Interview with Artistic Director, Mr. Dennis Nahat

Interview with Artistic Director, Mr. Dennis Nahat

Artistic Director for the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts ballet program on Long Island, New York and Artistic Director at his own school - Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley.

Nahat's training began in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 8 under the direction of Enid and Jeff Ricardeau and Kay Bliss at the Ricardeau Studio's. At 17 he was awarded a full scholarship in dance and minor in music at the Juilliard School of Music and continued training under the guidance of Martha Hill, Martha Graham, José Limón, Anna Sokalow, Antony Tudor and Louis Horst. Nahat has performed and choreographed major works for American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Atlanta Ballet, Hartford Ballet, The Royal Swedish Ballet, The London Festival Ballet, and Ballet Nuevo Mundo de Caracas.

He co-founded the School of Cleveland Ballet in 1972, the Cleveland Ballet in 1976. In 1985 he created the co-venture between San Jose, California and Cleveland known as the Cleveland San Jose Ballet. After twenty-five years the Board of Trustees in Cleveland decided to suspend operations on September 7, 2000 forever. The San Jose partners were left with the decision to continue or suspend operations as their partner had done. The San Jose Trustees voted unanimously to continue presenting ballet to the Bay Area as they had done for the past fifteen years. A new American ballet company was born making its debut on October 12, 2000 in San Jose, California. Nahat moved the entire ensemble of dancers, wardrobe and scenic shops to San Jose were he is the Artistic Director of his new BALLET SAN JOSE SILICON VALLEY. His numerous choreographic credits extend to musical theater, television and the movies.

Mr. Nahat was responsible for the selection of competitors at the USA International Competition. He also directed the 1994 and 1998 competitor Choreography Workshop, staged the final Awards Gala and taught competitor classes during the competitions. In July of 2000 he was invited for the fourth time to return to Denmark, Copenhagen where he taught the art of choreography, pas de deux and repertory classes at the prestigious Bartholin International Ballet Seminar. Since 2000, Mr. Nahat was appointed Artistic Director for the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts ballet program on Long Island, New York. He continues as Artistic Director at his own Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley SCHOOL.

In this interview, Mr. Nahat discusses his career and his ideas on education for prospective students of the performing arts - with particular emphasis placed on dance, which is his specialty.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your career. Where did it start?

It started at age 8 in Detroit, Michigan when I was taken to dance classes by my mother with my sister. We had a family insurance policy with the Macabees Life Insurance Company - they offered free dance classes for a period for those who had a policy with their company on Saturdays.

How did you discover your talent?

I was brought to a major dance studio soon after that by the teachers and by age 11 I was teaching where I began taking classes.

How did your career unfold?

I continued studying until I left high school when I then entered the Juilliard School of Music on a full scholarship in Dance and minor in Music. From there I went in the Joffrey Ballet, did Broadway shows and choreography, danced with the American Ballet Theater and choreographed new ballets, danced around the world with companies in Europe and South America and formed a school in Cleveland, Ohio - later to become the 5th largest company in the U.S. known as Cleveland San Jose Ballet (a partnership with San Jose, California). Today it lives and works in San Jose as Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. Cleveland shut down in 2000 after 25 years.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

Creating ballets and getting the best dancers prepared for the stage and seeing the final production in action.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Many-- I've had great teachers to name a few - Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Antony Tudor, Robert Joffrey, William Griffith, Erik Bruhn - and of course my first great teachers Enid and Jeff Ricardeau along with Kay Bliss.

What has been your personal key to success?

Stick to it...You're never there... keep at it...IF they hate you, never mind there are many more to love you...

How have your early experiences in your field contributed to your success?

I've danced and learned many styles and techniques from some of the most gifted people in the business. It's best to try everything, and I enjoy diversity....without it you are stuck in the mud...

Tell us about any awards or personal successes you've attained. How important is this to you, personally, and to your career?

I've received several awards but - they are just that, recognition for the moment, they are in boxes in a store room. It's wonderful for that moment in time but the next day you are right back where you started. Forget them and move on...

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

The greatest success has been the creation of a great ballet company - the set back was when it folded 25 years later because of financing and bad board leadership and management. The biggest success to come was the reformation of the company in another city with another name and a new leadership where I now have the honor to manage and direct the company.

What are some of your other favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?

The creation of a new ballet that began a trend in dance called BLUE SUEDE SHOES. It saved my company from disappearing and because of its success the then-leadership of the company was forced to support it. Only later again did they lose their footing.

How did you break into the field, and how did you advance to where you are today?

