American Ballet Theatre is thrilled to welcome Susan Jaffe home as ABT’s newest Artistic Director.
Deemed “America’s Quintessential Ballerina” by The New York Times, Susan danced with the Company for 22 years before joining the administrative side of ABT in a variety of roles. Susan went on to serve as the Dean of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of Dance for eight years before being appointed artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 2020.
Now, back to her roots, Susan is excited to lead ABT into the future.
ABT: What originally brought you to American Ballet Theatre and what has continued to bring you back?
Susan Jaffe: When I was about 12 years old, my mother took my brothers and me to see ABT at the Kennedy Center. I remember Cynthia Gregory danced Swan Lake, and I was absolutely mesmerized by her. There was so much human struggle and emotion in her performance. I knew then that my love was for the story ballet, for which ABT is famous. ABT’s foundation is the classics, dramatic works, and new works—the full-length and one-act ballets that align with our rich history dating back to Lucia Chase’s time. That is what brought me to ABT all those years ago, and now, to return, is a joyful and harmonious reuniting. The dancers and administrators are top-notch, and it is wonderful to work with such talented people.
As a dancer, how did you take on and prepare for new roles?
When I started out at ABT, I only wanted to do the beautiful roles, but through the years I became interested in interpreting more complex characters. I wanted to sink my teeth into the juicy roles, so when given the opportunity, I took them on with fervor. I hired a dramaturg so that I could research each of the characters that I was scheduled to perform. I did the interpretive character work outside of my rehearsal hours because there’s so little time in the rehearsal process and you’re busy being worried about your feet and legs working properly, working well with your partner, the style of the ballet etc. I dove into my characters in order to be their conduit. What was so interesting though, was that the more I was able to see deeply into a character, the more that character taught me who they were. If you truly research and embody the role, then the role will teach you more about yourself and more about the character.
How have you grown from being a dancer to now as an administrator and Artistic Director?
When I began teaching at ABT after retiring as a dancer, I didn’t think I’d be good at it. As a dancer, I was—as you have to be—very practical and self-focused. I was very analytical in my technique, so when I started teaching, I noticed I could correct alignment quickly and easily, and consequently, the students improved. That’s when I said, “This is the coolest thing in the world to do. To be somebody who can help enhance and empower others.”
Taking this experience, and what I learned about strategy, fundraising, and leadership while I was the dean of dance at UNCSA, and as artistic director of Pittsburgh BalletTheatre has helped me feel more capable and confident as an Artistic Director.
You’ve moved back to New York to work at ABT. What about NYC feels like home?
I love the energy of New York and the accessibility to great art, great performances, and wonderful restaurants. I also love walking, and believe it or not, the subway! I missed the subway while I was away, so being back in New York feels like I’m home once again. Specifically, being back at ABT feels like home because of the quality of the work. I grew up in ABT and experienced the quality of the performances and the level of achievement that ABT and its dancers produce. I’m happy to be back with kindred spirits.
ABT’s mission is to extend classical dancing to the widest possible audience. How do you plan to do this as Artistic Director?
When it comes to the classics, one of the biggest hurdles to bringing new audience members to the ballet is that people are initially intimidated by the art form. They think they’re supposed to know what’s happening, but they come and witness an entirely foreign vocabulary where dancers use their bodies to express a story. To remedy this, we must educate our audience and provide them with the tools and fundamental knowledge to feel confident coming to the ballet for the first time. We are beginning to do this by offering videos detailing the history and background of ballets like Giselle and Swan Lake, so that people understand more of what they will see in the theater. With brand-new full-length works or works new to ABT, we can continue to stretch our reach and impact by highlighting new voices.
Currently, my focus is on providing more women and artists of color the opportunity to share their voices on our stage so that we continue to expand artistically as we move forward into the future.
What is a piece of advice you’d give to young dancers and developing choreographers?
The most important thing is in the doing and doing whatever that may be with all your heart. You don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to be fully fledged, you just have to exercise perseverance, grit, curiosity, and an unquenchable thirst to learn and grow. If you have all those things, you are more likely to succeed in just about anything.