Monday, 25 February 2013

Guest post: "Born leaders, made leaders", by Assis Carreiro (Belgium) and Thomas Edur (Estonia)

I often think about what makes a good leader; a great leader. That person who has the vision and derermination to trace and follow a path, and, at the same time, is able to inspire, gather and lead many others, essential for accomplishing the mission. So, I got very interested when my friend Caroline Miller, Director of Dance UK, wrote to me about Rural Retreats, an international think tank looking at the future of ballet and dance. The sessions bring guest speakers from the world of business, sport and the arts to interface with the dance leaders and to share experiences and allow opportunities to think 'out of the box' about the place of dance in today's society. Are great leaders born or made? Or is it a bit of both? Assis Carreiro, the Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders and the person who conceived and launched Rural Retreats, and Thomas Edur, Artistic Director of the Estonian National Ballet, give us their insight and tell us about the challenges they´re facing. Interestingly, they both talk about egos; and they both talk about

Assis Carreiro with Lynn Seymour and Karen Kain at Rural Retreat 2012. 
As the founder and producer of the Rural Retreats, I approached the latest gathering of Artistic Directors from around the globe with exictement, but also nervousness, since for the first time I would not only be playing host but also taking part, as I had just become Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. This latest edition was, therefore, a double bonus for me. On the one hand, I got to produce a think tank that I am very passionate about and committed to delivering to a community of leaders - desperate for support, peer discussion, debate and stimulation from guest speakers from other professions. It has been evident from the success of past gatherings how crucial and necessary they are to the well-being and development of existing and future dance leaders. On the other hand, the weekend was just what I needed four months into the role of artistic director - an opportunity to learn and listen, to ask lots of practical questions about the day to day job and deeper, philosophical questions and thoughts about the art form that we are all so passionate about.

When I conceived the Retreats twelve years ago, I would never have thought for a moment that I would one day be leading a company. But, as time went by, I thought it was a challenge I would relish and... here I am. I have to say that I couldn't have done this job before now. I needed not just professional work experience but life experience - that is crucial and it is the wealth of experience that I can grab from my very deep bag that helps me find solutions and keeps me sain. And, having a family, whilst adding constant challenges and negotiations, also keeps me sain and makes me realise that there is more to life than ballet. They are also the most amazing support system and fan club when the going gets tough!

This is very much a people job. As Artistic Director, I am responsible for careers - their development - and these are fragile and short careers and it is all personal. Dancers are constantly being judged and difficult decisions made. I really do have to park my ego and look after 52 egos plus the artistic team, guest choreographers and repetiteurs, administration team, board members and, of course, the needs of our public. It is juggling a lot of plates at breakneck speed, always with a smile and a strong, clear and positive attitiude...

The challenges:

1) Money, money, money: if there was the right amount we could just do our jobs, but it is a constant frustration and challenge and, in these difficult times, we really have to think out of the box of how to survive and continue to keep our art form relevant and vibrant and understood by the wider world, outside our small but fragile one. 

2) Being new: I am new so I have to prove myself to everyone and gain their trust. That takes time. I had to put together an entire season in only 2 weeks - which was sheer madness, but I did it and the team rallied around me to make it a reality. This has been amazing and I hope have slowly begun to gain their confidence and trust - as always the proof is in the pudding.

3) Every day is a steep learning curb in year 1: I am not afraid to ask questions and I joined a company with a wealth of experience, so I ask and learn and I can also teach from my 32 years working in the profession, in a range of companies and roles that have given me the confidence to take this new one on.

4) People: getting the right people on board to come on the journey and follow my vision. If they aren't right, they should find another boat to sail, as we need to work together as a tight knit team of committed individuals. It is hard in dance, because it is often not about whether people are great or not, but whether they fit into the new way of working and are open to change and new ways of moving forward. In Antwerp I am really trying to create a strong ensemble of dancers and fortunately inherited a strong base from which to do this, but the technical and production teams and administration are equally critical in making the whole ship sail in the right direction.

