When the stars are in alignment – or not: how a ballet company needs a three point balance of power

Li Cunxin, the acclaimed dancer and best-selling author, has enjoyed many red letter days. But last Friday was right up there among them.

In his role as artistic director-designate of the Queensland Ballet he unveiled his first season, marking not only his move back into the dance world after more than a decade as a stockbroker, but also a major transition for the company he will lead for at least four years and, all going well, for a decade.

But Li’s appointment encapsulates another story, one that is becoming increasingly common if less known than his own. It’s the story of what happens when the delicate balance of power between an arts organisation’s artistic director, its chief executive and its board falls apart.

Li is replacing Frenchman Francois Klaus, 64, who has been in the role since 1998 when he and his wife and artistic associate, Robyn White, moved to Brisbane from Europe where he had been a dancer, choreographer and artistic director in Germany and Switzerland.

The trigger for his eventual departure was a gradual unravelling of his relationship with the Queensland Ballet’s chairwoman, Liberal Party stalwart Joan Sheldon, who became a member of the board in 2004, the same year she ended her career as a member of Queensland Parliament.

Her predecessor, as long-term president, was former dance teacher Lynette Denny, who left the board in 2009. Soon after Klaus’s arrival, Judith Anderson became the company’s general manager. The three worked harmoniously together, the repertoire centring on Klaus’s choreographic works.

But in October 2010 Anderson retired, to be replaced by Anna Marsden. The changes left Klaus vulnerable. It is no secret in Brisbane that Sheldon and Klaus were incompatible and did not share the same views on the artistic director’s role. Klaus is a more introverted artistic creature than corporate player.

He spent little time schmoozing the top end of town for corporate funding, ultimately to the board’s dissatisfaction. Li is unlikely to follow suit, given his business background, which includes raising money to fund the movie version of his book Mao’s Last Dancer.

Indeed, his unique combination of skills is likely to be extremely useful in terms of charming the dollars from the corporate sector, a major advantage for a company with a 2013 operating budget of only $5.5 million, which will need private funds to move from Klaus’s choreographer-led company to Li’s curatorial artistic director model.

Last year Sheldon announced that Klaus would quit at the end of 2013 and thanked him for his “remarkable contribution”, adding that “all arts companies constantly need to rejuvenate in order to remain relevant for their audiences”.

But instead of remaining until the end of 2013 Klaus will depart this year. Speaking from Prague this week, he told the Weekend Financial Review he had come to terms with the end of his artistic directorship, given that it might lead to a resumption of his former international career.

It is a story with parallels this year in Europe – from the English National Ballet to the Royal Ballet of Flanders – and the US, where the founder and artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, Edward Villella, was given his notice a year ago by the board. Instead, Villella departed this month.

While he said that was his choice, he had become a lame duck, the sort of position Maina Gielgud found herself in when she was given notice by the Australian Ballet board two years before she departed in 1996.

Choosing and changing the creative head is a dance company board’s most challenging role.

The big question is always how long is too long? In Brisbane, Klaus enjoyed 15 years as artistic director, which could be argued was long enough. There is often a tripwire awaiting artistic directors after 15 years in the role.

Barry Moreland was at the West Australian Ballet for 14 years by the time the board decided it was time for a change in 1997. Three artistic directors followed in a decade before the appointment of the incumbent, Ivan Cavalleri, who is leaving in December after only five years, to be succeeded by Aurelien Scannella.

In the Australian Ballet’s first 15 years the board ousted three artistic directors, but the incumbent, David McAllister, has served close to 12 years, with two more to come under his present contract.

Last year, the company’s chairman Chris Knoblanche told McAllister that “I wasn’t allowed to say that [2014] was the end”. He might well be artistic director until 2017-18.

“It’s very difficult to be at the helm of a creative organisation for a very long time”, Li says.

“Ten years is a really good time. If you can’t realise your artistic vision within 10 years I think most likely you never will.”

For a board, he says engineering change is “always a difficult situation”.

“It requires incredible strength and integrity to make the right decision. Also, the board grows to be emotionally attached to the artistic director. It’s natural”.

The Australian Ballet chief executive Valerie Wilder knows how tough that call can be, having seen the process up close as co-artistic director, then chief executive, of the National Ballet of Canada, then chief executive at Boston Ballet.

The decision is more difficult for a board that “doesn’t have a diverse membership and doesn’t have some artistic voices on it”, she says.

“Then there have to be other ways of looking at the picture, whether that’s audience response, reviews, or external validations.”

The board might also rely on the views of their chief executive, whose job is now on a par with that of artistic director, which can in itself cause conflicts as commercial concerns jostle with risk-taking.

At the Australian Ballet, Wilder is clear: “My role is to enable another vision, not my vision,” she says. “I wouldn’t say ‘no, you can’t do that’. I see myself as a sounding board”.

Right now, the stars appear to have aligned at the Queensland Ballet. The company’s 2013 program includes three productions of full evening ballets, Giselle, Nutcracker and Cinderella, the last choreographed by Li’s former mentor at the Houston Ballet, Ben Stevenson. Li is already working long hours in preparation.

To him any arts board has to be confident enough to place “trust and faith in the artistic vision the artistic director is going to create…and not place a lot of restrictions around the artistic director’s freedom”.

As he says: “The artistic world is very different to the business world”.

This article first appeared in The Weekend Financial Review on September 29-30, 2012

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Queensland Ballet principal dancer, Rachael Walsh, photo © Photo Alexia Sinclair

Li Cunxin with principals and soloists at Queensland Ballet, photo © Alexia Sinclair