Danced everything and anything that was given to me. Learned all styles and techniques - never thought there wasn't anything else I could learn. Choreographed many works, always looking for new projects and people to work with. Working with children is always a great pleasure and advancement, they teach you to learn!

Before you turned professional, did you think that's what you would be doing?

I knew I would be in the theater somehow since I was very, very music, not dance. Dance came to me as a profession at about 11 years old.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I look forward to my school becoming more accessible to the San Jose community and to tour our company. There are a lot of ballets to be seen that haven't been seen by the main body of ballet goers in the world... and some great dancers in our company.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do?

Raise money, direct the dancers, choreography, run the school of 400 students, produce the printed programs, executive director.

What are your key responsibilities?

Rehearsing and preparing the company for performances, teaching, funding, general management, producing ballets, community outreach, communication with all board members.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

7:00 am - in the office, answer over 70 emails daily, set rehearsal schedules for the dancers 3 days in advance, casting all ballets, hiring all artists including costume and set designers, composers, lighting designers, conductor, musicians and orchestra. Negotiations for all unions - help set up boutique, set up photo sessions, choreography for 3/4's of the ballets in production, lecture at community schools and clubs, raise money, answer all phone calls, letters, set brochures, speak to ticket buyers, speak to parents of students in the school and teach in the school, leave office about 9:00 or 10:00 pm.

Is it important to collaborate with your colleagues?

We have collaborated in all related fields for decades. Most recently, I commissioned a new full length ballet called MIDDLE KINGDOM - ANCIENT CHINA. Built all the sets and costumes in China and had 15 dancers from another local company called Chinese Performing Artists of America dance with our company. It created a sensation and brought thousands of new audience members to the ballet.

How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

Opens the doors to those that may not have been aware of the arts and brought in new audience members.

What are some common myths about your profession?

That dancers are not smart -- that performances make money (they don't) - in fact each dollar made on tickets has to be funded. That dancers have long careers. They don't -- up to 30 years old is average - even younger. After that it's very rare to continue into your 40's.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Keeping people interested in buying tickets. Hiring the right people for the job and keeping the peace among unions.

What are the greatest stresses of your profession and what causes you the most anxiety?

Having to raise enough money to meet payroll each week. Keeping all the dancers happy, healthy and mind free of fear of themselves. Dealing with thousands of personalities. Creating budgets and getting everyone to keep within the budgets...

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

Energy, commitment, drive, perseverance, people skills and communicating, budgeting, command of the art form, the ability to take lots of criticism and accept praise without it going to your head...

What contributions do you feel your field has made in society?

Uplifts the spirit, brings you out of your world and into another world for a few hours -- it heals the spirit because of its ability to present such beauty. It's magic -- all done with live human beings and music and theatrics.

Why is your field socially important?

It communicates without language barriers. Everyone in the world understands the language of dance, even the deaf and, surprisingly, the blind....

You work for a very successful enterprise. What unique challenges and rewards come from working with a prestigious company?

You meet the finest people in the business and work with fine talent. Good talents flock to successful enterprises. I have the privilege of putting great talent together -- the rewards are priceless and cannot be passed on except through storytelling and my knowledge of the past given to the next generation.

Job Information & Advice

What is the average salary for your field? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

Average first year professional -- $750.00 weekly, it can go as high as $1,700 weekly and as much as $10,000 per performance. The trick is to find a company that offers lots of weeks of work.

What are the best ways to get a job?

Auditions - be seen often - take classes with the company - and be good at it. Know your ability and find the company that best suits your talents. Don't try to go somewhere that you know is beyond your talent - grow with a company - look around and see as much as possible - and know the company well that you wish to work with...

What relevant degrees have you earned and from what school(s)? In your opinion, does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job in your profession?

Going to college or getting graduate degrees doesn't help you on stage one bit-unfortunately. If you plan on a degree then your time spent studying instead of practicing is lost while you are young. Dance is for the young, get it while you can. You can always go back to school later. Dance is a limited career in a short and very competitive field. Do it as soon and as often as you can, leave it early and prepare for another career at the same time. You can also create a career for yourself within dance if you study all aspect of dance...

How available are internships?

Very available - only as apprentice or trainees.

How is the job market now in the industry?

Very competitive. There are not a lot of professional paying jobs.

How do you think it will be in 5 years?

More competitive, dance is becoming desirable in the U.S. and many dancers from around the world are now competing for jobs in the U.S. There are wonderful dancers all over the world today.

Describe your ideal job and your nightmare job.