5) The joy: there always has to be some! The work of wonderful choreographers performed by incredibly talented dancers and then seeing the audiences's reaction; that makes it all worthwhile and the wonderful enjoyment of programming for both and taking them on a journey - and me too!

Assis Carreiro became Artistic Director of Royal Ballet of Flanders in September, 2012. She was Artistic Director & Chief Executive of England’s DanceEast between 2000 and 2012, where she created Rural Retreats, a series of international think tanks supporting the developing of dance leadership for existing and future artistic directors;  Snape Dances, an international dance series at Snape Maltings; and the National Centre for Choreography. She led DanceEast’s capital project, which in 2009 culminated in the opening of the £9-million Jerwood Dance House on the Ipswich waterfront. During 1998/99, Assis was dance programmer at DasTAT for William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. From 1994-96, she was Director of DanceXchange in Birmingham and went on to work for Wayne McGregor|Random Dance. Prior to moving to the UK in 1994, Assis was Director of Education, Community Outreach and Publications for the National Ballet of Canada.

Estonian National Ballet (Photo: Harri Rospu)

I've been Artistic Director of Estonian National Ballet for nearly four years. I took on this role after being a principal dancer, performing for many years with the English National Ballet. The transition from being a self-contained freelance principal dancer to dealing with, and being responsible for, a company of over 70 people was huge. I had been thinking about how to deal with this over the years, because I knew I wanted to be an Artistic Director one day. A few years ago, I'd taken part in DanceEast's Retreat for future dance company directors and spoken to other colleagues about the role, but nothing really prepares you for the reality.

Lessons leraned?

1. Don't do it for the ego, do it if you like to pass on your knowledge.

2. Teach somebody something and you will learn about yourself and your leadership style.

3. Communication and talking to people is vital - yet you will be overwhelmed with work and find you don't have time to talk to people. Make time, it's essential.

4. Try and be reasonable and fair.

5. Be prepared for long hours and huge demands on your time - but recognise you must find a balance for your life outside work to stay sane.

When I attended DanceEast's Retreat in England this year I had the chance to spend time with 27 other Artistic Directors of dance companies from around the world. We not only shared our challenges and opportunities, but also heard from speakers working in elite sports, psychology and opera. We had lots in common.

Estonia is a small country and every country is facing different challenges, but finance is always the big question. It affects the artistic work we can create, but it can never stop us from creating. Sometimes I think it's a creative opportunity to have your resources squeezed. Lavish production budgets can mean that you throw away the opportunity to express only with the body. That's what it's all about - music and the body.

For me personally, the challenge that concerns me most is dealing with individual artists. I am constantly thinking about how to develop them, not just in the immediate future, but in the long term. Keeping them motivated and fresh can be hard. Dancers are strong and independent and often this characteristic is overlooked because the art form is silent. This isn't something that society easily relates to. Everything is about self-promotion, being interviewed on television, having your voice heard - whilst dance is about showing what you can do, rather than talking about it. Very few dancers will become famous and those who will, will soon after be at the point when they retire from dancing.

Being the Artistic Director of a ballet company means your most important asset is the dancers. You are dealing with people who are striving to achieve something and sometimes they can be misunderstood. All professional dancers are working towards achieving their peak physical performance. It’s very similar to dealing with talent in sport. My challenge as a leader is to show them that if they listen to me they will see themselves dancing better and this is a long term process. As an Artistic Director you have to show results, and when one dancer succeeds, another will follow.

Thomas Edur has been Artistic Director Estonian National Ballet since 2009. Thomas became an acclaimed international ballet star, performing as a principal and guest artist with the world’s leading dance companies, both as a soloist and in a world-renowned partnership with his wife, Agnes Oaks.  He is also a teacher and choreographer with a lifelong commitment to promoting excellence in dance. In 2001, Thomas was presented with the Order of the White Star by the President of the Estonia.  In 2010, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II  appointed him Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), in recognition of his services to the arts in the UK and to the UK-Estonia cultural relations.

My thanks to Caroline Miller for all her help.

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