Cincinnati Ballet has undergone major changes during the pandemic’s two-plus years of turmoil. Artistic Director Victoria Morgan retires this summer after 25 years, less than a year after the $30 million Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance opened in Walnut Hills. Jodie Gates, founding director of the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California and founder and artistic director of the Laguna Dance Festival, will become artistic director August 1.
Morgan’s final Cincinnati Ballet season wraps up with the annual Bold Moves Festival May 12–22 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, though her creative fingerprints are all over the recently announced 2022–2023 season. Gates was in town recently and spoke about Morgan, the company, and her move to Cincinnati.
You have been in the dance world for more than 40 years. Your résumé includes every position except artistic director of a major company. Why is this job the right one?
Being a founder and a founding director takes a lot of energy. I was learning on the job. After doing that twice, I’m excited to come into an environment that has a strong foundation, a strong support staff, and is artistically embedded in the community. It has a healthy budget [more than $11 million this season] and really smart people, from the dancers to the artistic and administrative staff. It’s a luxury to come into this situation.
You’ve worked around the world as a dancer, a choreographer, an administrator, and an educator. Is there one moment or event that was transformative?
I have so many, from dancing Juliet at Lincoln Center to hosting Mikhail Baryshnikov at USC’s commencement to the 10th anniversary of the Laguna Dance Festival to working with Prince at the Joffrey Ballet to being coached by Agnes de Mille. I’ve been very fortunate, but I also worked my tail off. I feel like the Cincinnati Ballet position is a natural progression, so I now have a platform to create change. When I applied here, it just seemed like the natural next step for me.
Victoria Morgan, who rebuilt an organization that was in disarray, has been a singular figure in Cincinnati for a quarter century. What is the challenge of succeeding her?
Victoria did a brilliant, brilliant job of rebuilding the company. My goal is to build on what we have, and I’m up for those challenges. Children are the future. That’s why I asked to be artistic director of the Otto M. Budig Academy as well. Those young people, those teenagers, those trainees, and those second-company dancers are the future, and I hope they’ll become stars of tomorrow. I believe that with my knowledge base I can build a curriculum that’s forward-thinking. I want to build hybrid artists who can not only do Swan Lake but also get groovy.
You received a fellowship from New York University last year that recognized your work addressing systemic racism and inequities in ballet culture. What does that look like in the real world?
I am passionate about reaching out to the community so that we’re not looked upon as the castle on the hill. Ballet can be considered elitist, so my goal is to demystify it as an art form. That means access. I know we’re already bringing ballet to the community through the CincyDance program with Cincinnati Public Schools, so I want to analyze it and see the impact now that we’re actually able to go out again post-pandemic.
You have spent most of your career on the coasts in New York and California. Did you ever think you’d live in the Midwest?
I was here for three weeks in 2013 when Victoria brought me in for a program. I got to know the town a little bit then, although not much. I did spend quite a bit of time in Chicago when the Joffrey Ballet was moving there from New York in 1995. I’m familiar with the Midwest and excited to get to know my new home.
You lived in Southern California for years before accepting your new job in January. Who were you rooting for in the Super Bowl?
My answer is I was rooting for the winner [laughs]. I was the only Bengals fan at the party I attended. It was interesting because there was so much respect for the Bengals from the people there. It was really a great game. I love football. To me, it’s an art form in itself. If you watch closely, you see the patterns and choreography of the plays. I’m excited to be part of a community that is a winner, whatever a winner means.