No budget restraints running our own theater with no date conflicts would be ideal but unrealistic today - the nightmare is still finding funds to pay everyone....

What are the hottest specialties (if any) within the field?

THE NUTCRACKER is still the hottest ticket, next SWAN LAKE, THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, ROMEO AND JULIET. All the household name ballets (unfortunately). There are thousands of great ballets out there....unknown.

Education Information & Advice

How can prospective students assess their skills and aptitude for the performing arts?

Be seen by professionals.

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school for performing arts and why?

Find a school with a professional company attached if you want to dance professionally. Go to school if you want a degree and want to teach from the book. You've got to work with professionals to learn the trade.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

What the faculty is like, where they have worked, and what professional affiliations there are available.

Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a particular aspect of the performing arts?


Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

The Juilliard School of Music, UCI Department of Dance at Irvine.

Is a graduate degree beneficial to performing artists and, if so, why? When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree?

After you've performed professionally if that's what you want. Again, getting a degree takes time, you need that time learning to perform and work while you are physically able.

Would you change anything about your education if you could?

No, I went to NY at Juilliard when the best and most prolific teachers were there. That's why I wanted to be there, they were all practicing professionals -- the best in the field - anywhere in the world.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the performing arts?

Learn the trade inside and out. All aspects of what it takes to dance, choreograph, teach and perform. See everything and anything on the stage, take as many classes with as many great teachers as possible. Be prepared to be rejected....

Who are the accrediting bodies for education in the performing arts? How important is their stamp of approval?

Again, if you are a good dancer you will be seen. No amount of education and/or degrees or a BFA stamped on your forehead will get you a job. If you're good, you'll get work.

How did you decide to study your field and how did you find a school?

Had great teachers who knew what to teach and how to guide. Finding the best teachers is also a trick to the trade and finding that special school that has what you are looking for and can relate to is part of your job finding a place to excel.

How do you feel that the educational system could be changed to better serve society?

Be honest with the students and again, find professionals in the field to teach...

How has your education benefited your career?

In all ways -- music, design, styles of dance, being in NY with the top people in the field and around others practicing in the field. Open to all aspect and all ideas.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your education in the field?

I wouldn't change anything. I'm very happy with the past, present and future.... You can always wish, but making the right choices is very important all the time. Don' waste time trying to copy anyone else. Find out what you want and go for it. Be honest to yourself as well, know what you are capable of and what your aspirations are....Never, never give up if you really want it.

Industry Trends

What are some of the trends that you see in the performing arts which could help students plan for the future?

Ballet technique is always in demand, even on Broadway and films today. They look for the well-schooled dancer, clean, fresh and unaffected.

What problems (if any) will be addressed by your industry (affecting your position) in the next five years?

Funding, funding, funding.

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field?

Always, Funding, funding, funding.

What are some of the top challenges in the profession?

Keep an audience, building an audience and the three F's.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about education in your field that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the profession? In particular, is dance hard?

Yes, probably the most difficult career anywhere. It involves total dedication, hardship, drains finances, and is very short lived. If you really don't want it - don't do it. If you do it, then do it. If you are sick, you still have to work - you can't take long vacations - it will take twice as long to come back. Eat healthy foods, no drugs, think positive thoughts, you mind can play tricks on your body. Being healthy is the key to success for a longer career and one that people can always rely on you for.

Don't go into it for money. The arts generally do not make money. Very few make it big and make big money. Many make a good living and many more make next to nothing. Be prepared to work at other jobs as well (just to make ends meet).

It costs to study and pay for pointe shoes. Be sure you have funds or family support to get you through tough times. For the most part, dancing is tough all the time. Like sports, the competition is fierce. Unlike sports, the pay is low. But, how many people do you know in sports that make big bucks? Money will come, but it isn't all important, so work for the work not the money. You'll always succeed and if you're good, you'll always work.

There are over 600 professional companies in the U.S. Modern, jazz, ballet, tap, theater dance - if you don't find the company to work in at first, keep looking they are out there! There are also community dance groups that pay non-professional salaries. Many make a good living with these companies. Again, be prepared to work at other jobs to make ends meet.

If you fall in love, find someone who is not in the same business. Chances are you can help support each other and feed of the others life and work. Sometimes doing the same occupation can be very difficult in life. You both have to be good and can make a living or it will drain your relationship. Besides, you'll have something different to talk about when you are together and it will give you a different outlook on life when it all comes down on you. Pick up and look for the brighter side of the day ahead....Dancing is wonderful - you can get sick from it or it can be a healer at the same time. Good luck...

Related Articles