Winslett teaching company class. Photo by Aaron Sutten, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

From the Ground Up: Stoner Winslett's 30-Plus-Year Tenure Brings Solidarity To Richmond Ballet

This story originally appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of Pointe.
In 1980, just months after graduating from Smith College, Stoner Winslett attended a performance by Richmond Ballet. Though it was then just a student company, with a modest budget of $164,000, they were performing in a large venue, with the Richmond Symphony in the pit. “I saw so much potential on that stage," says Winslett. “And I thought, Boy, I should help these people."

At the time, one director ran the separate school and company. “They wanted someone to come work as her assistant, for the company," says Winslett. Three months after Winslett took the position, the director resigned, and at just 22 years old, Winslett became Richmond Ballet's artistic director and the company's first full-time employee.


Now, over 34 years later, the Virginia troupe is a highly regarded regional company with a diverse repertoire, a $5.4 million budget and a growing national and international reputation. At the helm is one of the longest-sitting artistic directors in the country, and one of the few women in the role.

Despite her youth and, at the time, relative inexperience running a company, Winslett had a lot going for her. She was smart, she was game and she loved ballet. She had trained since the age of 4 and spent time at American Ballet Theatre's school and North Carolina School of the Arts before she was sidelined by knee injuries, and then attended Smith. There, she began choreographing and directing student performances—and that's where she made the RB connection. She was recommended for the directorship by the mother of a friend who was dancing with her at Smith.

Winslett watching a company rehearsal. Photo by Aaron Sutten, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

Reflecting on the company's impressive growth, Winslett notes a challenging time that was coupled with a tremendous achievement: the acquisition of a building. After a successful capital campaign, the company moved into its current home in downtown Richmond in 2000. “It was incredible," she says. “But we went from 17,000 to 55,000 square feet, so operating costs and some of the ways we intended to fund that didn't go as well as we wanted. There were moments I thought we might not make it."

Winslett found a way through by creating the Studio Series, repertory performances in the building's Studio Theater, which converts a large dance space into an intimate black-box theater. The series, which typically features six-day runs of new work and repertory favorites with commentary from choreographers and the director, was and continues to be a tremendous success. Aside from supplementing their revenue, it builds audience appreciation for contemporary ballet and challenges the dancers' versatility and stamina.

RB's repertoire comes from three different categories: classics (such as Swan Lake,The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker), significant works from choreographers of our own time and brand-new ballets. These new works, along with revivals of creations from recent years, dominate much of the repertoire, including ballets by contemporary choreographers such as Ma Cong, Jessica Lang (who began working with RB early on in her choreographic career) and Colin Connor.

In 2012, RB launched its second company, Richmond Ballet II, which serves in place of an apprentice program. Additionally, trainees with Richmond Ballet have the opportunity to audition for a joint degree program with Virginia Commonwealth University and earn a BFA, receiving credit for their RB experience.

Dancers tend to stay with the company for years, finding its ensemble structure and varied repertoire provide a nourishing home for artistic growth. Lauren Fagone, who has danced with RB for 13 years, says, “We're a company of soloists and principals, in truth. Everyone has a moment when you are in the spotlight. And you have moments when you are the one in the wings, and you are so elated for your friends. I never say 'my co-workers' here. I say 'my friends,' or 'my family.' "

In recent years the company has toured to New York and London, performing repertoire as diverse as Balanchine's Valse-Fantaisie and Val Caniparoli's Swipe, to great acclaim. This spring they'll visit China as cultural ambassadors. But, Winslett says, success is not just about gaining national or international attention. “We want to be able to attract and keep the best artists that we can, and that means longer contracts." RB is currently working toward 45 weeks as part of their fundraising campaign. And when they do tour, Winslett says RB's aim is to fulfill its mission: “ 'to awaken and uplift the human spirit,' so the people in our community feel pride in what they have."

Richmond Ballet At a Glance

  • Size: 16 dancers, plus 10 in Richmond Ballet II
  • Starting Salary: information available upon request
  • Length of Contract: 35 weeks, plus an extension for this year's tour to China
  • Performances: About 70, some on tour

Audition Advice: "Richmond Ballet II is where we immediately look when we need a company dancer," says Winslett. Outside dancers of interest are invited to Richmond to audition via company class.

Winslett values a clean line and a palpable love of the art. "Our dancers dance from their physical and emotional core. When I teach, I tell them, 'By the waltz combination in the center, if you're not smiling, you're probably in the wrong profession.' You shouldn't be doing this unless you live it in a way that is irrepressible. And you ought to be showing everyone that, starting with the director and the ballet master, and ending with the audience."

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After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

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Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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