Susan Jaffe’s return to Ballet Theatre is a step forward for women


Susan Jaffe spent 22 years as one of American Ballet Theatre’s prima ballerinas, retiring in 2002. When ABT brings its production of “Romeo and Juliet” to the Kennedy Center next week, Jaffe will be watching from the wings, no pointe shoes on. This will be her first performance as the company’s new artistic director, after two years in the same position at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Jaffe’s latest role with ABT ushers in a new era for a classical ballet company that has been under the leadership of Kevin McKenzie for 30 years. She is one of a growing, but small, community of female artistic directors, a title typically reserved for men, and she’s jumping in at a time when many of ballet’s social and racial norms are being challenged by a quickly evolving society. It’s a new era for Jaffe, 60, as well, who is passionate about education, personal growth and supporting new voices in dance. We spoke with her recently by phone from New York.

Q: How do you feel about joining this small community, including Tamara Rojo at San Francisco Ballet, of women leading major ballet companies?

A: It’s wonderful. There’s also Hope Muir at the National Ballet of Canada. We’ve both become artistic directors of big companies around the same time. It’s been interesting to talk with her about our trajectories, the challenges and what we need to be looking out for. We really do support each other.

Q: Have you received any advice you’ve found helpful?

A: [Muir and I] have talked about how dancers have changed, how sensibilities have changed, and how to navigate the current world as opposed to the world we grew up dancing in. That’s been helpful — how certain people have navigated those waters as far as gender and diversity. And also what to do with social media.

Q: ABT has recently parted ways with its longtime artist in residence, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Do you have any words on that decision?

A: It was a very thoughtful decision. ABT has a very small amount of time, space and money to create new works. Every year we have the opportunity to do one new full-length and one new one-act ballet. To have both by the same choreographer every year, whether they’re a genius or not, and I do think Alexei is a genius, is not sustainable when ABT is trying to expand into other choreographic voices. We’re focusing on finding new and innovative choreographers, more women and more artists of color.

I did ask Ratmansky to do a new work for us in 2026, and I think he also needed a new start, creatively. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Q: Are there any up-and-coming female choreographers that you have your eyes on?

A: I do have women in the pipeline choreographing short works and full-length works, who are contracted. I don’t think I’m going to name them right now, but rest assured, you’re going to see full-length ballets by women.

Q: You choreographed a new version of “Swan Lake” during your time as artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Do you plan to choreograph for ABT?

A: I might stage a full length, but choreographing — I won’t. I want to be the person to support choreographers, and that takes up enough of my hours and my mental capacity. I actually don’t know how artistic directors of this scale have the ability to choreograph unless absolutely everything is taken care of by absolutely everybody else. I can’t do two jobs.

Q: Do you have any plans to expand diversity within the ranks of the company?

A: That’s a long game. We have diversity in the school, but our aim is to continue increasing diversity. We have programs in place to go into communities that don’t often get exposed to ballet. Once you find those students, it’s a question of how you can support them, which may not be just free tuition. We have a huge education department that is working very hard as far as going out there and trying to find the diverse students who would succeed, and all students that come into the school and the studio company are here because we know that they will succeed.

Q: There has been a lot of cultural reckoning in both ballet and sports, especially in terms of mental health. Do you have any direct strategies on tending to the dancers’ needs both physically and mentally?

A: If someone is really struggling with their mental health, then that’s a situation that has to be addressed individually. But as far as keeping people resilient, and positive, and having a life-affirming attitude toward themselves and the arts, we would like to offer workshops for the dancers.

Q: What else do you see yourself bringing to the table?

A: I would like to focus on bringing a richer education to our audiences and making it as simple as possible. We’re all so busy, even to come into a theater and have the ability to read the program notes can feel like a mountain too hard to climb. What I thought to do is, when you buy a ticket, you’ll now get a link to a podcast. There will be a short one, 10 minutes, and a longer one, 30 minutes. You pop your earphones in, you’re on the subway, and you’re listening to the history, the information and the significance of what you’re about to see. So by the time you sit down in the audience, you have a little leg up.

I grew up coming to New York in the summers, visiting my aunt and uncle, who were balletomanes. They were the people who slept around the Metropolitan Opera House to get tickets. I think that the biggest difference between that audience and audiences today, aside from constantly competing with so many other things taking our attention, is that those audiences were thoroughly educated about ballet.

I would love to create a larger intellectual experience around ABT — even going into universities while we’re on tour, doing lectures. But that’s a bigger vision, the long game.

Q: Does bringing “Romeo and Juliet” to the Kennedy Center hold any personal significance?

A: Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the signature pieces that Ballet Theater performs just about every year and still gets full audiences. These are rich and meaty roles for our dancers to be able to sink their teeth into. But I look forward to being on the other side of the curtain, helping it to look and be the best. And, of course, my family will be there.

Q: Do you miss performing?

A: No. I left when I was 40, and I had danced all of it. I was ready to go, and I felt like I had given everything I could give. I’ve since gone from ballet school owner, to director of repertory at ABT, to dean of dance for eight years, to a smaller company for two years. It’s fun, now, to be able to walk back in here with all those experiences, to come home to this family. Of course, I’m going to make mistakes, but I feel ready to be here.

American Ballet Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet Feb. 15-19 at the Kennedy Center.

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