In Conversation with Kelly Tweeddale

With You You Xia

Kelly Tweeddale becomes San Francisco Ballet’s new Executive Director on September 3. She succeeds Glenn McCoy, whose steadfast stewardship over 17 seasons has left the Company with an operating budget of $56 million, the second largest amongst ballet companies in the country, and an endowment that grew from $43 million to $127 million. That’s a tough act to follow, where does one go from there? As arts organizations across disciplines grapple with the challenges and opportunities to stay visible and pertinent, a new leader at the helm is both exciting and suspenseful. We caught up with Kelly in August to catch up about leadership, organizational culture, our role in the community, and the ever-present pendulum of preserving tradition while fostering innovation.

You have led symphony orchestras and an opera company throughout North America. What is your impression of the ballet world?

Even though I’ve spent most of my career in the fields of orchestra and opera, I actually discovered the world of performing arts through dance. I studied ballet in college and worked for an improvisational dance company through a work-study program. The way that ballet seems to defy physics, by being controlled and exuberant at the same time, and how movement connects music with emotion, is something that we all need in an era where our world has become as small as the devices that we hold in our hands. I think dance gives us peripheral vision; it is three-dimensional and almost forces us to look up, take notice, and see what happens beyond our screens and ourselves.

Excellence transcends all art forms, be it music, opera, or ballet. That standard of excellence that is a signature of Helgi’s artistic leadership is what attracted me to SF Ballet.

In your opinion, how does leadership set the tone for an organization?

I have been fortunate to have worked with several leaders and mentors early in my career who led by example. I come from the mindset that “paying your dues” in the nonprofit world, especially the performing arts, starts with doing whatever is necessary so that the curtain rises and the show goes on. That means going the extra mile, lending a hand regardless of whether it’s your job, and always remembering to say thank you. 

Today, I think leadership is about giving back and being accessible. You never know where the next set of leaders for our field will come from and I feel a deep responsibility to offer guidance to anyone who shows potential and promise. When I was at Seattle Opera, the Executive Director became terminally ill. Speight Jenkins, the General Director and board president, came to me and asked me to step into the role. They saw something in me before I knew that of myself and gave me a chance. I think that is what leaders do—they know when to step forward, and when to step aside. I guess I’d say mentorship is a dance, one that is so much more rewarding when done with others. I’ve never been a leader who thinks that success can be achieved alone.

Along those lines, what makes an organization great? Is it the internal DNA or having the right leadership?

I think great organizations attract great leaders, and great leaders can create great organizations; but it’s not a given. I had the opportunity to spend time with the author Jim Collins when he was writing the book Good to Great. The difference between a good organization and a great organization comes down to a few things, such as having a laser-like focus, having the right people in the right roles, and taking advantage of momentum. That’s why I’m an avid student of the creative leaders within our organizations. Building a great company takes curation—in opera it is casting the roles with the right type of singer, in symphony it is building the ensemble, and in ballet, it is having a physical aesthetic that becomes the signature of the Company. I believe that the DNA of an organization starts with knowing who you are and why you exist. Once you know that, you build the organization through passion and tenacity. It’s never easy, but if you have alignment around purpose, it’s rewarding and can be life changing. It was for me. I think if you focus on the “why” of what you are doing rather than the “what,” you connect with each other, the art form, and ultimately, the audience.

“…if you focus on the 'why' of what you are doing rather than the 'what,' you connect with each other, the art form, and ultimately, the audience.”
Kelly Tweeddale
Executive Director

You have said that a thriving arts community is the bellwether of a great city. Can you elaborate on that?

If you look at any thriving city—London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, etc.—it is multi-dimensional. It has transcended past economic markets and built cultural centers and cultural organizations that are unique to each city. The sign that a city has evolved to provide its citizens more than just food, shelter, and economic livelihood can be measured by how it celebrates culture—its own indigenous culture, traditional and classical cultures of the world, and the cultural expression of the future. The cultural community is a measure of creativity, and one sign of a thriving city is how it invests in keeping that community healthy and relevant. What was left behind by the thriving civilizations that came before us is their art—dance depicted in paintings and sculpture, buildings that celebrated performance and drama, literature that highlights the value of the pursuit of creativity and art. Part of what we do today is leaving a lasting record.

And there is value in all of that.

One of the values that a ballet company brings to the ecosystem, which is especially relevant today, is that we are humans, with physical bodies, that exist outside of an electronic device. Ballet reminds us of our physicality and the miraculous things that a human is capable of when creativity is harnessed through our bodies. It tells a story, passes on traditions, and expresses the complexity of emotions that we are faced with in our daily lives. That expression is something that connects all of us, and that connection is what builds community. San Francisco is a diverse and evolving city, and SF Ballet should reflect that on stage and off, as well as act as a mirror to the world at-large.

We have a role to play for our communities now, but what about the future? At Vancouver Symphony Orchestra you oversaw the youth orchestra as part of the organization. It seems that arts organizations have also taken on a duty to enrich future generations.

