Kelly Tweeddale bec[ame] 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 You Xia: You
have led symphony orchestras and an opera company throughout North America.
What is your impression of the ballet world?
Kelly Tweeddale: 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.
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
“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. ”Kelly Tweeddale
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.
lines, what makes an organization great? Is it the internal DNA or having the
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
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
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
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.
“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 ballet needs].” Kelly Tweeddale
Would you say
that is the biggest impact of new presentation formats such as livestreaming?
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
“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…” Kelly Tweeddale
What about new
works? Visual artists, composers, choreographers: what is their role in our
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
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
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.
This interview was conducted
by San Francisco Ballet Director of Communications You You Xia and was originally
published on SF Ballet’s blog.
Used with the permission of San Francisco Ballet.