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The female-founded American Ballet Theatre, established by Lucia Chase, is one of the most revered dance companies—not just in America, but in the world. It’s existed for 80 years and is largely considered a national treasure that’s steeped in tradition and legacy. Janet Rollé’s goal is to maintain the integrity of the classic company while creatively looking for ways to expand the scope of both the audience and dancers. That’s important to consider as the company works to maintain its relevance, she says, because the world has “changed dramatically over the last 30 years.”
Prior to her position at the ABT, Rollé was general manager at Beyoncé’s media company, Parkwood Entertainment. During her five-year tenure, Rollé oversaw all business operations, which included creative productions in film, television and video. She played an integral role on several major projects, including as associate producer of the pop star’s history-making performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the subsequent Netflix film, Homecoming, and then executive producer of her visual album and film Black Is King, which won an Emmy for costume design. Before taking the next step and leaving that role, she says she wanted to make sure ABT wasn’t reaching out just to satisfy a quota.
Once she was assured she was one of their top candidates, she went through an extensive process before officially taking over on Jan. 3, becoming the company’s first Black leader in the process. Her first order of business, she says, was making the American Ballet Theatre a viable entertainment source again. “What I think about is how to make that definition of being America’s National Ballet Company real and true for all Americans,” she says.
Rollé says that while she is the leader of the entire company, working on behalf of all its artists, she also doesn’t “separate my Blackness from my leadership, since that would deny me my full humanity and everything I have to offer in service of the company.”
“I want us to be able to continue to fulfill the mission, which is to bring the art form to the widest possible audience,” she says.
While her executive duties focus on the business aspect of the company, Rollé is a creative person at heart, using her right and left brain together—just like a ballerina gracefully moving in perfect harmony. Dance, creative arts and entertainment are not new mediums to Janet, but her new role at the ABT is truly a full-circle moment. “I danced professionally for five years. I loved it and enjoyed it, but I made an affirmative decision to stop and make that career transition, quite frankly, before that decision was made for me,” she reflects.
Dance was foundational to Rollé’s career. She attended SUNY Purchase, earning a degree in dance even though it disappointed her immigrant parents. She says that resistance left her feeling unassured about her choice, that is until a beloved faculty advisor gave her “life-changing” words of encouragement. That mentor was Ivan Nagy, who was also a principal dancer for the ABT.
“He was elegant and beautiful and gracious and kind and one of my idols growing up,” Rollé remembers. “He said, ‘Janet, the technique is there, the artistry is there, but you have something the others don’t, and that's charisma.’ It wasn’t what he said as much as it was that one of my ballet idols affirmed my choice to become a dancer. That affirmation gave me the courage of my convictions and really inspired me to continue.”
Now that she’s in a position to make a change at the ABT, Rollé says she wants to bridge the gap between dancer and audience. She also understands the power and strength of creative expression, as well as the commitment it takes for a dancer to even be considered for the ABT, comparing it to being chosen for the NBA or NFL.
As beautiful and artistic as ballet is, she feels it is just as much a sport as any other, which is an entry point to expand the appreciation for it. “You get to see the best of human potential on display, to see people, do things that you can't even imagine are possible and bear witness to that,” she says. “That belief in human possibility is a life philosophy for me. Thinking the best of people, giving them the benefit of the doubt, realizing that grace, talent, artistry and intellect can come from anywhere.”
Senita Brooks is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.