In early July, an article in the Toronto Star speculated about the delayed but at that time imminent announcement of a successor to Karen Kain, the esteemed former ballerina who had just stepped down as artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada for 16 years.
The article suggested Tamara Rojo, Guillaume Coté, and Crystal Pite as potential replacements, among others. Hope Muir, whose appointment was announced on July 7th, was not.
“The fact that they hired me and that you have to google is enlightening,” said Muir, 50, the current artistic director of the Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina. “I have a feeling that more people like me who weren’t exactly big stars will end up in these roles, maybe with a slightly different approach to what ballet can be: more diverse, with more access and transparency about what you are are doing. “
Muir’s appointment – she will take on the role on January 1, 2022 – is part of a seismic shift in the ballet world. Over the next two years, Helgi Tomasson of the San Francisco Ballet and Kevin McKenzie of the American Ballet Theater will step down; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will vacate a position at the Royal Ballet of Flanders when he heads the Grand Théâtre de Genève; Christian Spuck will be replaced by Cathy Marston at the Zurich Ballet when he takes over the Berlin State Ballet.
“There’s a new generation of artists,” Muir said in a Charlotte Zoom interview. “You need people who want to talk to them, listen to them and have empathy for their experiences and wishes.”
Muir was born in Toronto, where she began to study ballet, but did not choose to dance professionally until she moved to England with her mother at the age of 15. She joined the newly formed English National Ballet School, then danced with English National Ballet, Rambert and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago before becoming a freelance set designer and ballet master. After a position as deputy artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, she took over from Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at the Charlotte Ballet in 2017.
“I think Hope knew she wanted to be a director when she was five,” said choreographer Helen Pickett, who worked regularly with Muir at the Charlotte Ballet. “She is a liaison and a collector. She sincerely loves the community and has the foresight. She knows that ballet can evolve and she has a beautiful, strong understanding of both classical and contemporary works. “
In a wide-ranging conversation, Muir shared her early self-doubts, her ideas for the National Ballet of Canada, and whether enough is being done in the ballet world to promote diversity and change. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You once said you didn’t want to run a big ballet company. What changed your mind
I don’t think I had confidence in my own experience at the time. I had mostly staged for smaller companies, and when I first applied for a position as artistic director, I didn’t even get an interview. After becoming the assistant artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, I thought, “Wait a minute, I’ve danced in a ballet company, I work in a ballet company, and I shouldn’t limit my options.” After joining Charlotte, I was 100 percent invested in the potential of this company and have turned down some offers.
But as the National Ballet of Canada approached, I paused. I was very aware that this kind of job doesn’t happen very often. I sat there for a while and then thought, why couldn’t I do this? One thing I kept thinking was, “You weren’t a star, you weren’t a prima ballerina? Do you want a big name? ”I thought,“ Well, why don’t I just find out? ”
I think women often worry about their qualifications for a job while men take advantage of their opportunities.
That happened to us women one hundred percent. Men will apply for things they have no experience of; Women make the checklist: do I meet the criteria?
What artistic vision did you present to the selection committee?
There was no vision statement as such. They gave candidates a three year programming exercise that included various anchor ballets that they had to incorporate, as well as ensuring that there were female choreographers, Canadian choreographers, and black, indigenous and colored choreographers on each season. It was a fascinating and very satisfying exercise because if you look at the ballet repertoire you will find that most ballets are choreographed by white men.
There were many other elements in my presentation, but working with young choreographers is very important to me. My nature is to be looked after. I find the greatest satisfaction in the thoughtful development of the artists and in the advancement of the art form. A ballet company today has to lead with stories that connect people and interest them in the classical tradition.
How will your balance between classical and modern be at the National Ballet of Canada?
I think the current balance between classic and modern is good. There are full-length ballets that we’ll keep and relationships with contemporary choreographers like Crystal Pite that I’d like to continue. I would love to work with many people who have come to Charlotte Ballet – Christian Spuck, Helen Pickett, David Dawson, Alonso King. And I have to immerse myself in the Canadian dance scene.
Much has been said about the need for more diversity, more inclusion, more female voices in ballet. Is the change going fast enough?
The conversation has started, but there is still much to be done. The changes must be well thought out, measured and permanent.
You need to provide people with open-minded opportunities at the right time in their careers. I think about commissioning smaller works first and asking people to come and hang out while other work is done because the culture and practices of a large ballet company can be intimidating. Then there are amazing people like Alonso King who should be recognized as trailblazers.
More work could be done in education to encourage girls to develop their individual voice. I started a choreographic lab here in Charlotte that runs year round, and that’s what I want to do in Toronto. When an opportunity presents itself in the year, women are often too exhausted because they dance more. This way they can move in and out.
I am delighted with all of these ideas and for my colleagues and friends who are also taking on director posts. Sometimes we get together and say, “Will someone come in and tell us this is not real?”