Jaffe, 59, will take over from Kevin McKenzie, who is retiring from ABT after 30 years at the helm. In an interview Monday, Jaffe noted that the position will be her seventh role at ABT. She began as a student there, progressing to the trainee division and the main company, where she was the longtime reigning ballerina and an international star. Jaffe then became a teacher in the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, adviser to the board chairman and director of repertoire.
Yet directing the 84-dancer company, with a $42 million annual budget, “is going to be a large job,” Jaffe acknowledged.
“It’s going to be hard, and there’ll be long hours and I’m sure frustrations at times. But it feels like a calling to me. And it’s going home,” she said. “I’ve been at the organization for 32 years in total, more than half my life. So to be trusted to care for and take ABT into its future is a dream come true.”
McKenzie, who performed with Jaffe when both were company members, praised her personality traits as well as her leadership experience. Jaffe “always maintained a sense of joy and fun,” he said in a statement. Given her years at the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., and as artistic director in Pittsburgh, he said, “Susan comes equipped with her own expertise and the ability to get the best out of those around her.”
Jaffe, who grew up in Bethesda, Md., and trained at Maryland Youth Ballet, is no stranger to tackling large jobs. In fact, at 18 she was thrown into one of ballet’s toughest showcases — and it was her ABT debut.
Just days before a Kennedy Center performance, Jaffe was plucked from the corps de ballet to replace the renowned Gelsey Kirkland in the virtuosic “Pas de’Esclave” duet from “Le Corsaire.” Her partner was the star Alexander Godunov.
That night also happened to be the opening night of Russian luminary Mikhail Baryshnikov’s first program as ABT director. Three years later, Baryshnikov promoted Jaffe to principal dancer — an unusually rapid ascent to the highest rank, and a position Jaffe held for 22 years. She retired from dancing in 2002.
Jaffe said she is excited to pass on the wisdom she gained from Baryshnikov, choreographer Twyla Tharp, Russian ballerinas Natalia Makarova and Irina Kolpakova, and others.
“All these amazing people. The only way that ballet gets passed down is through people. And strangely enough, this is somewhat more satisfying to me than it was when I was dancing. I loved dancing, but being on the other side and being in service to the dance world feels quieter in some ways,” she said, “even though I’m working harder and longer than at any time in my life.”
Leading one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious ballet companies, however, now comes with considerable new challenges. Ballet is at a flexion point, having endured the pandemic-related shutdowns that cost the art form in funding, ticket sales and touring; audience-building; and the development of its artists. Ballet also has gone through difficult self-inspection regarding racial diversity and other forms of inclusion arising in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’ve been working on this, and with this, for quite a while,” Jaffe said, reflecting on inclusiveness in ballet. “And it’s where we all must go. And that’s a good thing. We need to make changes.”
She pointed to her recent work at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which she joined in 2020. In addition to choreographing her own version of “Swan Lake,” which is currently being performed, in March she presented a series of ballets by female choreographers, including, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Aszure Barton, Gemma Bond, Helen Pickett and Pittsburgh dancemaker Staycee Pearl.
Jaffe said she plans to continue developing ballets when she takes over at ABT. “I have many artists on my list that I would love to commission or acquire existing work from, all different kinds of choreographers, including those who are very famous now as well as new people I don’t believe New York has ever seen. I think audiences are hungry for that.
“My job will be to preserve what’s good and make that beautiful and inspiring and excellent, and then to move forward with the beauty of diversity,” she continued. “With all kinds of innovative voices, and bringing the repertory into a place where we’re looking at our art form as moving forward.
“I really feel that somebody’s got to do that. And I feel equipped to do that.”