Interview: Wes Chapman

Interview with Wes Chapman

How does ABT2 function in relation to the main company?
New choreographers get tried out on us first so the main company doesn’t have to take big risks. During my time, we’ve had quite a bit of success.

We also have the function of getting the talent ready for the main company. We give our kids more experience, more stage time, more chance to work with choreographers—so they’re more seasoned by the time they get to the big league. They also need a little more nurturing time to develop as people, to strengthen their personalities and their artistic qualities.

We also serve as an advocate for the main company across the country, and the world, in small- to medium-sized markets which the main company does not go to. We go all over, building awareness of ABT and awareness that it is America’s national ballet company.

ABT has a vast amount of programming besides the main company and ABT2. There’s the school, the summer training program, collegiate training programs, the NYU Masters program, the Make A Ballet program—all sorts of educational components. It’s a big system, a lot bigger than when I was a dancer here, and our visibility has grown tremendously because of all this.

How are dancers chosen?
There are several ways. A lot of people apply with DVD submissions and we look at all of those.

And these are in response to a particular audition notice? Or do they come in unsolicited?
People send DVDs all day, every day, so there are stacks, literally, stacks. Occasionally we find people that way and I’ll ask them to come to New York, or wherever we are, and to take class with us. I like to see them with the rest of the group because we’re only six girls and six guys—so I need to see the overall look. They can’t be gigantic, or too small, and they’ve got to have the physical attributes—flexibility, strength, proportion, and look good on stage.

If I’m taking someone to a competition, sometimes I’ll spot a candidate while we’re there—and then I can see them perform, which is nice. I can get a sense of the kinds of things you can’t tell on a DVD.

We have been getting Prix de Lausanne winners. A lot of times the winners will choose an ABT scholarship—we’ve had winners here for the past three seasons which has been good. The competition will pay their salary and these kids get to tour and train with us.

How are choreographers chosen?
Kevin [McKenzie, director of the main company] and I have a running list of choreographers that interest us. He has his list, I have my list, and we meet once or twice a year and say “Okay, who do you really see in the future of ABT?” He’ll tell me his top two or three and I’ll start pursuing them to see if I can get them to first make a work for ABT2. Obviously if they’re really well-established then it’s not necessary, but if they’re new, and somewhat unknown, then Kevin will try them out on us. He and I have similar tastes.

What kind of lead time is needed to book the company?
Most presenters book us about 12 to 14 months in advance because they have to promote the show, but we can go almost at the drop of a hat, depending on the programming. Frequently we’ll hand them a sheet with the repertory—if there are specifics on the sheet that they want, we talk about that. For the most part I put together the program and that’s what goes on stage.

What kinds of places book you? Colleges? Theaters?
All of the above—we’ve been in every variation of a presenting situation. Theaters book us. Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre, they’re a civic company, once brought in ABT2 as part of their season, so sometimes smaller dance companies will present us, as well.

We have been in the university system frequently, which is a very good thing for us. We’ve done some residencies at colleges where we go for a week, do three shows in a weekend, two lecture-demonstrations, a master class, and there’s some involvement with the community. We’ll get the kids excited about dancing with our dancers and then they see a show. I’ll talk to them about ballet and they’ll ask questions. That’s pretty much what our residencies are like.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Right now, the hardest thing is that I’m the only one on the artistic staff for ABT2. So it’s all up to me. I can’t be out, I can’t be sick—or else there’s nobody to teach class, especially when we’re out on the road. And there’s nobody else who can take rehearsal. Everybody else in the organization who has a full time position is working constantly. Like I am. Somebody once wrote in the newspaper “Wes Chapman and his staff…” and I laughed because there is none! So the pressure, of being the only one, and having no relief, is probably the hardest part.

But the fun part outweighs that by a mile—and that is having some of the best talent in the world. It’s standing there in front of these kids and watching them work. Some of them can do eight pirouettes. Or between fouettes, they’ll pull in for doubles. That’s fun—there are worse jobs to have! So that’s probably the best part, just watching them and seeing how they grow from one show to the next.

My methodology is also programming them to believe they can do everything I give them. I don’t tell them they can’t do it. I don’t tell them it’s hard. I just tell them that’s what everybody else is doing, so just go for it. “What are you waiting for? Get out there! You look nervous—get over it, you’re going to be fine.” —and they are. So that’s the fun part, to see them grow in leaps and bounds.

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