An Interview with Bruce Sansom

the new Head of Development at Rambert Dance Company

by Stuart Sweeney

October 2002

Bruce Sansom, former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet is now the Head of Development at Rambert Dance Company. Sansom retired from dancing in the summer of 2000 and since then has completed two Arts management programmes in America. Stuart Sweeney interviewed him about this new professional direction.

Q. Why did you decide to go into dance administration rather than a ďpureĒ dance role as a ballet master for instance?

A. If youíre looking to have a career that expands in the future, you need to have experience in as many areas as possible. Everything Iíve been working towards opens many more doors than would have been possible if I had stayed purely on the artistic side. Itís very apparent that if you are going to be a high level manager on the artistic team you also need a lot of experience in administration to really bring full value to an organisation. So what Iíve set out to do over the past two years is give myself the options of working at a high level on the artistic side or staying within administration

Q. You had experience on the Artists Development Initiative at the Royal Opera House. Was that an important step for you?

A. That was the opportunity that made me realise I could do Arts administration and that it would be a very valuable thing to focus some time and attention on. The ADI was originally set up for organisations outside the Royal Opera House and was not advertised internally. When I found out about it I went to Deborah Bull [the organiser] and said, ďI think I could benefit from this. Can I be involved?Ē It was then that Philip Mosley, David Pickering and myself came in from the Royal Ballet to support three of the groups from outside.

We created an environment where people from within the Company also benefited. While it wasnít the intention to exclude us, it had been seen as an opportunity to involve outside people, but the inclusion of insiders made the project even stronger, it created links deep into the ROH.

Q. What was the attraction of going to San Francisco and did it live up to your expectations?

A. I danced one season there in 1992, so I already had a connection with the Company and with Helgi Tomasson. I met him in the spring of 2000 and explained that I was planning to go to University to take an Arts Administration course, which was the only route available in the UK at that time. A couple of days later he called me to say that he could offer me a combination of administrative and artistic management for a year. I realised straight away that it was exactly what I was looking for. The one thing I had been concerned about was walking away completely from the artistic side of things.

It certainly lived up to my expectations. Iím a great admirer of what Helgi has achieved for San Francisco Ballet, taking it from a regional company to international standards. And to do that in a 15 year period is near miraculous. I learned a lot from him about how he puts his team together and how he works with them. Heís very involved with the administration staff and thatís very important to me. Iím against the idea of there being two worlds. Both should mesh together. Thatís what Iím hoping Iíll be able to provide for the organisations I work for.

Q. What were your main roles there?

A. On the artistic side I taught class, took Company rehearsals and was in charge of one of the Robbins ballets. Specifically I did a lot of work with the principal dancers on many of the rep works and with a few of the dancers returning from injury. I also worked with some of the funders. As a past exponent of the art form, I could talk with them at functions, providing a conduit into the art form that perhaps they wouldnít normally have had access to.

On the administrative side I worked in Press, Marketing and Development and with the Executive Director and the General Manager. I was keen to experience as many things as they could provide for me. A lot of it was observing, but there was also hands on, practical experience, where I could work on something for them and follow it through to its conclusion. I became part of each team, but in an interesting way as I was moving around departments.

Q. Did you find a lot of differences between what goes on behind the scenes in the Royal and San Francisco?

A. Yes and no. Companies have their own dynamic, which affects how the dancers and management approach their work. As I mentioned earlier there is a strong link between the artistic and administrative sides that has much to do with the physical set-up of the organisation. With the redeveloped ROH this has now been addressed for The Royal Ballet in the same way. Youíre not forced into contact, but thereís no physical barrier as there used to be at the Royal when the Company was at Baronís Court and the administration was at the Royal Opera House.

Thereís something to be said for the enthusiasm that dancers were bringing to the Company in San Francisco. They have a hunger, which I think comes from an acknowledgement that they are expendable. Their contracts are not guaranteed and they work hard to maintain their standards. They are excited by what they get to perform in San Franciscoís huge rep and I was pleasantly surprised that they are so supportive of each other. People move around more in the US and they seem to be quicker to integrate into a new company.

Q. After San Francisco, you were part of the first intake for the Vilar Institute for Arts Management based at The Kennedy Center Washington. Was that a good experience?

A. It was great to get onto that programme and it was a fantastic opportunity. For me it filled in many things that had been set in motion on the administrative side when I was in San Francisco. The Kennedy Center, which has a strong and under-recognised Education Department, had been able to construct a programme of theoretical training, concentrating on the general principles of Arts administration. It allowed me to look back over my time in each of the departments at San Francisco and put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. So the two programmes were incredibly complementary.

Overall it was an exciting two years and there was much for me to learn in America because they have some very good business practices in their approach to the Arts. It was also an advantage not to have been in a purely academic environment.

Q. How is it going so far at Rambert? [This interview was conducted at the end of Bruce Sansomís first week at Rambert.]

A. Itís been very good. Iím surrounded by papers which is not the way I normally like to work, but at the moment I am trying to learn so much in so little time that itís become quite chaotic around me. But, Iíll get there. There are already a couple of things that I have completed and sent out the door. Nevertheless, it will take several months to get to grips with everything.

Q. What was the attraction of the post at Rambert?

A. There were several attractions for me. Itís a very reputable Company with a great artistic background and, they approached me, which was a wonderful thing to have happen. I knew several people here that I had talked to in the past and they recognised a potential in me and were prepared to give it a go. Itís a one-year contract, which I knew from the start, but that can be revisited.

