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No Stone Unturned

Richmond Ballet's founding artistic director marks a milestone — for her and her company.

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Five years after their New York debut, Richmond Ballet dancers will pirouette in the Big Apple once again. Their six-night run at the Joyce Theater begins next week, just as the ballet marks in May the 30th anniversary of Stoner Winslett as the company's founding artistic director.

Three decades is a milestone for any artistic director, but Winslett is a rarity among ballet companies: a female artistic director. That was driven home after a recent New York Times article cited only 9 percent of companies with more than $2 million in annual budgets that are run by female artistic directors (four of 38 companies). It's a surprising statistic for such a female-dominated art form.

Winslett, who presides over a $4.4 million budget, isn't one to rest on her laurels. Instead, she decided to gather some of those female artistic directors, including former George Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell, who runs a company at the Kennedy Center, with a New York Times dance critic as moderator, to discuss the problems of the so-called “Glass-Slipper Ceiling” later this month at Richmond CenterStage.

It's this kind of approach that's kept the Richmond Ballet moving forward during Winslett's reign and continuing to make leaps: becoming the state's official ballet company, raising money for a new building, commissioning new work from young choreographers and starting the Minds in Motion program to bring dance to children. It begs the question: How long will her show go on? We recently asked Winslett that and other questions on the eve of her trip to New York.

Style: What were your proudest moments as artistic director during the last 30 years?

Winslett: There have been so many that they would be hard to enumerate. Every time I see a fourth-grader in our Minds in Motion program stand tall, smile and reach for the sky, I am proud. Every time I pass a School of Richmond Ballet student in class on the second floor concentrating with razor-sharp focus on mastering this centuries-old, beautiful technique of movement called ballet, I am proud. Every time I see our incredible, finely trained group of professional dancers take the stage, whether in Martinsville or New York City, I am proud. I am very lucky to be in a line of work that so feeds my soul.

You have a reputation for being tough. Do you think it's fair?

I think it depends on what you mean by tough. If tough means that I work to achieve and maintain a high standard of excellence for Richmond Ballet [the professional company, the school and the Minds in Motion program], then I suppose I am. The arts world in general — and the dance world in particular — requires a certain toughness if you are to survive and ultimately succeed. On the other hand, it's been a focus of my career to try to provide a sane environment … in which the art and the vision of the organization is the driving factor, not individuals or egos.

Why are there so few female artistic directors in ballet and in the arts? How can it change?

I don't know why there aren't more women in leadership roles, but two ideas come to mind. One is that there so many more girls than boys who dance ballet in the U.S. The boys are often given scholarships, begged to come, made to feel important, et cetera. The girls, on the other hand, are often treated as though they are a dime a dozen. So the girls learn that doing what others say — teachers, ballet masters, et cetera — gets them ahead of the pack. Maybe this serves to stifle leadership. The other is that it is not a job that's easy to pair with raising a family. It's a 24/7 job at times, especially during performance times, when you're in the studio rehearsing the company during the day and at the theater at night. And of course, most performances are on the weekends. How do you reconcile a schedule like that with tending to a sick child or attending high-school basketball games?

Why is it important for the company to perform in New York?

We're going to New York because we have something unique to show. There is plenty of dance there, but nothing like us. We're taking six works created on Richmond Ballet and none of them have been seen in Manhattan before. Close to three-quarters of our dancers have come through our training program associated with the School of Richmond Ballet, which is highly unusual for a company our size. It helps to create a distinctive culture in the organization that shows onstage. 

Have you ever thought about moving on to let someone else put their mark on Richmond Ballet?

All things come to an end and one day I will no longer be here. Whether that will be sooner or later, I don't know. What I do know is that Richmond Ballet is so much bigger than one person and that the company has a life of its own now due to so many good people who have worked so hard sharing a vision for so long. 

What's the next goal you hope to reach with the ballet?

One day in the future, I would love for every single Richmond-area fourth-grader to be exposed to dance through the Minds in Motion program. Those who are interested in or have a talent for dance could then be helped to find training to nurture that talent, but even those who do not choose to pursue dance will have been introduced to dance as a means of expression and will have benefited from the discipline and dedication that are inherent in the art of dance.

I also have a desire that the professional company members would become even more involved than they currently are in mentoring these young people, providing them with role models and real-life examples of people whose success has been built on passion, commitment, tenacity, persistence and other important qualities that help anyone achieve their dreams.

Richmond Ballet performs at the Joyce Theater in New York from April 6-11. Tickets start at $10. Call 212-242-0800 or visit Joyce.org.

“The Glass Slipper Ceiling” is scheduled for April 28 at Richmond CenterStage. The seminar is free but tickets are required. Call 344-0906 ext. 224.

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