When Gen Horiuchi became the executive and artistic director of Saint Louis Ballet, his mentor Peter Martins offered the same wisdom that George Balanchine had given him: Running a company isn't just about ballet—you have to do and oversee everything. That leadership philosophy is what Horiuchi, now 53, has adopted at Saint Louis Ballet.
The Tokyo native and former New York City Ballet principal took over the financially troubled company from longtime artistic directors Ludmila Dokoudovsky and Antoni Zalewski in 2000. Within two years Horiuchi stabilized the organization's finances and restructured and revitalized the Saint Louis Ballet School. In 2010, he moved the organization into a new 7,500-square-foot facility with four studios.
Now in his 18th season with SLB, Horiuchi has increased the company's annual operating budget from $200,000 in 2000 to $2 million currently, grown the number of dancers from 13 to 25, and added more productions (when he arrived they were only perform- ing Nutcracker). He's also increased ticket sales and bolstered the school's enrollment from 50 to 350 students.
A former Mistoffelees in CATS on Broadway and London's West End, Horiuchi says his experiences in musical theater have taught him that you don't need a large cast to produce quality full-length productions like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. "Even though we only have 25 dancers we can produce good story ballets," he says. SLB's repertoire also includes well-known works by Balanchine and contemporary works by dancemakers such as Amy Seiwert, Emery LeCrone, Francis Patrelle, Tom Gold and himself.
"I do like the athleticism of dance movement," says Horiuchi. In choosing choreographers to create on the company, he says he looksfor that athleticism à la Balanchine in their prior work and decides whether or not he feels they can create something that will challenge his dancers.
On top of his artistic and administrative duties, Horiuchi choreographs a couple of ballets per season. Elliott Geolat, a 32-year-old Saint Louis native who's SLB's longest-tenured dancer, says Horiuchi favors a neoclassical, sometimes jazzy style in his original works. In Horiuchi's restaging of classical story ballets, such as Cinderella, Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet, Geolat says he has the keen ability to clarify a ballet's storyline and make it accessible to a broader audience.
When it comes to working with his dancers, Horiuchi says he finds leading by example to be most effective. "I'm in the studio every minute of every day," he says. While he oversees all aspects of SLB, his artistic and administrative staffs help make this possible. And when he is not teaching company class, he takes it with the dancers.
Geolat describes Horiuchi's leadership style as firm but approachable. "He sets an example for us by taking his work very seriously," says Geolat. "He tries to maintain the highest standards and is good about motivating the dancers and keeping them from plateauing."
Horiuchi even shares the stage with his company when he choreographs new contemporary works. Though unorthodox, Horiuchi has his reasons for these annual cameos. "It's important for me to dance with them. Of course I cannot jump and turn as I used to, but I know how to present myself onstage, and sharing those [teachable] moments with the dancers connects with them more than me just telling them what to do."
In an effort to take some of the pressure off dancers when it comes to planning their careers, Horiuchi says it is widely under- stood that their contracts will be renewed each season. Barring any dismissible offenses, his dancers can choose to stay as long as they wish instead of annually worrying about their job security. As such, the non-ranked company has a low turnover rate, with dancers stay- ing on average six-plus years.
In the short term, Horiuchi would like to expand the company's main-stage productions to two weekends each instead of one. SLB's 2017–18 season features six programs, including two additions: Its new GO! Series will feature works created for smaller casts in more intimate venues. Horiuchi's long-term goals include increasing the dancer ranks to 30–32 and paying his artists more.
Though some might see his do-it-all philosophy as untenable, Horiuchi welcomes the challenge. "It's hard and I sleep less, but I enjoy every minute of it."
"The minute you walk into the studio you are being evaluated," says Horiuchi. "I look for individuals who are technically and artistically well-rounded. I also look at how they engage with my dancers. Presence and personality are important." Annual auditions take place during company classes by invitation only February 28–April 1, with a March 10 application deadline. Horiuchi and his artistic team conduct personal interviews and assess dancers in specific areas, such as footwork, jumping, turning and musicality.
Saint Louis Ballet At a Glance
Number of dancers: 25
Length of contract: 28 weeks
Starting salary: $300 per week
Performances per year: 25