National Ballet of Canada picks new Artistic Director: an interview with dance critic Deirdre Kelly

Long time arts journalist, Deirdre Kelly, is the former dance critic for the Globe and Mail and currently serves as editor of The York University Magazine. She holds a masters degree in English from University of Toronto and is a two-time winner of the Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Critical Writing. She is also a best selling author for the critically acclaimed Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (2012) and the personal memoir, Paris Times Eight (2009). She continues to cover the international dance scene for a variety of publications and can now also be heard on AM radio.

Deirdre, recently you broke the news on social media that Hope Muir had been selected as the new artistic director to lead the National Ballet of Canada. While other journalists were musing publicly in the mainstream press about who may or may not have made the selection committee’s short list, you had the straight goods. Could I ask how that came about?

I was going to fake a Colonel Klink accent and quote a line from some old lost Hogan’s Heroes episode and say, ’Ve ‘ave our sourzes’ — but thought I’d better be serious. Yet I do have my sources! And they are pretty plugged in and reliable and tell me things, often unsolicited. They know I have their best interests at art and that I truly care for dance and want to see it thrive. I’d like to think I’ve both cultivated these sources while earning their respect over my many years intrepidly covering the art form in all its variety. I definitely know things that others in positions of authority would rather I didn’t. But I do see that as a sign of a good journalist— we go where people don’t want us to go, we speak the truth (as much as possible) however inconvenient or painful. 

Am I correct in assuming a search committee has really only two choices – looking within the company for a new AD or going outside of the company? Is there any right or wrong way to go about it with regard to priorities and where to look first?

Now Robin, that is a GREAT question. As a dance critic, I’ve never been on a search committee nor have I ever been invited in to eavesdrop or report on the process— but say, that’s a good idea! But choosing a new AD at a company like the NBOC is cloaked in secrecy and is not without its intrigues, political, personal, financial what have you. That said, I’ve been told stories by insiders who had been involved in search committees past so I have some idea (but narrowly) as to how it can go. 

Definitely, the search is very much open internationally. Canada just doesn’t have the talent pool. You have to look outside. If someone has Canadian experience, bonus. They might instantly make a short list. And much depends on who knows who. Can so-and-so here in Toronto personally call (in the days when we all used phones and had coveted private phone numbers) that international superstar and ask if they’d be interested in moving to the colonies to work with Canada’s largest classical troupe? But even then that person has to be vetted. I heard of one seemingly strong pick who ended up being rejected because rumours were this person overlooked the dancers, if you catch my drift. And that person asked to do the vetting wasn’t even on the committee but a highly regarded dance figure who lived abroad and knew a thing or two. So that’s how intimate and Byzantine it can get. 

Looking for a successor from within? That’s more of a rarity. An AD can be a former dancer, or a choreographer brought up through the ranks. But do they have administrative skills? Are they a people person? Can they fundraise with the high rollers who want to be flattered? Look at problems with some NBOC ADs past and you’ll see that just having a dancing ability or a Canadian passport just isn’t enough to cut it. 

Large arts organizations may go to an outside headhunter to recruit potential candidates for a position as important as artistic director or they may form a search committee from within their own board of directors. In either case, the board plays a very important role, influencing both the search and the decision to hire. Do you have any insights on how the NBOC handled this process?

I do have insight here. Some of what I just said above applies to this situation. The board is very involved and actually does call the shots more than you might think. I have firsthand direct knowledge (from a board associate actually) that at least one potential candidate was nixed early on by board members for reasons I can’t go into. 

After a 2 year search, the NBOC selected Hope Muir, who currently leads Charlotte Ballet and has past leadership roles with Scottish Ballet, Ballet Rambert, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and other companies. Given her experience, what do you see as her greatest strengths coming into this new job and what do you see as some of the challenges that may lie ahead for her?

She won’t take over her new NBOC duties until early in the new year. I have not yet met her; I can only speak from research and what I saw in the introduction video created for her by the company at the time of the official announcement. 

I think she came across as genuine and brimming with passion for this art form that so many of us love so much. My first (virtual) impression is of a still-growing leader who will put dance first, her own needs and ego second. She made me believe that she will strive to take good care of the talent— sorely in need of TLC and respect, in my opinion, having heard some of the heartbreaking behind-rage-scenes stories— and I think she will sincerely endeavour to inject fresh air into a repertoire that has tended over the years to be a lot of the same put on repeat. 

What do I think will be her strengths beyond what I just said? I’m excited that she has past experience working with dance-theatre maverick Matthew Bourne and the dance world being a lot about who you know, as I stated above. It’s tempting to think she may bring him in for an original creation. She also has a strong relationship with Canada’s own Crystal Pite, today an international sensation, and the dancers do love working with her, so that’s a plus. 

But everything I just mentioned is also very (add very very) worrying to many dancers as well. I’ve heard from NBOC artists past and present over the past week (as soon as I broke the news of her hire the phone and the emails came a-flooding) who are expressing concern over what they fear is a lack of classical dance expertise and/or interest. Toronto-born Muir did train in ballet and did perform ballet (on pointe and showing a graceful attitude in old English National Ballet publicity photos) during her upbringing in England. But her reputation lies more with contemporary work. There’s worry that she can’t (as opposed to doesn’t want to) preserve the classics in the same way as an AD more steeped in tradition. That’s what I’m hearing. 

