“The corporate world could learn a huge thing from ‘the show must go on.'” That was Kevin McKenzie speaking during the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week. McKenzie is artistic director at the American Ballet Theater, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the United States, and he joined ABT executive director Kara Medoff Barnett in the soaring lobby of the David Koch Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center to share how a nearly 80-year-old arts organization stays relevant in the 21st century–and what entrepreneurs could take away from the realm of toe shoes and tutus.
Know your history–then build on it
ABT is famous for performing classic story ballets, such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, which were originally choreographed more than 100 years ago. To keep performances from feeling fusty, ABT invests in thoughtful restagings. Recently, the company’s artist in residence, Alexei Ratmansky, pored over documents at a Harvard library to uncover the original 19th-century production of Sleeping Beauty. He drew on this research, taking steps hitherto lost to history, to refashion Sleeping Beauty into something that feels fresh to contemporary viewers. As McKenzie said during the festival, creativity has to be “informed by the past but not imprisoned by it.”
ABT is unique among dance organizations in that it’s largely a touring company. Roughly 130 people, accompanied by shipping containers filled with costumes and sets, travel throughout the year to perform around the country. Inevitably things go wrong. Someone gets injured. A prop gets left behind. Yet the curtain still has to rise night after night, so the dancers and tech crew learn to make do. “We have a lot of comfort with chaos,” says executive director Medoff Barnett.
Create a culture of risk-taking
“No one is interested in watching safety,” McKenzie says. “What’s interesting in theater is sex and death.” No arguments there. Paradoxically, to encourage artists and dancers to take risks, McKenzie says he tries to cultivate a culture of safety. Dancers are encouraged to fall–sometimes literally. When they fail, and they aren’t punished for it, they feel secure enough to try again. The only real failure, McKenzie says, is “if you fail and you don’t learn something from it.”