Arturo Jacobus, president and CEO of Atlanta Ballet, considered retiring early last year. But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he became determined to see the company through the crisis. Having largely achieved that, he will retire this week.
By last November, the company had pivoted numerous times — with postponements and cancellations, initial plans and contingency plans. The ballet cut its annual budget nearly in half, reduced higher salaries and restarted in-person studio work under CDC guidelines.
A first-round Paycheck Protection Program loan and a capital campaign had made up for some lost revenue, but not enough. Cash flow was also a problem. Jacobus was about to begin furloughs when an anonymous donor called, with a $1 million gift that would enable the company to weather the pandemic relatively unscathed.
Jacobus rescinded the furloughs, making Atlanta Ballet one of the rare arts organizations in the American Guild of Musical Artists that did not furlough dancers during the 2020–21 season, according to guild communications director Alicia Cook.
Jacobus, 81, came to the ballet in 2009 after tenures as president of the Oakland Symphony in California, Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and then nine years as executive director of San Francisco Ballet. He is credited with increasing Atlanta Ballet’s development capacity and leading several successful capital campaigns. He helped orchestrate a new, critically acclaimed production of The Nutcracker, which the company expects will be a robust source of future revenue.
His 12-year tenure has seen the company rebrand itself as an organization committed to creativity and innovation, followed by a reversal of that initiative with the forced departure of artistic director John McFall at the end of the 2015–16 season and the hiring of Gennadi Nedvigin, a move that caused dramatic turnover and an exodus of homegrown creativity. Nonetheless, the new dancers’ technical level hits high marks, and the company is on track to end its fiscal year this month with a balanced budget and a small cushion of cash to start the next fiscal year, Jacobus says.
Last spring, Atlanta Ballet hired Arts Consulting Group to aid with a national search for Jacobus’ successor. The ballet’s search committee, which includes Nedvigin, is compiling a list of finalists and plans to announce the new executive director sometime in the fall.
Jacobus — poised, personable and optimistic — recently talked with ArtsATL about his Atlanta Ballet tenure, sharing his views on programming, strategic planning and advancing the company’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion.
ArtsATL: Atlanta Ballet recently performed Silver Linings as part of Georgia Tech’s outdoor Skyline Series. In Claudia Schreier’s Pleiades Dances, aspects of artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin’s aesthetic finally became clear — through dancers’ physicality, lyricism and fulfillment of form. Even in the dancer-choreographed pieces, dancers imbued their movement with a newfound emotional dimension. Was that due to the hardships they have faced during the pandemic?
Jacobus: It’s plausible. They had reached a level of remarkable maturity, and with maturity comes the emotions and the lyricism.
ArtsATL: Did the pandemic change Gennadi’s approach to directing a company?
Jacobus: For any artist who is suddenly in a demanding role like artistic director, there is a learning curve. And what you learn is unending — your relationships, repertoire selection and your day-to-day contact with the dancers. It takes time to feel comfortable in your own skin with the people who work for and with you. In all of those aspects, Gennadi’s learning curve accelerated exponentially. He’s grown to value the professionals around him whose job it is to support him. And the intensity of survival over the last year or so, all of that has kind of come together.
ArtsATL: How did your experience as president of Pacific Northwest Ballet and executive director of San Francisco Ballet inform your work at Atlanta Ballet?
Jacobus: There was an opportunity at Pacific Northwest Ballet to grow, especially on the fundraising side. In terms of internal systems for fundraising — having the right people in the right jobs and having them organized and everything — there was an opportunity to build all of that.
When I got to San Francisco, it was an almost completely different situation. They had been around for a long time and were on firm institutional footing. But they did have a $3 million accumulated deficit and the board-staff relationship needed building.
When I got here, it was not unfamiliar territory. It was a medium-sized ballet company. The internal systems and business components, and how they were interrelated, needed building. I was able to do that in the first three to five years.
