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Jodie Gates, Changemaker

She’s been a principal ballerina in companies that include the Joffrey Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, as well as a principal guest artist with companies around the world such as the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. From 2006-2013, she was a tenured professor of dance at UC Irvine, and in 2013 she was named the first Vice Dean and Director of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. In addition, in 2006, she was the founder and artistic director of the Laguna Dance Festival. But Jodie Gates has never been an artistic director of a dance troupe—until now, that is.

Jodie Gates. Photograph by Hiromi Platt

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After being announced as Cincinnati Ballet’s new artistic director, Gates began her tenure at the company in August of last year, succeeding Victoria Morgan, who helmed the troupe for 25 years. Moving 2,000 miles away from her home in Laguna Beach to the often blustery climes of Southeastern Ohio, Gates, whose career can be called nothing less than illustrious, has also created more than 60 original dance works, having been commissioned by dozens of dance companies, television ad campaigns and academic institutions.

Indeed, Gates’ work has been performed at the Kennedy Center, New York’s City Center Theater and at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, among numerous other venues and festivals. Her ballets have been called “visually compelling, powerful, beautiful . . . ” by the Philadelphia Inquirer and, “richly textured and profound” by the Orange County Register.

The director, whose honors include the 2021-22 Residency Fellowship from the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, and was a recipient of the esteemed Jerome Robbins New Essential Works program, has also been an artistic collaborator with choreographer William Forsythe. Regularly staging ballets around the world for Forsythe Productions, the multi-hyphenate has taught and coached productions at the Paris Opera Ballet, Scottish Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, to name a few.

As a performer, Sacramento, CA-born Gates danced title roles in classics such as Juliet in “Romeo & Juliet,” “Giselle” and Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” as well as principal roles in the neo-classical repertory by George Balanchine. Gates’ performances of contemporary works include those by Alvin Ailey, Sir Frederick Ashton and many more, while her collaborations include those working with the late musical artist Prince in the Joffrey’s production, “Billboards,” and teaming up with jazz great Ornette Coleman and tapper extraordinaire Savion Glover at the Cologne Music Festival.

I had a chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy Gates by phone from Cincinnati, where she was in the midst of preparing the company for a nine-performance run of Septime Webre’s “Alice (In Wonderland).” This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Jodie Gates in “Billboards” by Joffrey Ballet. Photograph by Herb Migdoll

When did you first know that you wanted to be a ballerina?

Like every young female body, I dreamt of being a dancer, and at the age of seven, I started training, along with gymnastics, skating and studying the violin. My mother was a single parent and she was trying to figure out what to do with me. I narrowed it down, because I wasn’t a good violinist, the ice was cold and slippery and gymnastics [meant] the balance beam, so I thought, “This dance business looks appealing.” I knew at the age of 12, that somehow ballet was not only transformative for me, but I also felt I like I could speak through it.

After achieving success in so many dance-related fields, including having been the founding director of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, how did the Cincinnati Ballet appointment come about? Did you feel that was the one area you wanted/needed to explore?

When we graduated the first class at USC Kaufman [in 2019]—and what an accomplishment and a heavy lift that was for everyone—it was rewarding for me, and I realized I was good at facilitating collaboration, change, starting or launching organizations. So, during Covid, I was still at USC and it was tough trying to navigate and how to teach and deliver degrees when we couldn’t meet in person. We were pivoting every other day, so it was also during that time that I was questioning where I could continue to be of service to the field.

I’d done about every position one can think of in ballet: I was a choreographer, dancer, curator, festival producer, Vice Dean, a stager for Forsythe pieces. At this season of my life, it felt like the right direction for me. Frankly, I wasn’t looking for it, because we were starting to come back into the work place, the physical space at USC, but I started to receive emails from recruiters and scouts [including Cincinnati Ballet].

It was a moment I thought that I could start to go through a process, a quick process, when I became more familiar with the organization and history and potential of what was already here [in Cincinnati], and I started to dream. [Teacher/dancer] Stephanie Powell had something to say that I use often, at least I think it comes from her—“If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” I thought that this was a moment, so I applied and everybody was so kind.

As I said, it happened quite quickly, then I was announced in January, 2022. I do feel like it’s an extension of everything I’ve done since I was a child in the business of ballet. How fortunate I am to do what I love in so many different ways. I feel as though I have a very good perspective on the art form.

