The dream came true. That’s what Victoria Morgan, departing artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, wrote on the cement subflooring of the company’s new $35 million studios in Walnut Hills. “It’s covered now, but I know that my signature is right there,” she says. “That was really moving. It’s just phenomenal.”
Morgan has presided over the company for almost 25 years, leading it through a true renaissance. First hired as artistic director in 1997, she took on CEO responsibilities when the company was on unsure footing financially in 2008. Since then, the ballet has returned to solvency, established an endowment, and emerged on the national stage, with tours to Alaska, the Joyce Center in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Morgan flourished in the 2010s, introducing new choreography for the beloved holiday staple The Nutcracker and for the story ballet Cinderella and creating an entirely new ballet, King Arthur’s Camelot, with original choreography, music, costumes, and sets. She returned to exclusive artistic leadership in 2017 with the arrival of Scott Altman, now president and CEO, and together they’ve relocated the company from the West End to Walnut Hills, where the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance opens to the public this month.
The new headquarters has been tailored to suit a growing ballet company’s every need, with 57,000 square feet of space and nine studios, including the 3,650-square-foot Rhonda and Larry A. Sheakley Premier Studio that looks out over downtown Cincinnati. “When I was giving my retirement speech, the one place that really choked me up was describing standing in the Sheakley Studio and looking out to see that skyline of Cincinnati,” says Morgan, who announced her retirement in June. “I was thinking about how the city loves us and has taken care of us. People found a way to make this building possible for us through their generosity and their belief in what this art form can offer and what we can become.”
Cincinnati Ballet also owes much of its recent success to the Otto M. Budig Academy, founded in 1997 to offer ballet training at every level for kids and students from age 2 through 18—including the Professional Training Division for dancers on the cusp of professional careers—as well as adult dance and fitness classes. “We were never really able to accommodate for the impressive growth of our Academy and training programs at Central Parkway and Liberty,” says Altman. “We were maybe 600 families strong there. This building gives us the capacity to triple in size who we serve, just in our dance training.”
The operative word is dance. The new building is intentionally named a “center for dance” to be inclusive of the wide spectrum of dance that exists—and that people pay to participate in. “It’s really to embrace the vocational and avocational opportunities in the art of movement,” says Altman. “We will be able to expand on all of those adult programs, children’s programs, and community interactive programs here.”
The Valentine Center officially opened in August as the company dancers returned from their summer layoff. Altman says plans are being finalized for grand opening festivities the week of September 15, including a block party, a ribbon-cutting, a thank-you gala for donors, and an Academy open house.
The search for a new artistic director kicked off in July, with the goal of having someone designated by spring 2022. Morgan remains on board through July 2022 to ensure a smooth hand-off. “It’s very important to her and to all of us that Vic is able to partner with the new person to introduce her or him to the community and help with that transition,” says Altman.
What performances does an outgoing artistic director pull together for her 25th and final season, the first following a global pandemic? Ones that celebrate her vision and leadership, of course. On the Ballet roster for the 2021-22 season are six shows, including Morgan’s own Camelot and her version of The Nutcracker, which turns 10 this year. And after the final curtain bow? “Cincinnati Ballet will always be near and dear to my heart,” says Morgan. “But you know, I just turned 70. This position is intense, joyous, and passionate, and I can’t even imagine the kinds of things I’m going to be missing. And yet a new life beckons.”
What does that look like? “I want it to still be movement, because movement has always been a part of my life, and I’m thinking it’s movement for people more my age,” she says. “We have great programs set up for practically everyone else, and I’m hoping I can be a part of movement and physicality. With all of these wonderful connections and relationships, I mean, I’m a Cincinnatian now—even though I didn’t go to high school here, which seems to be the general rule for being considered a local. But I feel Cincinnatian.”
Cincinnati Ballet’s new season kicks off with Kaplan New Works (in the Park) September 23–26. Details are here.