Ballet CEO living big 'Dream'

Ballet CEO living big 'Dream'

By David Lyman • Enquirer contributor • February 6, 2011

It was a momentous decision. In 2008, Victoria Morgan added the role of CEO to her position as artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet. It was a testament to her abilities. But it carried with it a considerable increase in responsibilities. From that point, she was in charge of everything from repertoire to budget.

The most immediate impact was that Morgan, accustomed to spending a sizable chunk of her day working face to face with her dancers, largely disappeared from the rehearsal studio. Most of the day-to-day responsibility for what appeared onstage fell to associate artistic director Devon Carney and principal ballet mistress Johanna Bernstein Wilt.

But all that had to change when Morgan decided to schedule her version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as part of the current ballet season. The production opens at the Aronoff on Friday.

For much of the past month, Morgan has been in the studio six hours a day. She's had to lengthen her workday - now 14-15 hours a day - and shift many of her responsibilities onto managing director Missie Santomo.

The decision has been equally huge for the company's dancers.

"When Victoria is in the room, everyone is a little nervous," says dancer James Cunningham, who joined the company in 2008. The fretting is understandable. Though Carney and Wilt's opinions carry great weight, Morgan is the ultimate authority on everything from who gets the best roles to whose contract is renewed.

"It's not that people fear her," says Cunningham, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati's dance program last year. "In fact, she's incredibly helpful. She's the one who has created the style and philosophy of the company. It's that you really want to look your best when she is there."

For her part, Morgan downplays her effect.

"I guess it's human nature for them to feel that way," says Morgan. "But the truth is, I love being there with them. They have such great energy. They're really a great influence on me."

Sarah Hairston, recently promoted to principal dancer, joined the company in 2001 and has fond memories of the years when Morgan spent more time in the studio.

"It was always obvious that she loved working in the studio" says Hairston. "She's a dancer herself. That's why she's in this business - to be around dance. I think it must be hard on her when she can't be with the dancers."

She understands the anxiety of her colleagues who haven't had lots of time in the studio with Morgan.

"It must be nerve-wracking for them. They know that these occasions don't come along all the time. They must feel pressure to be perfect every time."

The dancers probably aren't aware of it, but there is a measure of pressure that Morgan herself feels.

"Choreographing is like anything else - if you haven't done it for a while, you feel a little rusty when you go back to it. I'll tell you, there's no pressure like standing in a rehearsal studio for six hours and having 30 dancers looking at you every minute thinking 'what next.' And there's no one to make that decision but you."

Of course, Morgan has brought some of that burden on herself. Though the company has performed this production before, Morgan decided to make some huge changes to the ballet. She's altered scenes, added characters, changed choreography and, most radically, added a pair of actors from the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company who will insert bits of Shakespeare's script into the production.

"In some ways, it's been like doing a whole new ballet," says Morgan. "I know I could have left it as it was. But for me, when I revisit something that's several years old, I see ways I could make it better and clearer. And so that's what I'm doing. It's more work. But I think the audience will really love the changes."

E-mail davidlyman@gmail.com