Stoner Winslett jokes that she must be no good at her job because she’s never had a promotion. As founding artistic director of Richmond Ballet she started at the top, although that company bore little resemblance to the one she heads today.
Arriving in 1980 to take over a small student company that used guest soloists, she was made artistic director by the end of the year. She was 21, a former dancer forced to stop because of injury. She was not only one of the youngest artistic directors in the country, but also one of few women in the position. Four years later, she and the ballet’s board took the company professional, and in 1990, Gov. Doug Wilder made it the state ballet of Virginia.
In another era, her 35-year tenure and list of accomplishments might have garnered a gold watch. Staying in one job for decades is so 20th century. But Winslett is an exemplar of the 21st-century woman, carefully balancing career and family.
“You can’t have it all,” she says, “so you have to make some very hard choices.”
Part of her role as artistic director had been choreographing. But the time-consuming and demanding nature of the work became challenging once she had children.
“When you choreograph, it’s not like painting a picture. You can’t stop, come back and expect a ballet to be just where you left it,” she says. “You don’t know where it’ll end up and you can’t do that with an infant at home.”
But the ballet had the resources to commission new works by others for the company, so she sought out promising young choreographers to nurture and develop.
Local balletomanes likely would agree that her most significant work is “Windows,” originally choreographed in 1990 as three acts and again in 1999 as four, each providing a window into various styles of culture from which ballet developed. The score uses variations on the theme from Niccolò Paganini’s 24th caprice for violin by Johannes Brahms, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Boris Blacher and Virginia native Jonathan Romeo.
“Windows” will be performed this month in celebration of Winslett’s 35th anniversary, along with George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” as part of the company’s three-show residency with the Richmond Symphony at the Carpenter Theatre.
“This piece is so special to me because as a culture, we have to keep a reverence for the past,” Winslett says. “We need to hear the wisdom of the elders. It’s what we leave behind, the arts, that will tell future generations who we were and how we felt.”
In the fourth section, the lead couple comes flying in from the sides, representing the heroes of the past, and ends with hope for the future, both key points for the choreographer.
“I hope someone does a ‘Windows 5, 6 and 7,’ she says, “because we have to keep looking backwards and forward simultaneously.”
Winslett is still one of only four women artistic director of major companies, with no intention of slowing down, especially now that her youngest child is older. She’s discussed successors with the board, and it’s her hope the right person eventually reveals him or herself. If that person showed up tomorrow she’d step aside, she says, though she wants to work for years to come. A recurring question is if she’d prefer a position in a bigger city.
“The Richmond Ballet is this little seed I’ve been watering all these years,” she says. “No, this is it. I’m a family director, not a director for hire, and there’s a huge difference.”
At heart, she’s still a dancer sidelined by injury.
“I still miss moving across the floor and taking up space,” she says. “That feeling of taking space, covering space? I miss that all the time.” S
Richmond Ballet’s “Four Temperaments” and “Windows” run Nov. 7-8 at Carpenter Theatre, 600 E. Grace St. Call 344-0906 or visit richmondballet.com.