Making the leap from dancer to artistic director

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San Diego Union Tribune

by Lisa Deaderick

Toby Batley got an admittedly late start in his training for an ultimate career as a professional ballet dancer. He took it up at 14, after being told he was good at it, and the discipline and creativity of the form hooked him. The England native trained at the Royal Ballet School in London, going on to eventually dance for Northern Ballet in England, where he became a principal dancer.

“As dancers, our careers are very short-lived. The rigorous training and demanding schedule take their toll on your body and mind, especially after 13 years. I always thought that I would like to be an artistic director and I was always imagining how things could be done differently,” he says of the recent role he’s taken on as co-artistic director of the Southern California Ballet, with his wife, Martha Leebolt. “So when the opportunity came along for us to take the helm of the studio where Martha trained, we jumped at the chance.”

Batley, 33, lives in Rancho Bernardo with Leebolt, and has had various roles created for him as a dancer, has been nominated for national dance awards, and named among the top dancers in his field. Now, with this leadership position he took on this past September, he and his wife have been focused more recently on their company’s upcoming performance of the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker,” at 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16, and again at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17, at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. He took some time out from rehearsals and planning to talk about his journey from full-time dancer to co-artistic director and what’s in store for audiences at Southern California Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

Q: You and your wife are both artistic directors for Southern California Ballet. Is working as co-artistic directors a common thing at ballet companies?

A: It’s very unusual. Art is so individual, and as artistic directors, artistic vision is inseparable from you and what you do. However, Martha and I have worked extremely closely for the last 13 years. We built a career together as dance partners and it became kind of symbiotic. It was a natural progression for us to continue our work together.

Q: How do you divide the responsibilities between the two of you?

A: We share the teaching as equally as possible and it’s useful to have each other as back-up, as finding substitute teachers can be a nightmare. Outside of the studio, we work together even more. If one of us does something, then the other will check it over. This is all new to us, so we need each other’s support to make important decisions. I am more tech-savvy than Martha, so I tend to do all of that kind of thing, and I like design and to have things work well. Martha is much more organized, and she is a far better “people person”, so she handles the people side, especially because sometimes my British personality doesn’t translate well here.

Q: Tell us about Southern California Ballet.

A: It is a ballet academy and pre-professional company founded by Sylvia Palmer in 1983. She moved here after a career as a dancer in the National Ballet of Canada and brought with her the cultural history of that company to found her own ballet school, in exactly the same manner that all the great companies of the world were founded. Martha and my careers have been rooted in full-length story ballets and it is our passion to speak through dance. This style and tradition is what we want to continue.

What I love about Rancho Bernardo ...

We love pilates. It keeps us moving and strong, and our teacher at the pilates studio we go to is so good that we persuaded him to come teach contemporary dance for us at Southern California Ballet. We also love our local steakhouse restaurant, which is walking distance from where we live and makes us feel at home since everyone walks everywhere in Europe.

Q: How does a ballet company operate?

A: Every ballet company is different. For example, Martha and I danced in the United Kingdom for a large-scale, professional touring ballet company performing over 150 shows a year. We were very lucky to be part of one of the leading companies in England that was fully funded with a full-time staff of over 130 people. Southern California Ballet is much smaller and performs only a few times a year at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. Ballet companies are led by artistic directors whose vision will make up a large part of the identity of the company. Sometimes, the artistic director is also a choreographer who will stage most of the work the company does, and other times, the director may be someone who mainly commissions works by other people.

 

 

Q: How long have you been artistic director?

A: I have been artistic director since Sept. 5. It was always a goal for me to run an artistic organization, I just wasn’t sure what or where. We settled here because of Martha’s connection with the Southern California Ballet.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a professional dancer?

A: When I first started, I only enjoyed dancing because lots of people told me I was good at it. It wasn’t until I joined the Royal Ballet School in London that I really became serious and understood that I could both make this my profession and do well. Not many people get paid to do what they love. For me, I didn’t even realize it was a career until a few years after I had already been in a company. I was just doing what I loved.

Q: What is it about dance that you love?

A: It’s the athleticism coupled with the artistry. Going somewhere on stage that is different from reality, the chance to pretend to be a character and inhabit a role that is as different from me as possible.

Q: And why did you focus on ballet?

A: Originally, I thought I was more interested in modern dance and tap because I started late and felt that they were more accessible to me. However, deep down I always preferred ballet. I liked the control and the discipline that it demands.

Q: As a principal dancer, what was your training schedule like?

A: As a professional dancer, I was contracted for 33 hours of rehearsal a week, as well as nine hours of class a week, and then I would go to the gym and work out or do body maintenance for probably another three or four hours a week. There were also the 150-plus, full-length performances a year to do. So about 50 hours a week, 48 weeks a year.