It’s wonderful and I’m really very excited about next season, because this [already-programmed] season I have the opportunity to observe, to listen, to learn further about the organization and goal settings. I’m here to make great art happen. We did a soft launch announcing the next season six weeks ago and people seem very excited about it.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “As the Wind Blows” by Amy Hall Garner. Photograph by Danica Paulos, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

People are also very excited about the Laguna Dance Festival, which takes place February 24-26, and you’re presenting—no surprise—Cincinnati Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. What was the impetus to found the festival and how has it grown since its inception?

In 2005 I moved to Southern California from Frankfurt [Ballet] upon returning from the stage. I had friends that lived there and they invited me to stay with them. I had just retired and wasn’t sure what I was going to do. At that time, I was busy choreographing my own work, as well as staging for Bill [Forsythe]. When I was in Laguna, there was this culture of supporting the arts—the visual history, the Pageant [of the Masters, an annual staging of tableaux vivants as part of the Festival of Arts], but there was no dance.

Ballet Pacifica had started decades ago, but had moved to Irvine. I started a non-profit thinking maybe this suits the community. We’ve expanded programming; we have a summer intensive; we raise money to award scholarships to young dancers, whether for college tuition, or the training. I’m proud that the organization and board continues to support that.

Cincinnati Ballet will be performing Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close,” a pas de deux from “Don Quixote,” an excerpt from Forsythe’s “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated,” and Andrea Schermoly’s “Swivet.”

I’m only bringing 17 dancers from Cincinnati. I can’t bring the whole company, because I just got here. But I proposed it to the board, and since we haven’t toured in a while, they said, “We’d like to support this.” Basically, I wanted to bring small pieces of repertory that will fit into the stage that I think will showcase the company.

Andrea Schermoly is really gifted and they’d just performed “Swivet” during Covid. I am in the middle of teaching Bill’s “In the Middle,” and I’m bringing the final 10 minutes. Our premiere here in June is of the whole work. It’s a swift program [in Laguna], and it will showcase the type of dance we do—earthy, organic, contemporary works nestled with an iconic ballet piece, the Act III “Don Q” pas de deux. We have the dancers for this program and I’m excited about introducing both organizations to each other and having the ability to take that on and do it so quickly.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “As the Wind Blows” by Amy Hall Garner. Photograph by Danica Paulos, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago will perform a contemporary repertory that includes, “As the Wind Blows,” by Amy Hall Garner, Kyle Abraham’s “The Bystander,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas” by Spenser Theberge, and two other works.

Linda [Denise Fisher-Harrell, Artistic Director] and I are new female leaders within the dance company national circuit. I contacted her and said, “I don’t know if you’re touring, but since [you’re] at the Joyce before coming to Laguna, it will work.” They’re bringing a stellar repertory and I’m very excited about seeing them. The [Laguna] Playhouse has been a good home for these performances. It’s intimate, yet it has a really nice professional and warm environment—and it showcases the dancers.

Obviously, the challenges in producing an annual festival are monetary, but what have some of the highlights been over the years?

The funding has been difficult in Orange County and within the community. To be a non-profit that delivers great art but can sustain an economy that fluctuates is hard. In general, corporate sponsorships are more difficult, [so] we’ve leaned on our patrons and individual giving. The mission is incredibly valuable, and I do feel that the festival—it’s been 17 years—is speaking to the community, and I’m very grateful that the organization is continuing to thrive.

Funding resources are always the dictators of what we can do, but the vision we have set forth [continues], and in the festival there have been many highlights. Having Misty Copeland come and do a book signing before she exploded onto the scene [was exciting]. Complexions [Contemporary Ballet], they were our first company.

Seeing [San Francisco Ballet’s] Tina LeBlanc dance, ABT II, when they were performing—and now seeing those dancers are principals in other companies is gratifying. Parsons [Dance Company], [Victor Quijada’s] Rubberband dance also performed. And we’ve also had so many wonderful teachers to teach master classes, and have had special gala events.

Indeed, there’ve been many boldfaced names populating the festival!

Patrick Swayze came our first year to bless the festival. Debbie Allen came to see Complexions, because she’s close with Desmond [Richardson] and Dwight [Rhoden]. To have her support and her blessing was really special; it is really special. I can say that I’m proud of the organization, and to bring these two entities together now—Cincinnati Ballet and Hubbard Street—I’m super grateful.

Jodie Gates in “Approximate Sonata” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Ian Carney

And people are grateful that you’ve been staging Forsythe’s ballets around the world. Can you talk about your relationship with Bill and what’s it like to stage his ballets?

