The short term plan: five years at the top for ballet’s administration bosses

With the announcement this week that the Australian Ballet’s executive director, Valerie Wilder, will leave the company at the end of her five year contract next June, I recalled her words in mid September when I interviewed her for an article on ballet companies’ artistic directors and their business relationships with their chief executives.

Wilder said she was impressed by the relative longevity of artistic directors in comparison with that of chief executives, whose tenure seemed to last around five years.

“Executive directors”, she said, “seem to move a bit more frequently [than artistic directors] and I’ve talked to some colleagues and they say ‘I’ve never planned to stay more than five years’. It’s a business reality”.

It was a business reality for her predecessor, Richard Evans, whose strategy was to spend no longer than five years with any one company.

He was general manager for five years at Bell Shakespeare Company, executive director for five years at the Australian Ballet, and chief executive for four years and two months at the Sydney Opera House, before joining BridgeClimb as managing director in March this year.

Wilder spent just over five years as executive director of the Boston Ballet before moving to Australia.

Nevertheless, Wilder is not a typical five-year-only executive. She spent 30 years at the National Ballet of Canada, first as a dancer (having graduated from the Royal Ballet School in London in the 1960s, the days of Beatlemania and Nureyev-mania). She went on to become co-artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada and finally executive director.

Very few people in any profession now remain in one place for that length of time.

I don’t expect we will see again a man like Noel Pelly who in 1961, as a publicist for the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, (which administered the Australian Ballet in the 60s), wrote the press release announcing the formation of the Australian Ballet company.

He went on to become publicist for the Australian Ballet, deputy administrator of the company, and then, from 1983 to 1991, the administrator.

As deputy administrator, Pelly worked with Peter Bahen, the company’s administrator from 1966 to 1983.

In Bahen’s day, the various artistic directors reported to him, a chain of command abandoned when Maina Gielgud was appointed artistic director in 1983.

Other long serving administrators in ballet companies include Anthony Russell-Roberts, administrative director at the Royal Ballet, London, from 1983 to early 2009, when he was succeeded by Kevin O’Hare, who was recently appointed artistic director of that company.

Present day administration stayers include Rachel Moore, chief executive officer of American Ballet Theatre for over eight years.

Moore was a ballet dancer, as were O’Hare, Wilder, and Amanda Skoog, the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s managing director for the past six years.

The Australian Ballet board has eight months to find Wilder’s successor. It will be interesting to see if his or her CV lists “dancer” among their past careers.

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Valerie Wilder, photo © James Braund

Noel Pelly in 1988, photo © Earl Carter