ArtsATL: When Atlanta Ballet moved into its new facility, the company began to create a new profile. Twyla Tharp was a game-changer. Her ballet The Princess and the Goblin attracted Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Helen Pickett introduced speaking roles with stunning dance–theater works. Together with works by Ohad Naharin and others, the company aligned its identity with creativity and innovation.
In August 2015, an Atlanta Ballet press release said that the 2014–15 season was its most successful ever, with $3.1 million in box–office sales, the highest ticket revenue of the past 20 seasons. School revenue exceeded $2.2 million. Contributed income totaled $4.1 million, up $1 million from the previous year.
But then, a month later, Atlanta Ballet announced that John McFall would step down. One of the ballet’s financial supporters posted the news on social media, commenting, “If it’s not broke, why fix it?”
So if it wasn’t broke, why was there a need to fix it?
Jacobus: Let me just go back, briefly. During my time at Pacific Northwest Ballet and at San Francisco Ballet, I just didn’t see any creativity whatsoever. Eventually Twyla Tharp did something for American Ballet Theatre, and Helgi Tomasson (San Francisco’s artistic director) invited Mark Morris to do something with the company. William Forsythe was always a creative force. Other than that, there just wasn’t a lot happening.
By the time I got to Atlanta Ballet (seven years after leaving San Francisco Ballet) it was like night and day. There were so many genius choreographers doing fantastic things. And with this explosion of creative talent in the ballet world, there was also a melding of the modern aesthetic and the ballet aesthetic.
John’s aesthetic was more modern than not, and I felt it was a great opportunity for Atlanta Ballet to embrace, with a vengeance, this “golden age of ballet” that was on the horizon. John and I put together a strategic plan, and we really made a run at trying to build a brand around that creativity.
Every ballet company struggles, but Atlanta Ballet has struggled almost forever. It’s the economics of ballet, and it’s the maturity of the community and their appreciation for the arts and ballet. Adjusted for inflation, Atlanta Ballet has been on a financial plateau for decades.
I felt strongly, and John agreed, that this would be a way to really shake things up and attract younger audiences. But in order to make a real dent in the financial status quo, you’ve got to have exponential growth in ticket sales, which ideally will affect donations as well.
You can look at some of the numbers in isolation and say, “That’s progress.” But it really didn’t change the financial underpinnings of the organization.
I think Atlanta Ballet probably went a little too far on the contemporary side, and I think some of the audiences I had hoped would come, because of some of the more modern stuff, were turned away by some of the kind of over-the-edge modern stuff. I think the attitude of the board at that time was, ‘If we’re going to change the situation, we’ve got to change the way we’re doing things.”
The mandate for Gennadi, when he came in, was balanced programming. That means you’re not going to abandon this brilliant choreography that’s out there, but you are going to do some of the classics, some of the neo-classics and new works with the caveat that everything is at a high level.
Balanced programming is what virtually every major ballet company in the country does anyway. The idea was that we ought to be doing that too, because we’re the only big ballet in town, and we’ve got to appeal to a much larger array of ballet-goers and potential ballet-goers. And so that’s kind of the vision that brought about the change, and the vision that Gennadi has pursued over the last five years.
Other companies have done it. Joffrey did it in Chicago. Miami City Ballet did it when Lourdes Lopez (became artistic director). Something happened to create a significantly larger audience and allowed them to become significantly larger institutions.
While we’ve had successes, I can’t sit here and tell you that we’ve had exponential financial growth. So, what’s the next big thing? I don’t know. I hope my successor does.
ArtsATL: Through what process did the ballet, as an organization, come to this decision?
Jacobus: Reflection and conversations, and I’ve been involved in all of those. There’s really not a ballet company with a budget of about $10 million or higher that does not do a balanced program. It’s nothing innovative or new, it’s just the way things are done. It’s the way those larger companies have been able to succeed and sustain.
Any company that’s not a big ballet company, they have the luxury of being able to focus more narrowly artistically — on contemporary work, or as a single–choreographer company — knowing they’re not going to appeal to a broad audience. But an institution of $10 million in a city of 7 million, you’ve got to do things that have a wider appeal.