Often, a music or art class at school or trip to a community center is the first exposure a child has to the arts. I know it was for me. I discovered dance when I was enrolled in a community program where we learned what a choreographer was, and how to make a dance. I still remember performing for peers and family, and how powerful it felt to put your ideas into action. That is the power of what we do, putting ideas into action, and in our case it is physical action, using the body and mind to make a statement. One of the things that I am excited about is the deep and sustaining role that SF Ballet has played in education. With the 40th anniversary of SF Ballet’s Dance in Schools and Communities program, we can extend that reach even further. I believe we have one of the most creative generations ever to have existed before us. They are craving something that allows them to connect, and our DISC program begins that connection in a sustaining and important way.

Tell us about the livestreaming agreement you spearheaded at the VSO.

I have always been an early adopter when it comes to technology; I guess I’m just wired that way. When I was in Vancouver, my orchestra colleagues asked if I would represent all Canadian orchestras and work with the Canadian Federation of Musicians to create a set of rules for livestreaming. Up until then, each project had to be separately negotiated with the local and national unions and by the time the negotiations were concluded, often the opportunity had passed. I assembled a committee with representation both by size of orchestra and geography. It took almost two years, but we got there. Canada now has a livestreaming agreement that is experimental, offers turnkey implementation, and provides incentives for multiple projects. We also recognized that technology is changing at a rapid rate and in order to be relevant and continue to build audiences we needed to do something now. The agreement isn’t perfect, but hopefully over the next three years, it will result in Canadian orchestras becoming visible in the digital space, learning by experimentation, and reaching new audiences.

“…because we perform live, anything can happen, and no two performances are ever the same. That unpredictability makes for a great experience in the theater. And I think the world is thirsty for great experiences.”
Kelly Tweeddale
Executive Director

Would you say that is the biggest impact of new presentation formats such as livestreaming?

New technologies have only increased attendance to the performing arts. When recording was the new technology, opera and symphony audiences grew; radio and television broadcasting also expanded audiences. A streamed performance will never replace or be able to deliver the impact of a live performance, but it is the exposure and the ability to capture memorable moments. That is what I believe ballet needs–more exposure and the ability for our audience to relive the memorable moments our dancers deliver. Digital capture is also essential for documenting new work and for passing choreography from one generation to another.

Yet much of what we do is preserving the traditions of the classical art form. Why should they matter in our world today?

There is a lot of debate over whether tradition or classic art forms have relevancy in a world that is agile and is constantly reinventing itself. Classical art forms like ballet are just as valid today and may even have more impact than in the past. Why? I often ask people to tell me about a family tradition that they have and then I ask them what would happen if the tradition simply faded away. The response is always emotional and an expression of loss. Traditions have a way of making us feel connected to the past and the people who came before us. Ballet is like that. But traditions also evolve and are kept fresh by succeeding generations through adaptation and invention. Ballet is also about aesthetics. There is a discipline, a predictability, and yet a virtuosity that is just as awe-inspiring. And because we perform live, anything can happen, and no two performances are ever the same. That unpredictability makes for a great experience in the theater. And I think the world is thirsty for great experiences.

What about new works? Visual artists, composers, choreographers: what is their role in our institutional communities?

I’ve often said if we only perform the works of the past, we are on a mission to become obsolete. Another way to make work new again is to re-stage the classics. It is so important to set existing works in new contexts, and ballet can do that and lend a new perspective to a well-known work by changing the production elements (like sets and costumes.) By changing the perspective without changing the choreography, we often reveal something about the work to ourselves and our audiences.

New work is also essential to what we do. We don’t know who the next Balanchine will be, but we have an obligation to give the composers, the choreographers, and the dancers the chance to put their mark on the art form and that tells us what dance looks like today, what ballet has to say in the 21st century, and what we as a Company are thinking about. As a Company, it is our job to create. Audiences will determine what stands the test of time. They always have and I expect they will continue to do so.

Unique to the ballet world is that the goal of pre-professional training programs, such as San Francisco Ballet School, is to prepare young dancers to hopefully join professional companies upon completion. This is different from the orchestra world, for example, where youth orchestra musicians are not necessarily in the program in order to eventually join a professional orchestra.

To me ballet has always been way ahead of other art forms in the commitment to invest in how we train the next generation of artists. Training facilities are an investment in the pipeline both by creating the future dancers, but also choreographers, audience members, and advocates. We also know that the impact of San Francisco Ballet School is seen on not only our stages, but stages around the world as alumni find professional careers at leading companies. It reminds us that we as a Company exist not only to keep the art form alive and evolving, but that ballet is a human endeavor that transcends both the past, and present.

If the future of ballet starts at the School, what does that mean for how we run our training programs today?

One important element about SF Ballet School is the concept of mentorship. Technique can be taught, but mentorship is how the traditions of the company, the aesthetics of the art form, and the safeguarding the well-being of future professional dancers are transferred from the professional to the trainee. I think one of the questions that SF Ballet will have to ask itself as it relates to the School is how we ensure that we reach potential dancers outside of those who already have access to the Chris Hellman Center for Dance. I have some experience with setting up satellite programs in neighborhoods that may not currently be represented with our current schedule. Seeing how we can both expand our reach and our impact as we look to change the face of ballet to represent our diverse community without sacrificing aesthetics will be an exciting challenge, but one which is essential as we strengthen our commitment to making ballet more inclusive and equitable.

Header image: Kelly Tweeddale // © Brandon Patoc

Categories: Behind the Scenes, ReadTags: ,

Leave a Reply