Today an artistic director’s job description encompasses many duties and responsibilities not the least of which is schmoozing and fundraising. Finding dance partners in the corporate sector and among wealthy private donors is as important as choreographing a new version of The Nutcracker. How do you think Hope Muir will handle this delicate pas de deux? 

I can’t say because I really do not know her. But the fact that she has transitioned successfully from the stage to coaching, staging and administrative positions, gaining important mentoring at the Scottish Ballet in Glasgow for instance where she became assistant artistic director (Charlotte Ballet is her first full AD role and she’s not been in that chair long) does speak to her ability to adapt to all the permutations of the role, I think. There is schmoozing galore, that’s for sure. But my theory as to why the NBOC has just created the unprecedented  title of director emerita, bestowing it on Karen Kain even as she announces her retirement and walks out the door, is that the organization expects her to continue to bedazzle the patrons with her star power. Karen will bring in the bucks as long as she’s called on to do so, no worries there. 

As a reviewer, author and observer of the dance community in Canada and internationally, what advice would you give the new artistic director of the NBOC as she begins her tenure?

Oh that’s a biggie. 

As I’ve indicated, my thoughts go immediately to the talent. I think she will need to listen, really listen, to what the dancers and also the musicians and creatives behind her scenes have to say and allow them to speak their minds without fear of reprisals. The dancers will have entirely different conversations. They’ve been neglected and taken advantage of the most. Trust me. But she’s also coming in at a very interesting time, a time of reckoning. 

The company ballet has publicly acknowledged the racism that has been allowed to flourish unchecked at the ballet in the name of art. This is a real and entrenched problem that goes back decades upon decades and is present in companies around the world. The NBOC has been very slow to create change in the past but general manager Barry Hughson told me in conversation that the company is now trying to rectify that. It’s trying to stay abreast of the 21st century and has lately been taking a hard look at past practices with an eye to changing them. 

Will Hope be aware of that history already so as to be able to put the changes in context? How will she learn? She can’t entirely trust to get the straight goods from the people who are holdovers from regimes that allowed the abuse to continue and who turned a blind eye when members of staff were seen to be mishandled and maligned. She’ll need to learn about the lawsuits and the fact — living proof here— that the NBOC censors the press and often fails to be transparent in its transactions with the public and the patrons. 

Here’s what gets me. The NBOC is a publicly funded institution. Just look up how much in government arts grants and subsidies it regularly receives. And yet where are the checks and balances? Regardless who’s at the top, this Canadian ballet company should NOT be allowed to say who can and cannot cover its shows. It should NOT be allowed to cancel dancers for their colour, body shape, or outspokenness. And yet it has. For too long. The hope is that Hope does live up to her name and will usher in a new and more mutually respectful era. She will need to make a clean sweep to do it, though. Will she be strong enough to do that? This is what we need to watch.

Finally, Deirdre, what do you see as Karen Kain’s most enduring legacy with the NBC in the many roles she has played over the years both artistically and administratively?

I know too much! I’ve heard stories and I’ve also heard from her directly, confirming some of the unpleasantness that has come to my attention, so I can’t provide unequivocal praise. She knows what I think about her — that in her day she was an exciting dancer on the stage. She had the technique, the commitment, the beauty, the dazzle. I thrilled often to watch her dance. Standout performances at the NBOC (for me) include Swan Lake, Sphinx, Elite Syncopations

She was an attraction for her male partners and brought out the best in them. She was sought out by international choreographers — Roland Petit in Paris and Eliot Feld in NewYork. I was the only Canadian critic who went to NYC to cover her shows with the Feld company and even as I am writing this I can see her in my mind’s eye, shimmering and sensual. She was adored and for good reason but I wonder did that adulation at tines go to her head? 

She barred me from one of her Garth Drabinsky-sponsored shows because  she didn’t like what I wrote about her in an advance piece that promoted her. I fought back, with my newspaper’s encouragement, and things soured from there. Yet I tried to be respectful of her status as Canada’s ballerina darling. So I didn’t report on how she perjured herself on the stand during the Kimberly Glasco wrongful dismissal trial (it’s all in the public domain for those who would take the time to peruse the record) and I still haven’t publicly aired allegations of body shaming and unfairness made by dancers during her tenure. 

A number of super talented (young and experienced) dancers have fled the company during her reign, for instance; some told me that they left because they felt a need to escape what they alleged to be a discriminating and bullying workplace. I can speak from personal experience that the reign was often less than upfront and fair. Karen Kain condoned her media department’s undemocratic practice of having critics (like me but there are others) stripped of their press privileges and denied access to shows and dancers even when legitimately on assignment, for instance. I know because I once (not that long ago) directly asked her if she knew what her staff were doing and she said she was well aware and supported what they thought was right. She also added that I had once hurt her feelings with something I wrote. At least she told me the truth. 

But I must hand it to her. Despite these instances of pettiness and obfuscation, she has left having done the right thing by promoting Tina Pereira (at long last) along with Siphesihle November and relative newcomer Koto Ishihara to the position of principal dancer, the company’s highest dancing rank. I have been amazed that those who still work at the dailies haven’t run with this. Despite Canada being a proudly multicultural nation, never before has there been a woman of colour at the national ballet company’s top rung. Tina Pereira has made history, people. And I want to add with Karen Kain’s help. It didn’t come easy. But this celebrated and seasoned dance artist did shift gears. She’s put the company on the fast track for real and tangible change. That’s a big accomplishment and perhaps this will be her legacy: that she did move the dial. 

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