Wendy Whelan and Jonathan Stafford Were Just Announced As NYCB's New Leaders -- And That's A Big Deal

by Michael Mahany | 3/1/2019 7:05 PM

Wendy Whelan and Jonathan Stafford, New York City Ballet’s new associate artistic director and artistic director, respectively. Photo credit: Christopher Lane/Getty Images

In the male-dominated world of professional ballet, the newly announced positioning of Wendy Whelan as New York City Ballet’s new associate artistic director is an enormous deal. 

The declaration has raised a few questions within the dance community, however, specifically regarding the Ballet's commitment to moving forward progressively.

The announcement reportedly came in a Thursday meeting with the current company of NYCB. The statement proclaimed that both Whelan, one of the brightest stars in New York City Ballet’s storied history, and Jonathan Stafford — another former NYCB dancer who performed with the company from 1998 to 2014 — would be taking over the artistic leadership of the famed institution. The revelation also stated that Stafford would serve as Artistic Director while Whelan would serve as his associate. 

Stafford has been a part of the four-person interim leadership team at City Ballet since the sudden 2018 retirement of former Ballet Master in Chief and artistic director Peter Martins who left after allegations of abuse were lodged against him. Martins has denied the allegations.

MORE: Peter Martins’ Departure From New York City Ballet: The Game-Changing Moment In Ballet

With Stafford’s title technically above Whelan’s though, many have questioned why the decision to name new male ‘artistic director’ and a female ‘associate artistic director’ instead of ‘co-artistic directors’ was made. In the era of #MeToo — and in a time when the still healing company, recently dogged with issues of verbal, physical, and even sexual assault allegations — some are asking why those in charge would place the sole forward direction of the company in the hands of a man. 

It should be also be noted that Stafford was at the helm of the team leading NYCB when former SAB dancer Alexandra Waterbury alleged that a donor and three male principal dancers shared sexually explicit photos of her. Chase Findlay, the former principal who was alleged to have taken the photos, stepped down from the company, while former principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro were suspended and ultimately fired after an internal investigation.

Wendy Whelan’s farewell performance. Photo credit: Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Wendy Whelan, one of the most celebrated dancers to have come from the esteemed dance company, has long been thought of as a top-tiered candidate to run the institution. Since the announcement, however, many have expressed resentment that she was not at least announced an equal to Stafford. 

The notion that New York City Ballet was seemingly reluctant to fully empower Whelan, has caused many to suggest that the culture at the Ballet has not yet completely changed. According to The New York Times' reporting, Lauren Wingenroth of Dance magazine wrote, “The set-up begs the question: If the two leaders will truly be ‘partners,’ why are they not co-artistic directors? Considering the company’s recent scandals — and the troubling historical gender dynamics of the company — the arrangement sits just a bit uncomfortable.”

Whelan began her professional training at NYCB’s School Of American Ballet in 1983, went on to both dance and help create countless works by a multitude of artistic geniuses over a 30-year career, and by the time she retired in 2014 had become one of City Ballet’s most recognizable faces. The sheer expanse and breadth of her experience are unheard of in a ballet career while her entrepreneurial and unbreakable spirit, as witnessed in her documentary film Restless Creature, proves her undeniable ability to lead.

MORE: Watch Dance Network’s Exclusive Sit Down With Wendy Whelan

Stafford, as previously mentioned, did serve on the interim leadership team after Martin’s vacancy and worked as NYCB's primary artistic liaison with SAB. He was also named a Ballet Master in 2014 after his retirement from dancing with the company, and he recently graduated summa cum laude from Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies with a Bachelors Degree in Organizational Leadership.

Jonathan Stafford and Ashley Bouder dancing ‘Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto’ at New York City Ballet. Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

Both newly announced leaders are incredibly qualified, and it’s certainly understandable how the company ultimately narrowed its decision down to the two former dancers— especially after the reportedly tedious and long search that involved interviewing over 200 dance world experts to determine the merits under which the new leadership should be expected to perform. 

And while the New York Times reported that the duo separately expressed their interest in working with each other in their initial artistic director interviews, the situations begs to know why, technically, it was deemed Stafford over Whelan and not Stafford and Whelan.

“We both will really be working on the cultural elements of the company,” Stafford said during a joint interview with Whelan, according to the Times’ interview. “We agree on dancer development, dancer enrichment, making sure we are providing a safe space for them to really thrive as artists and as people, not just in the theater but in their personal lives as well.”

MORE: Why It’s A Big Deal That New York City Ballet Just Announced Promotions

It was reported that the two new leaders expect to work as a team and that they will each focus on areas in which they feel they’ll most benefit the company 

How will the new leadership work out? Will the structured hierarchy of leadership help avoid the problems of previous co-artistic directors like the difficult relationship of Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins? Or, will individual talents of the two shine together to help City Ballet find its place atop the fine arts world once again? Only time will tell. One thing to keep an eye out for: will any lingering sense of sexism in an already bruised institution, prohibit the ultimate growth potential of one of the world's most amazing collection of talent?

We’ll see.

Dance Network's recent interview with New York City Ballet star, Tiler Peck. 

Michael Mahany serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. He is also a professional actor, musician, dancer, and writer. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or click here to find out more.