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FINDING BALANCE: Ballet’s new executive is here to serve

An executive director plays a less glamorous role in most arts organizations than that of the artistic director, but creative and imaginative thinking is essential to both jobs. Kansas City Ballet’s choice of David Gray as its new executive director was shrewd: The former publicist, arts consultant, and non-profit guru has written screenplays, a novel (Escape From Verona: Romeo and Juliet Part Two), and an essential guide for philanthropic cash flow.

David Gray comes to Kansas City after having headed arts organizations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. / Bellomo Studios

He has also served as executive director for the American Repertory Ballet (in his native Princeton, New Jersey), the Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet), the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the New Brunswick Cultural Center. He is married to Kyra Nichols, one of the most significant ballerinas of our time.

David understands that his primary function here is to help fulfill the dreams of Artistic Director Devon Carney, and that is exactly what he plans to do. “In the role of executive director, I’m sort of ‘make-happener-in-chief,’ ” said David, who this summer steps into the post Jeffrey Bentley has occupied for 25 years. “To give Devon the opportunity to dream… and then to put on my financier hat and figure out how to make it happen.” David and Devon have already begun discussing the future, toward “giving the company the opportunity to feel that growth is going to be happening,” David said, “whether that means more ballets or more programs or whatever it might mean. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Among the reasons David is excited about this new venture, Devon Carney is squarely at the top of the list. “I don’t think there is a more passionate, talented, or kinder artistic director anywhere, and I’m thrilled that I’ll get to work with him,” David said, in a statement issued when his appointment was announced in early May. The company’s sound financial condition was another selling-point, as was the widely coveted Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, which David has called “one of the most fabulous dance facilities in the world.”

Among David’s books are an extensively researched novel and a guide to non profit management.

Diversity has been a high priority in David’s previous posts, and that trajectory will continue here. “We in the ballet world have to focus great energy on this issue,” he said. “How do we attract and retain diverse dancers, and give them a positive experience that makes them want to stay?” The dance world in past years has exerted considerable effort toward attracting boys and men to ballet, with some success, and he would like to see the same amount of heat applied to diversity and inclusion.

“Instead of us coming up with what we think the answer is, we kind of have to shut up and listen to the community that we’re not attracting,” he said: “To find out what we’re doing wrong, or how we can make dance more appealing, and what we’re doing that is not working.” These can be uncomfortable conversations, “but we have to do it or else we’re never going to create the substantive change… or hit the mark in diversifying the field.”

Devon Carney has served as artistic director of Kansas City Ballet since 2013. / Photo by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios

The breadth of David’s background will aid him in adapting to Kansas City’s arts scene, and his national reputation is certain to bring prestige to the Ballet. “I am thrilled that someone with such seasoned arts management expertise as David Gray will be stepping into this pivotal position within our organization,” Devon has said. “David has a broad spectrum of experience upon which to draw and will be an invaluable resource in the years ahead.”

And Jeffrey, who was given a lavish send-off at the Bolender Center on May 21st, is thrilled that someone of David’s caliber has been identified. He believes that the company is destined for huge strides forward, and he looks forward to watching it unfold. “When you spend a quarter century with a company as part of its leadership team,” Jeffrey said, “it is extremely important and personal that your successor be someone who can confidently take the organization you love and guide it to its next moment in time.”

Posing backstage at the Kauffman Center recently are Devon Carney, David Gray, Jeffrey Bentley, and Kyra Nichols.

The transition comes at an interesting time for David and his family. Kyra, who retired from New York City Ballet in 2007 after a virtually unheard-of 33-year career on the stage, is a full professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. The couple has two grown sons, both of whom live in Los Angeles: One works for a public relations firm, the other is co-captain of his college baseball team. Kyra will maintain her post in Indiana but will spend as much time here as possible. “We are both excited about getting to meet people and be a part of the community,” David said, “and very excited about what Kansas City has to offer.”

David is eager to work with a company that presents to its public not just one style or “school,” but the whole spectrum of dance. More companies today are looking for “dancers with a wide array of training, a broad set of abilities,” he said, which has long been the rule here. “In Kansas City, if I want to go see people moving to music, I’m going to Kansas City Ballet: And I love to see the range of what dance looks like today.”

Dancer Cameron Thomas poses for Kansas City Ballet’s production of Val Caniparoli’s Jekyll & Hyde, which opens the 2023-2024 season, David Gray’s first with the company. / Photo by Kenny Johnson

Just as important, the Ballet has exhibited responsible fiscal practices through the decades. “I have a lot of respect for Jeff’s leadership and what he has helped achieve,” David said. “COVID-19 obviously created lots of stresses, but this organization is in much better financial condition than many of its peers, and that’s very exciting to me.”

—By Paul Horsley

For tickets to Kansas City Ballet’s upcoming season, call 816-931-8993, or see kcballet.org. To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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