American Ballet Theater once again has a woman in the lead

Susan Jaffe‘s trajectory at the American Ballet Theater almost looks like a movie. As a teenager, he joined the company that featured the biggest stars of Western dance at the time: Natalia Makarova, Fernando Bujones, Marianne Tcherkassky, Cynthia Gregory, Gelsey Kirkland, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others. At the time, Gelsey and Baryshnikov’s troubled relationship was already on the wane, and by 1980 he had accumulated the roles of principal and artistic director for the company.

In the company’s 1980 season of Le CorsaireGelsey Kirkland and Patrick Bissell dealt with indiscipline (and drug) problems and were fired hours before the curtain went up. Baryshnikov did not hesitate, he looked at the 18-year-old girl and elected her for a difficult pas-de-deux with the new star of the house, Alexander Godunov. She still tried to dodge, “I’m not ready”, she claimed. “You will be,” he replied confidently. It was a sensational debut and she was considered fearless. From there on, there were solos and solos until reaching the prima ballerina. Some critics considered the rise too rapid, in just 3 years it hit the ceiling, and in the 1990s some found it unchallenged. “The remarkable aspect of Jaffe’s story after her first decade at the Ballet Theater is in the artistic advancement she achieved in her second,” said The New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff. And the secret was her partnership with José Manuel Carreño, her partner until her retirement in 2002. It was with him that I saw her dance in Rio de Janeiro, in 1997.

When she left the stage, Susan served on the ABT board and went on to teach at the newly formed ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She was currently the director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, which she led during the pandemic, and prior to that was dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her managerial experience, along with her artistic skills and her knowledge of the company, made her the ideal candidate to replace Kevin McKenzie, who spent 30 years in the position.

“We were looking for someone who understood the company’s roots but was forward-looking,” said Susan Fales-Hill, head of the Ballet Theater search committee for the NYT, “willing to embrace dance in different ways, such as pandemic has shown us that it can happen, and being willing to ask questions and have the interest in conversations that are happening right now. Susan had it all.”

The name of Susan Jaffe places her in a privileged position of prominence in the midst of ballet, something still unusual for women, but traditional in the American Ballet Theater that was led for many years by Lucia Chase, the company’s founder. For Fales-Hill, Susan Jaffe is a double asset. “I’m thrilled to see a woman who is truly in her prime take the stage.” So do we!

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