularly providing guidance. Now Kate Flatt and Jennifer are jointly teaching choreography at the upper school, and Susie Cooper (who has taught choreography for years at the RAD) gives w/shops at White Lodge. As BIG Jennifer and I have run a series of intensive choreographic courses at the South Bank Centre which have looked specifically at making new work from a ballet base. But in general the ballet world has not encouraged the notion of the dancer as a creative artist and potential choreographer in the same way that contemporary dance courses give prominence to developing the individual expression and compositional skills of all their students. Traditionally a choreographer would learn their craft by observing other choreographers or working with them as a dancer - and these experiences can certainly be extremely valuable. But it is crucial to learn to analyse and articulate what is perceived, and to have opportunities and the right environment in which to experiment and to make mistakes, and to continue to do so. It is no use having opportunities without feedback, or feedback without further opportunities. If companies want to develop new work of quality in house they have to provide both these things.

Following on from our courses BIG also ran a mentored choreographic residency for 4 young teams of choreographer, composer and designer in association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Rather than a taught course of compositional tasks, this was an opportunity for the artists to develop their own ideas in collaboration, with guidance and feedback from mentors; Jennifer and myself, Judith Weir and designer Pamela Howard. There is currently a lot of interest in such schemes and a growing body of expertise in the independent dance world, where all sorts of different models for feedback and professional development are tried out. Peter Boneham's workshop is a particularly deluxe version - but there are lots of diverse intensives here, ranging from simple feedback schemes (such as Talkback during Resolution!) to substantial residencies (eg. those at ResCen at Middlesex). This is where ballet companies need to be looking for ideas and people with the necessary knowledge and skills - but also putting time, resources and commitment into developing creativity in their own methods and personnel.

Mentoring is ultimately a very personal business, and a two-way relationship. I think that the right choice of mentor depends on the nature of the project to be mentored and the individuals involved. I would see it as the AD's responsibility either to provide mentoring themselves, or to facilitate contact with other potential mentors - if they were needed or desired - but I don't think you could have an official post, or a designated choreographic editor. I would think that the aim should be to enable the creative artist to edit and focus their own work. Choreographers need rigorous and stimulating education in composition, however it is arrived at, to be able to do this.

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