I first met Bill in New York City when he came to stage a piece on the Joffrey. It was “Love Songs,” and that piece was on PBS [in 1989]. I was 18 years old and he came to stage and cast it, and chose me to dance it. That was when Lynn Seymour was doing “Five [Waltzes] in the Manner of [Isadora Duncan] by [Frederick] Ashton and she chose me. I came out of the second company, Joffrey 2.

Between those two works in two seasons, that’s what launched my career. Fast forward 15 years and I was in Pennsylvania Ballet, and since I had reconnected with Bill over the years, I realized that I wanted more. I’d never lived in Europe and worked for one choreographer who was also an artistic director [although Robert] Joffrey was still creating works. At Pennsylvania Ballet, now Philadelphia Ballet, Roy Kaiser was the director, but he was not a choreographer.

With Bill, it was solely his work with his company in Frankfurt. He offered me a contract, I took it and moved to Germany. I discovered that this was a wonderful time to live and work in Europe, and how lucky I was to watch him create. I went to him and said, “I’d love to learn—to sit beside you, if I’m not in it—for the next creation.” That’s what happened and I asked could I stage his works.

I staged a version of “Artifact Suite” for Scottish ballet. It was an undertaking, but I loved being the individual that could represent his work, his vision, his movement invention—all the things that make his works compelling—the musicality, the way to find in each dance an artist. My relationship with him is we’re almost like brother and sister. I have such respect for him and care deeply about his legacy, as well. I hope to pass it on and pay it forward.

You’ve programmed Cincinnati Ballet’s 2023-24 season, its 60th anniversary, and it looks bold, diverse and exciting. In addition to presenting Victoria Morgan’s “Nutcracker,” the season not only includes four world premieres—Tiler Peck, Houston Thomas, Rena Butler and Peter Chu—but you also conceived and collaborated with Gonzalo Garcia and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa on a “Don Quixote” after Petipa and Alexander Gorsky.

For me, the “Don Q” version we’re doing, even though we’re renting costumes, and using the Minkus music, Edith Grossman has the most recent translation of “Don Q” and she dug very deep into the characters. He doesn’t have to be a bumbling idiot. He can be whimsical without being slapstick.

What can you tell me about, “The Sleeping Beauty (The Untold Story)?

It’s for our family series, and I’m working with two other individuals, Suzette Boyer Webb and Carolyn Guido Clifford. We’re telling it in one act; it’s 50 minutes with narration. It’s a Sleeping Beauty that’s about her superpowers, because it’s time to start to empower her. Maybe Aurora wasn’t just falling asleep and gets kissed. We can have fun with that. She knows the curse is going to happen and she can go to the forest and have more courage. We’ve storyboarded that.

And the as-yet-untitled Rena Butler work?

There’s a really interesting collaboration with Rena. I paired her with Asha Ama Bias-Daniels, a local fashion designer who’s also designing [costumes for] Lizzo’s world tour. She’s from Cincinnati and has her own line. I’m really excited about those types of collaborations, where I can bring people together.

Cincinnati Ballet. Photograph by Hiromi Platt

You’re still choreographing, and have programmed your own work, “Mercurial Landscapes,” for Cincinnati, which Ballet West will also do next year. That brings up the question: What advice do you give aspiring choreographers?

My advice is to trust in your instincts and take risks—to stand true to your ideas, in other words. Often, we collapse into what people want to see, when, in fact, it’s okay to be different—to dare to be different. We’re all happily influenced by choreographers we worked with and can sometimes be derivative of, and that’s okay.

But daring to be relevant and continue to push the form forward, whatever form of dance you’re making, is what I would say. I think about young individuals that want to be dancemakers and what that means, and I think that there’s a lot of great talent out there that we need to uncover still. I also believe in giving people opportunities.

What would you like to see moving ahead?

I really look forward to seeing more full-length ballets by female voices. That’s quite important to me. Our perspective is different, and I think it’s important that we start to recalibrate how we see the field moving forward. I’m not the only one saying this. I’ve seen several interviews with other female directors.

Maybe it’s two one-act ballets for an evening of dance with one intermission; a 40-minute piece that’s based on a story. Even then, I think that’s interesting—to curate something like that. There are stories out there that need to be told and I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to seek that out with upcoming choreographers.

Finally, Jodie, having been in the business for decades, what do you think of the state of ballet today?

I think it’s healthy, but we need to do more work. I think awareness is a start. We have to actively create change within the field. Being a changemaker is exciting to me. I’m up for the challenge. I do want to carry the torch for this next generation of female leaders, leaders in general, and be a leader who can be kind, inventive, collaborative. And that’s sort of where I’m at in my life, right now, too.

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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