ArtsATL: It makes me think about Washington Ballet.
Jacobus: Well, that’s a particular situation. But go ahead?
ArtsATL: Like McFall, artistic director Septime Webre had embedded the company in its community. They loved and admired Brooklyn Mack, an African American dancer, and they came to performances because of him. Webre’s choreography reflected the community. Then the board let Webre go and brought in Julie Kent, a major principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre. And she proceeded to build what she knew how to do, which was essentially a smaller version of American Ballet Theatre.
When Atlanta Ballet’s board of trustees brought in Nedvigin, they let go of John McFall, an artistic director who, like Webre, had embedded the company in the community. McFall commissioned collaborations with major Atlanta-based artists like Big Boi of OutKast. He encouraged dancers to get out into the community, and they were bringing their friends into the shows. And with this new repertoire, one innovative piece after another, it was like the whole theater was filled with electricity. The dancers were bringing us on the adventure, it was like we were all for one another.
And then to say, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s bring in somebody from San Francisco Ballet who can build a company like a little San Francisco Ballet.” And the question is, is that right for Atlanta?
Jacobus: I can’t answer that question, but I can answer it for Washington, if you’ll indulge me with a quick story.
When I was at the Oakland Symphony, we had a brilliant conductor, Calvin Simmons. Would have been one of the great conductors of our time. African American trained at the Curtis Institute and was the associate conductor at Los Angeles Philharmonic. By all accounts, we should have been doing really well. But we suffered by being in the shadow of the San Francisco Symphony.
Before my time, the Oakland Symphony had distinguished itself from the San Francisco Symphony by doing contemporary works and American works, because consciously or not, they didn’t want to be a minor version of the San Francisco Symphony. They wanted it to be something unique. In so doing, they were sentencing themselves to a limited audience. But it was the right thing to do. You just had to do it with your eyes wide open.
And the Oakland Ballet became quite reputable by focusing on the Diaghilev era. Again, by virtue of their focus, and by virtue of being in the shadow of San Francisco Ballet, they were never going to have a substantial following. But it allowed them to distinguish themselves in a limited framework.
What Washington did under Septime Webre was very similar to those two examples. Septime was a choreographer. He had an artistic aesthetic that was unique. The ballet company is a medium-sized company, and the list of potential ballet ticket buyers and donors is fairly limited because Washington is not your typical city. You have a lot of tourists, politicians and lobbyists. The arts lovers are few and far between.
Septime did absolutely the right thing, and what the board did by bringing in Julie Kent was exactly the wrong thing. It’s almost like Oakland Ballet trying to compete with San Francisco Ballet. Washington Ballet cannot compete with American Ballet Theatre, the Kirov and San Francisco Ballet, all of which appear regularly at the Kennedy Center.
So that was the wrong strategy. Is it the wrong strategy here? I think the jury is still out on it. We don’t have the kind of competition for balanced programming that Oakland Symphony and Washington Ballet have.
ArtsATL: Gennadi is very different from McFall, both aesthetically, and in terms of value systems — some say the two are polar opposites. When the board decided to make this change, they must have known that a large percentage of the dancers were going to leave. Either Gennadi would fire them, or they would go on their own, which is what happened. The trustees must have anticipated that. And they were OK with that?
Jacobus: I can’t speak for them. But what I can say is that to one degree or another, whenever there is an artistic change, especially when the change is acrimonious, you do see that sort of turnover. With San Francisco Ballet, when Michael Smuin was fired and Helgi Tomasson was hired, Helgi had a terrible time of it. And the press was just brutal. And you did have this defection and turnover and the board was as divided as our board, to some extent, was. But to our board’s credit, they were divided among themselves in discussion. And then they spoke as one when the decision was made.
