Rachel Moore, the executive director of American Ballet Theater.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Rachel Moore, the executive director of American Ballet Theater.
 
Erin Baiano for The New York Times

American Ballet Theater’s "Swan Lake" at the Metropolitan Opera House. The troupe, founded in 1940, has never had a permanent home.

December 27, 2005
Ballet Theater’s Director of Turnaround
By ROSLYN SULCAS

Rachel Moore’s mother cried all the way to the airport when her 18-year-old daughter left her hometown of Davis, Calif., to join American Ballet Theater’s junior company in New York. "My parents were both economists and very upset that I wasn’t going to college," said Ms. Moore, who is now the executive director of Ballet Theater.

Her family can relax. Since her appointment in April 2004, this former dancer, now 41, has taken firm hold of an unwieldy, creaky organization that is also a great one, constantly beset by financial problems, yet somehow managing to produce the spectacular productions and dancers for which it is famous. Since Ms. Moore took over, Ballet Theater’s endowment has risen from $8 million to $15 million; its City Center season this fall showed box office gains of 30 percent over the previous year; and for the first time in six years, an operating deficit has disappeared and a modest surplus is projected when audit results are released next week.

To put these achievements in perspective, it should be noted that when Ms. Moore was hired, she was Ballet Theater’s fourth executive director in four years, following Elizabeth Harpel Kehler, Wallace Chapell and Louis G. Spisto. Unlike her predecessors, Ms. Moore had firsthand experience of the other side of the administrative-artistic divide that exists in every performing arts organization, having graduated from the junior company to the Ballet Theater corps in 1984 and danced there until she was sidelined by a foot injury four years later.

"I knew I was coming in to a place that had been very unsettled," said Ms. Moore, who has reddish gamine-cut hair and retains a dancer’s ramrod-straight back. "But I understand the Ballet Theater context, what its traditions and needs are. And I never forgot what it’s like to be a dancer. This can be a heartbreaking career."

Ms. Moore’s Ballet Theater background was, in fact, a deciding factor for both the artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, and the chairman, Lewis Ranieri, who had stepped into the breach when Ms. Kehler left after less than a year on the job. "Rachel was in many ways at a disadvantage," Mr. Ranieri said. "She is young, and so she didn’t have the kind of résumé that some of the other candidates had. But she had an inside grasp of things that they didn’t. And I think she actually did much more homework. We were able to have extremely detailed conversations about the company, and so we had a very clear idea who we would be hiring."

Ms. Moore’s résumé is, in fact, not at all shabby. After leaving Ballet Theater, she graduated from Brown University with honors in ethics and political philosophy, and then studied arts administration at Columbia. After working for an arts advocacy group in Washington, she moved to Boston with her husband, Robert Ryan, and held senior administrative positions at Ballet Theater of Boston and Project Step, a classical music school for minority students. Then she moved to the Boston Ballet as director of its Center for Dance Education, the largest professional ballet school in the United States, with 2,000 students and 75 employees. When the Ballet Theater position opened up, she decided to apply even though, she said, she thought she had little chance of actually getting the job. "My goal was simply not to embarrass myself," she said.

This mixture of ambition and realism appears characteristic of Ms. Moore, whose pragmatic focus on matters at hand runs side by side with a broader grasp of the company’s needs. "When I arrived, it was clear that I would have to make changes," she said. "We restructured the senior staff – eliminating the chief operating officer position and dividing up those duties – and we made significant budget cuts by laying off staff for a week, not giving raises and changing touring plans. If I hadn’t taken a tough stance, Ballet Theater might not have survived. But I understand the artistic issues, and I strongly believe that we must have a real identity and vision. I’m never going to quibble about the expense of rehearsal time or whether a particular ballet needs to be done."

All of this, Mr. McKenzie said, has made his life considerably easier. "The problem with trying to run a ballet company is that every artistic idea is a lousy business decision," he said. "But Rachel comes from within and knows the culture: we do big operatic ballets with big stars, and we also try to honor our origins as choreographic theater. It’s an enormous juggling act, and when the fit is right between the executive and the artistic director, that takes a whole step out of the planning process. Now it’s, ‘Trust us,’ as opposed to, ‘Trust me.’ "

However great Ms. Moore’s insider grasp of affairs and rapport with Mr. McKenzie, she nonetheless still faces the problems that have vexed Ballet Theater’s directors since the company’s inception in 1940. The troupe has never had a permanent home, as New York City Ballet does at the State Theater, and it has always toured extensively, with the attendant costs of transporting large numbers of dancers and supporting staff – to say nothing of the costumes and scenery needed for its repertory of full-length classical ballets.

Ms. Moore’s approach is to consider these circumstances as a spur to a bold vision. "We think of ourselves as a national company," she said, "and that’s how American Ballet Theater can differentiate itself from every other ballet company, and find new forms of funding and new audiences. This means more than touring. It also means that we are working toward being the standard bearer of excellence in the art form – not just performing, but also fostering new works, raising the standard of dance training, and bringing dance to people from all walks of life. It’s not just about doing ‘Swan Lake’ every year; it’s about what impact we can have on the art form."

These are elevated goals, but Ms. Moore, who attends almost every performance by the company, is a convincing advocate.

"I plan to be in this job for a long time," Ms. Moore said.

Mr. Ranieri seems to agree. "She and her husband have just bought a house," he said. "I’m very pleased about that."

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