Q: You’ve had numerous roles created specifically for you. What happens during the process of creating a new role as a ballet dancer?

A: First, we read the book and do as much research on the story as possible. For example, when we created the “Great Gatsby,” I read the book (I lost count how many times), watched the movies, and had an amazing dramaturg who would give Martha and I extensive material on 1920s America, including paintings, biographies and descriptions of the time. Then we would go into the studio and begin working out how Gatsby might move and act. We were particularly interested in telling stories and being as much actors as dancers. We were encouraged to really get under the skin of our roles, to learn who we were portraying and how they fit into the story as a whole. The next step was to work with the choreographer on creating steps, then scenes, and then slowly the ballet would come together. It is a true team effort and no single person holds all the pieces. One of the most exciting parts for me was always hearing the music for the first time and then of course, hearing it played live by our orchestra.

Q: What was one of your most challenging roles? And why was it particularly challenging?

A: Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights” is a very hard role both physically and emotionally! He is such a wild character, and that, coupled with the extremely difficult partnering involved, always left me wiped out afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed it though!

Q: What was one of your favorite or most gratifying roles to play? Why?

A: I used to laugh because people always asked that question and I would always choose the one that I was currently doing. I guess that’s a good sign! But Winston from “1984” was definitely high up on my list. “1984” was a very special ballet to me as it was so different from everything else. It had a great story arc, I could feel the audience go on the journey with me as I played Winston. I also loved dancing Romeo. I enjoyed the extreme of the crazy romantic character that would do anything for love. Most dancers aspire to play the leads in “Romeo & Juliet” — probably because of the music. I was lucky enough to dance two very different versions, Northern Ballet’s original and Jean Christophe Maillot’s!

Q: Your company is getting ready for your production of “The Nutcracker”? What can people expect from these performances?

A: They can expect a very authentic and cohesive production, which has a strong narrative and holds the audience. Sylvia, our founding artistic director, was adamant when she created this version 26 years ago, that the ballet have a strong, clear storyline and all the parts fit together and make sense. She didn’t want to throw in random crowd-pleasing numbers, which don't fit in with the rest of the ballet. Instead, she relied on the magic of the story to keep people engaged. We have over 100 company members, students, and parents performing in the show, as well as three guest artists.

Q: Everyone seems to do “The Nutcracker.” What do you think it is about this particular story that has endured over the years?

A: “The Nutcracker” epitomizes this time of year, especially the music. Tchaikovsky was a genius. Even if you have never seen or heard of “The Nutcracker,” his music will make you think of Christmas. I guarantee that everyone has heard at least some part of “The Nutcracker” (probably the “Trepak dance”) even if they don’t realize it. From the party scene to the finale, it is about the holiday spirit of people coming together. The magic of Christmas is apparent all the way through from the first time we meet Drosselmeyer to the snow scene and Clara’s journey to the land of the sweets.

Q: What do dancers enjoy about performing “The Nutcracker”?

A: It has a lot of dancing. Most ballets showcase the principals, but “The Nutcracker” challenges everyone involved, from snow and flowers all the way up to the sugarplum Grand Pas de Deux. The divertissements (the many short dances in the second act) give many performers the chance to shine as soloists.

Q: What’s been challenging about life as a dancer? And in your new role so far as an artistic director?

A: The challenging thing about being a dancer is the total dedication that it requires. It consumes 100 percent of your life. For everything that one considers doing, the effect that it might have on your ability to perform is what makes your decision about doing it. That gets very tiring and constraining. At some point, dancers have to make the decision between their personal lives and their dancing. As artistic directors — it’s only been three months — so far it has been all the different hats that one has to wear! It is very difficult to be sitting in an office looking at a budget, then to shift and start working on marketing, design and social media, and then to plan and execute your teaching work. Of course, casting is also a gigantic task! It’s tough to cast a ballet with over 100 performers, trying to keep things fair, accommodate for dancer availability, and on top of that, to maintain a high quality artistic product!

Q: What’s been rewarding about life as a dancer? And as an artistic director?

A: As a dancer I enjoyed the athleticism that it required and the pride of achieving that. So far, as an artistic director, the rewarding part has been sharing our knowledge and seeing what we can do for dancers here, as well as the improvements that they make, sometimes in small steps, and sometimes in giant leaps!

Q: What has your work taught you about yourself?

A: That I am impatient. I always expect instant results but things take longer than that. I am learning, though.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Do your best — that is all that matters.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I love “Star Trek”!

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: We love the Safari Park and feeding the giraffes. I also love the beach and can make a good attempt at something resembling surfing.