Supporting Women and the Community Through Dance

Photography by Daniel Smyth

Victoria Morgan believes in the power of dance. As artistic director and CEO, she is proud of the impact Cincinnati Ballet is having in the community. 

“I want people to know how Cincinnati Ballet is impacting our community through our high-level Academy training, extensive education outreach programming, fitness classes, extraordinary performances and through unique collaborations,” Morgan says. “This season, we began an Étoile women’s series, which is focused on gathering women from our region and all walks of life to share their stories, network and discuss female leadership – the feminine version of the good old girls (boys) club.” 

The inspiration for Étoile was triggered by the fact that there is a dearth of female choreographers in the ballet world. “Less than nine percent of all ballets that are choreographed in the USA for midrange and major ballet companies are choreographed by women,” Morgan says. “I hope as a top midrange ballet company, we can help shift that inequality. Every year for the last four years, Cincinnati Ballet has produced one full series that highlights female choreographers.”

The leadership disparity is even more pronounced in the artistic director realm. “All the major dance companies in the country are run by men,” says Morgan, who is one of only three female artistic directors leading ballet companies with operating budgets of $7 million or more across the country. “When I became artistic director almost 20 years ago, women’s leadership in ballet was sparse, and that unfortunate truth continues to prevail.”

As Morgan began talking with women in corporate leadership, she realized they were facing similar issues in the top-tier, C-suite levels of their industries. “I thought, why don’t we have this conversation in the community and bring awareness to the issue?” she says. “The individual stories of women rising to take on CEO positions, whether in an art form or a corporation, are compelling.”

The Étoile group has grown exponentially in this last year.  “The program links this broad issue between our art form and our community in recognizing and deep-diving on a topic that has national and international relevance,” Morgan says. “There are many successful female leaders in our community who have chosen to be part of this dialogue and who are interested in mentoring and being mentored.” 

One such successful female leader is Kay Geiger, regional president of PNC Bank for Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. “Étoile expands connections through a growing network of relationships and friendships where we can celebrate and support each other both professionally and personally,” she says. “It’s a powerful opportunity to learn and grow together.”

Along with Geiger, the past season of Étoile included a panel of local top-tier women in leadership, including Candace McGraw, CEO of CVG; Jeanette Altenau, director of community relations at TriHealth Inc.; and Cammy Dierking, news anchor at WKRC-TV, Local 12.

“We have highlighted, and Étoile supports, female choreographers in the creation of new ballets for Cincinnati Ballet,” Morgan says. International choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa was a part of the Director’s Choice series and an Étoile event guest speaker, joined by two top-tier Cincinnati Ballet female dancers. “Annabelle is one of those exceptional women in our profession who is fracturing that glass ceiling,” says Morgan.

Morgan wants Étoile to do more than bring awareness to statistics. She wants a conversation about personal stories. Through Étoile, Morgan hopes women can find encouragement and confidence in other women’s stories.

“Victoria Morgan is an iconic leader who embodies what Étoile means, which is an exceptional female dancer, as it was originally named for the top female ballerinas of the Paris Opera Ballet,” Geiger says. “Her position as the only female artistic director and CEO of a major ballet company puts her in ground-breaking territory. Our community owes the success of our now nationally acclaimed ballet to the leadership of Victoria Morgan.”

For Morgan, however, the rise to leadership was somewhat unexpected. “In my early days, I thought leaders were born. They come out of the womb and are heading down the path to leadership. They know it, and they feel it,” she says. “What I didn’t know is that’s actually not true.”

Étoile speakers, who were not always predicted to be leaders, tell their personal stories of facing challenges and overcoming hurdles.
“I think in some ways, that’s one of the most important stories, not assuming that you have to be born into leadership,” Morgan says.

Morgan believes in the power of these conversations. “It feeds the stories we are building about women, our capabilities and often hard-won ability to believe in ourselves,” she says. “It’s a blending of ideas, taking confidence and learning from each other, because the stories overlap and have commonality.”

These stories are important in promoting female leadership.  “It’s an incredible privilege to be a member of Étoile,” Geiger says. “Together we are able to cultivate a spirit of shared leadership and broader awareness across our professions.”

Étoile, which offers five events throughout the year, is a mix of women already in leadership, as well as women who aspire to be. “It’s a really welcome place for all women,” Morgan says.

In addition to conversations about women and leadership, the group includes events that are simply fun and enjoyable, from attending a ballet rehearsal and run-through to taking a ballet class taught by Morgan herself.

“It has been fun,” Morgan says. “I’ve been thankful that many women have stepped forward to support the program.” Similar Étoile events are planned for the 2016-2017 season. “We are hoping to bring in a high-powered national female speaker.”

Morgan is proud of other Cincinnati Ballet programs, which are impacting the community as well. “Last December,
Cincinnati Ballet presented what we called a Sensory Friendly Nutcracker for families with specific-needs children.” With softened lighting and no loud sounds, the performance was non-threatening.  The house never went dark, and it was perfectly acceptable for family members to make noise. 

“There were 800 people in the audience who understood each others’ challenges. Noise was not a problem,” Morgan says. “I had so many parents come up to me and say, we’ve never been able to go to the theater before as a family.”

This is the 20th year for Cincinnati Ballet’s CincyDance! program, which was offered in more than 35 Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky public and private schools for six weeks, teaching life skills and ballet to more than 2,000 third-graders. From those students, the top 60 were invited to attend a 20-week Ballet Foundations class free of charge. “We believe diversity is everybody, so 85 percent of the students are from Title 1 schools, underserved and at risk,” says Julie Sunderland, director of education and outreach. “Then we take the top five into the academy on scholarship for life.”

“I’m really proud of the dance programming we do throughout our community,” Morgan says. “We’re starting to see these students in Frisch’s Presents The Nutcracker, ALICE (in wonderland) and The Sleeping Beauty.”

In Ballet Moves, Cincinnati Ballet uses creativity and ballet movements to help children with Down syndrome develop strength and endurance. “We are collaborating with Children’s Hospital to better understand physical restriction and to monitor the effectiveness of the program,” Sunderland says. “Our next step will be a class for children with cerebral palsy.”

Cincinnati Ballet offers ballet classes for children and adults, and a choreographed aerobic workout through DANCEFIX, with Heather Britt.              

In addition to classes, Cincinnati Ballet gives tours of the building and takes dancers into the community to perform at senior and community centers and schools. They have performed at the airport, Fountain Square and Washington Park. “We will take the dancers anywhere to connect and get you engaged with your body, to maybe challenge your ideas of what you think ballet is,” Sunderland says.

Morgan also celebrates her 20th season with Cincinnati Ballet this year.  “My ultimate goal is that dance would be an intricate part of our community life, whether it’s working out through dance, having children in our Academy, being a part of our dance education experience or attending performances,” she says.

What legacy does Morgan hope to leave behind?  “I would like to feel that my legacy as artistic director and CEO will be that, under my leadership, we connected to our community by bringing dance to all walks of life, offered some of the most audacious and ambitious artistic programming and through these endeavors we attained our greatest financial stability.”

Geiger has nothing but praise for Morgan and her tenure in Cincinnati. “She has graceful elegance, fierce creativity, exceptional standards of excellence and, to use one of Victoria’s words, ‘fantastical’ innovation,” she says. “She has assured our Cincinnati Ballet is one of the foremost ballet companies in the country through the growth they have experienced and the innovative leadership that has propelled their success.” 

Visit the Cincinnati Ballet box office at 1555 Central Parkway to purchase tickets in person. For more information, call 513.621.5282 or visit