ArtsATL: In 2018, Atlanta Ballet joined the Equity Project, a joint initiative to increase the presence of Black individuals in the ballet world. Atlanta Ballet has since undertaken numerous measures, from commissioning an independent assessment to building an internal task force ,and from scholarships to a 10-year program to support young dancers, all while working to present more works that are relevant to people of color. What were the task force’s recommendations to the executive team?
Jacobus: I think I can say without hesitation that the leadership of this organization has been committed to diversity, inclusion and equity for as long as I can remember. But we began to codify it prior to the Equity Project, and it became one of three pillars in our strategic plan.
ArtsATL: In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of people have been seeing the world through a different lens. Have events of the past year changed your thinking about what a ballet company could look like, or how it could function in a more equitable way?
Jacobus: Like everybody, I have done a lot of reflection over the past year. I don’t think that it’s changed my value system or perspective about diversity in a ballet company, because I’ve always been an advocate. Two things I think it changed — not because of COVID, but because of George Floyd’s murder. Just the sheer power of seeing that right in front of your eyes and how it changed the world. It created a sense of urgency and a sense that this time is different, and maybe change can happen.
ArtsATL: Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that change can happen in ballet institutions born of European monarchies and built upon elitist values. Is it possible to realize this vision for a ballet company that truly reflects the racial demographics of Atlanta?
Jacobus: I always remember Martha Graham’s words — you cannot be creative as a dancer until you’ve mastered the foundation and the fundamentals. There are plenty of exceptions, but I would argue that the foundations of dance stem from the classical ballet curriculum, just as the foundations of good jazz music stem from classical music. It all stems from classicism because that is the foundation of being able to express yourself as an artist. If you don’t have the facility and the technique to express it, then your expression can’t get out in a truly elegant and eloquent way. So it’s not about the old stodgy, classical ballet repertoire in history. It’s about the foundation and how the creative part evolves.
There’s nothing that says you can’t have a company that reflects the demographics of Atlanta and still do balanced programming and do it at a high level with great technique that allows you eventually, as a more mature artist, to express yourself profoundly. The roadblock is not classical ballet. The roadblock is the pipeline. The roadblock is the fact that we, as institutions, have not been as successful as we should be in attracting young talent from communities of color, nurturing and retaining that talent so that they become a representative part of our companies.
So that’s one social part of it. The other social part of it probably stems from the lack of representation, and that ballet is not that relevant to communities of color. And so you’ve got a chicken and egg situation. You’ve got an art form that isn’t representative and, therefore, is not relevant to the people you would like to attract. And because you can’t attract them, you continue to have an art form that is not relevant.
There’s nothing that says that people of any racial demographic can’t be represented in great numbers and perform ballet as well as any other demographic. It’s about the training and the exposure, and that’s where it breaks down. The trick is to find a way to be relevant enough to be able to attract.
I think we do a good job of that with our school, and attract more students of color, especially at an early age, identify the talent and nurture them through the company. Then I think the cycle at some point is broken. But it’s frustratingly time consuming.
But what happens is what would happen regardless of race. Mom and Dad decide, or the child themselves decide, that they don’t want the hard life of poverty that dancers endure. They want them to go to college and become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. That kind of attrition happens at upper levels, no matter what race you are.
But if you’re a really talented dancer of color, and you reach the upper levels of the school, and you do hear the calling to become a professional dancer, a company the size of Atlanta is going to be bested by one of the larger companies. The demand for dancers of color, especially now, is so huge that a Houston Ballet or a Boston Ballet or a San Francisco Ballet are going to be able to lure that young, talented dancer of color to a more glamorous company and more pay. That’ll change, but for the foreseeable future, that’s the rock we’re up against. So we’re putting great hope into our pipeline and Decade 2 Dance program and things like that.
ArtsATL: Do you have any advice for your successor?
Jacobus: (laughs) Very few successors want to hear their predecessor’s advice. But I really don’t have any advice, except this is a great institution. It’s a great board. It’s a great company. I think there’s a lot of potential for new blood, or someone coming in with fresh ideas and maybe a different background, and maybe being able to elicit some change.