Today Grand Rapids Ballet announced that longtime San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko will succeed Patricia Barker as its new artistic director, effective July 1, 2018.
The 38-year-old, now in his 18th season with SFB, topped a list of 40 applicants from around the world to become only the fifth artistic director in GRB's 46-year history.
Born in Marion, Indiana, Sofranko grew up in Cincinnati and trained at The Harid Conservatory and New York's Juilliard School. He joined SFB in 2000 and was promoted to soloist in 2007. From 2005–2006 he performed the lead role of Eddie in the national tour of Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel's Broadway musical Movin' Out. He also has directing experience: In 2014 he founded his own contemporary ballet repertory company, SFDanceworks, which performs during the summer.
GRB executive director Glenn Del Vecchio says the company chose Sofranko for a number of reasons: "His vision for the company in programming terms seemed like a good fit with where we are and where we wanted to go. His success with SFDanceworks and his considerable career with San Francisco Ballet really helped him stand out, and his personality seemed like a very good fit with the organization."
Del Vecchio also says that GRB's goal throughout their search was to find someone who could build on what Barker had accomplished and her vision for the company. They felt Sofranko could do that, as well as bring his own voice to producing programming that would excite and challenge GRB's dancers and Grand Rapids audiences.
SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson is fully supportive of Sofranko's new appointment. "With his vision, I have no doubt that he will bring Grand Rapids Ballet to new heights, and I wish him all the best on this exciting new chapter," says Tomasson. "We will miss him."
Sofranko says he had recently begun putting his name forward for artistic directorships as a next step in his career and heard about the opening at Michigan's only professional ballet company from high school friend Penny Saunders, who is GRB's resident choreographer.
Like many, Sofranko says his knowledge of GRB was more recent. "I had heard and read about the company under Patricia Barker," he says. "I feel like it has risen in its reputation and I am happy to take it at this crucial point and keep it on an upwards trajectory."
Sofranko says he brings to his new post connections to a network of choreographers, dancers and designers he knows and has worked with over the years. In addition, he has experience in programming and producing a dance season, as well as a background as a choreographer, marketer and fundraiser for SFDanceworks and for the annual cancer benefit Dance For A Reason (DanceFAR).
"I feel there are a lot hats I've worn in my career and that experience can be put to use at Grand Rapids Ballet," he says.
And while he plans to keep his contemporary-dance focused SFDanceworks going in the summers, Sofranko says his vision for GRB is much broader. "I want to continue the focus the company has had on new works but also bring a renewed energy in presenting classical ballets and full-lengths."
In addition, he wants GRB's repertory to include newer ballets from choreographers (including himself) that work in the ballet idiom such as Liam Scarlett, Christopher Wheeldon and Stanton Welch. "I want to present great ballet pieces that Grand Rapids audiences will want to and need to see. I also still want to do things that are different and unusual and have choreographers come to Grand Rapids and experiment."
While the big picture of what Grand Rapids Ballet will look like under his leadership is yet to be painted, Sofranko says he will not be proposing any major changes right away, if at all. For now he says he's concentrating on finishing out his dance career at SFB, making the move to Grand Rapids with his wife Cindy Sheppard ( a former dancer with Oakland Ballet and Ballet San Jose) and two children, and getting to know his new company.