The New Jersey Ballet is stepping out this season with new leadership and a fresh vision of what it takes for classical arts to thrive in the post-pandemic era.
Now beginning its 64th season, the Florham Park-based company is one of the mainstays of the state’s arts scene, older by a few years than its other professional ballet troupe, the American Repertory Ballet of Princeton.
The NJB has built its reputation for excellence largely through the drive and determination of its founder, Carolyn Clark, whose name has been synonymous with the company since she launched it with the late George Tomal in 1958. Both were alumni of the New York-based American Ballet Theatre and, like that world-renowned company, focused on the classical repertory and familiar story ballets including “The Nutcracker,” “Giselle” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”
With Clark standing down from direct management of the troupe, Maria Kowroski has been appointed as the new artistic director and will be plotting the course forward. She is a longtime dancer with New York City Ballet, and her tenure will be marked by a shift toward the more contemporary ballet style of NYCB and its founder, George Balanchine.
“We won’t be abandoning the full evening works and, in fact, I’d like to see them updated with new sets and costumes,” says Kowroski. “But we’ll also be showcasing some contemporary works to entice new audiences and give the dancers important new technical challenges.”
A case in point is the company’s season opener, “New Direction,” set for Nov. 19 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. The troupe was named a company in residence there at the end of last season, formalizing a partnership that has been ongoing for nearly 20 years.
The repertory program features “Who Cares?,” the crowd-pleasing work created by Balanchine to songs of George Gershwin. Also on tap is “Hallelujah Junction” by Peter Martins, a NYCB principal dancer who led the company as ballet master after Balanchine’s death. A propulsive work focusing on partnered dancing, the piece will give new pairings in the company a chance to shine.
Finally — and perhaps most importantly, in Kowroski’s view — there will be a world premiere of new work by Harrison Ball, another NYCB alumni, with costumes by fashion designer Zac Posen.
“It’s important for the dancer to have works made to their strengths, their individuality,” says Kowroski. “I know from my own dancing career that there’s nothing like it to build confidence and energy.”
Kowroski first had contact with NJB as a master teacher in late 2020 after moving during the pandemic from New York to New Jersey.
During the last few seasons, with live performances cancelled, the company produced a number of dance videos to maintain visibility with audiences. (You can watch a new, just-released video below). The exceptionally close company staff includes former dancers such as Paul McRae, now assistant director, who is credited with holding things together during the long, dry pandemic years and the transition from Clark’s tenure to a successor.
“I was impressed — with the company and the school,” Kowroski says. “Gradually the plan took shape for me to have greater involvement. There’s a lot of adrenaline and focus in this as I learn a whole new set of skills.”
Kowroski admits that she misses her moments onstage. Her career with NYCB spanned more than 25 years and she was among the last to work with founding choreographer Jerome Robbins. These days she spends more time behind a desk, summoning the resources to guide the NJB toward a stable future.
All the arts — from Broadway to symphony and the film stage — have suffered serious blows in the COVID era. But the pandemic arguably took its greatest toll on professional dancers, who faced not only the shutdown of venues and the absence of audiences but also the need to remain in prime physical condition.
“We’ve got to build back up — the dancers, the weeks of work, the funding, the audiences,” Kowroski says. “It won’t be easy but I believe in the athleticism, the fun and the beauty of the art.”
The closer relationship with the Mayo Performing Arts Center will help. Built in 1937 as a movie theater, it has undergone renovations to enhance its stage, production technology and back-of-the-house facilities. With approximately 1,300 seats, it falls in size midway between the Hackensack Meridian Health Theatre at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank (1,550 seats) and the Matthews Theater at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton (1,100 seats), other important regional theaters.
“It’s a perfect venue for us and a place where we have a good relationship with audiences who have been coming to ‘The Nutcracker’ for years, says David Tamaki, another former company dancer now serving as managing director. “We’re looking forward to returning to a new normal with new marketing strategies to get audiences in the seats. A lot of it comes down to education and exposure.”
In his quest to enhance status and visibility, Tamaki will have an assist from Mayo personnel, including general manager Ed Kirchdoerffer.
“Having dates locked in for the season ahead will help the company plan,” Kirchdoerffer says. “The residency status cements our relationship and joint marketing may put some muscle into their promotions they may not otherwise have. We’re looking to make this a positive experience — for the artists and for the audience.”
Clark, so closely identified with the company over the years, is confident about the future as Kowroski takes on a leadership role.
“I’m thrilled that someone of the caliber of Maria Kowroski will now be leading the company,” she says. “As founder and director for so many years, I look forward to her capable and outstanding directorship.”
Prior to its season opener, company dancers will join the New Jersey Symphony, Nov. 12 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, in a program marking the orchestra’s 100th anniversary. They will perform a commissioned work set to “Four Dances from Estancia” by composer Alberto Ginastera.
NJB will present “The Nutcracker” with the New Jersey Symphony, Dec. 16-18, 22-24 and 26-27 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center and will return to Morristown March 4 with “The Sleeping Beauty.” Other “Nutcracker” dates are Dec. 3-4 at BergenPAC in Englewood and Dec. 11 at the Levoy Theatre in Millville.
For information, visit njballet.org.
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