I couldnít ask for a better situation for my return to England. Looking for a job is always a challenging thing to do, especially given that I had been in America for two years. So it was very reassuring to have Rambert ring up and say this is what we are looking for and we hope you will be interested to come and work with us. It was great talking through everything with them and it feels like a good fit for both the Company and me.

Q. In general do you think that we have much to learn here in the UK from Arts administration and fund raising practices in the States?

A. Itís not that we have lots to learn; itís more that we have to put into practise what we already know. Whether funding comes from private or public sources, itís important that you can justify to people why they should give you that money and demonstrate that you are going to use it in a professional way. That thinking needs to be throughout the organisation, but at the moment itís filtering from the top down.

We have some very good leaders running many of the UKís Arts organisations. Nevertheless, in the past weíve seen a lot of the approach, ďIíve gone into this because I used to be involved in the Art and Iíll learn the management skills on the job.Ē That attitude is no longer as viable as it was in the past. Itís far healthier that people who have been involved in the Arts can go and receive training, so that when they do step back they are able to serve organisations at the highest level possible.

America has a very different funding system and has had to have a much more business like approach to the way that the Arts are managed. For instance, from my experiences there, itís clear that my job with Rambert is to build relationships. If in the process I increase revenue thatís great, but what I need to do is to make sure that our existing relationships remain strong and to build new ones, both with individuals and organisations. Itís not about what can we get from them, itís what can we both bring to each other.

Q. CriticalDance has also interviewed Rambertís new Artistic Director, Mark Baldwin and I have to say that his ideas do seem to mesh with yours.

A. Iím very much looking forward to working with Mark. He has been away, but Iím hoping that we will meet in the near future. It will be interesting to understand his approach and what I can do to support his artistic vision.

Q. I was impressed that he is not overeager to introduce his own work into the Company in the early days and will wait until he has established his vision for the Company.

A. Itís dangerous to come in and try to stamp your mark without any consideration for the company. You donít just slam on the breaks on a big ship and expect it to stop or change direction at once. You have to be sensitive to what has happened before, what the potential is and what the need is. You also have to take account of what the 35,000 attendees want and you need to know that the heart and soul of the organisation are being taken into consideration as the changes happen.

Q. Some friends of mine tell me that a possible downside in the US is that major donors can want to have a say in the way that a company is run. Can this be a problem in your experience?

A. It is if you let it be a problem. You have to know who you are going to, why you are going to them and what you think they will be interested in supporting. In general, my job is to approach only those people that will support the things we want to do. We donít just go to anyone and everyone; itís not just about getting money in the door. Rather itís about getting a relationship that satisfies everybody. And if itís not right - walk away from it. The last thing you want is something that will cause upset for either side. Itís far better to say that we donít have anything at the moment that works Ė letís have another look in a few months. Michael Kaiser is a great one for ensuring that he doesnít get pushed around by funders. He would rather present them with something they canít refuse.

Q. What are you going to miss about the US?

A. It was just amazing to come back to England. One of the first things I saw was ďAlbert HerringĒ at Glyndebourne, the most English of settings. So a few days earlier I had been at the Kennedy Center and now I was in this rural setting watching this rural life style on stage. It was funny to return and realise that England really does look like England.

I loved my time in America and given the right opportunity I would go back and work there anytime. There will be things that I will miss about the US, but there were certainly things that I missed about the UK as well. Overall Iím comfortable on both sides of the Atlantic.

Q. Do you miss dancing?

A. No, I donít. I would love to have time in the future in the studio working in a creative format, but my personal need to get up and perform finished with my last performance. It was refreshing to realise that I didnít miss it. I felt I had achieved everything I had set out to do. It was damn hard work and I loved the discipline, but Iím on to the next set of things and I love it. My final performance couldnít have been more appropriate, as I was killed on stage.

Q. Turning to the broader question of the future of ballet, Iím looking forward to seeing works by Preljocaj [this was before the RB programme revisions], Kylian and Mark Morris in the Royal Ballet rep next year. However, I know that some people feel strongly that ballet companies should not be performing this style of work. Do you have any thoughts on this?

A. It will be interesting to see where it all ends up. At certain levels ballet companies are stealing from contemporary dance companies and weíre in danger of ending up with an amalgam, where companiesí reps become indistinguishable. Thatís a concern to me. A Company has to decide what they are, who they are and why they are. Itís exciting to push the boundaries of ballet companies and contemporary companies, but if they merge too much then they start to steal from each other in terms of audience expectations. Thatís not an ideal situation for anyone.

However, someone like Mark Morris is one of the greatest classicists around at the moment. Although his use of classical vocabulary is not complicated, he gives it a new play, which is wonderfully refreshing. I thought that ďA GardenĒ for San Francisco was a stunning work. It was understated. Without that need to impress on the visual or physical levels there was room for nuance. I think there are many ways for ballet companies to go within their own Art form. Nowadays few opera companies have their own stars and you can go from one country to another seeing the same singers in the same roles in the same productions. I worry we could end up with a similar situation in ballet.

Q. What are your longer-term professional ambitions?

A. If you are going to be a successful Artistic Director you have to have a very clear artistic vision for the organisation and also understand how that will impact on the administrative side. I would like to think that at some stage in the future that there will be the opportunity to go towards that. But that is some way down the line. Iím very happy to be back in the UK and working with Rambert. I have a lot on my plate at the moment and that is where my focus will be. But a few years down the line, weíll see.


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