Around Orlando: A Chat with Orlando Ballet’s Executive Director Shane Jewell

On Wednesday, you got to know a little about the Artistic Director of Orlando Ballet, Mr. Robert Hill. Today, please get to know the Executive Director of Orlando Ballet, Shane Jewell. 

Mr. Jewell. Image from the Orlando Ballet website, featuring a smashing bowtie! 

Jen Bradley: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, first of all!

Shane Jewell: My pleasure.

JB: Let’s jump right in. You came to Orlando from Oklahoma City and have a degree in Film Theory. How did you come to be involved with ballet?

SJ: Well I’ve been involved in the arts my entire life and in musical theater, went to college on a musical theater scholarship. Then decided I wanted a more marketable degree so I went for film theory. After college I worked for this one company that presented national touring Broadway shows for tent cities in the Midwest, and I became Executive Director of a Classical Music Festival and then Executive Director of Oklahoma City Ballet. As someone who’s on the business side, going to the ballet I fell in love. It’s one of the few performing arts organizations where your performers and talent is in the studio Monday through Friday, just as I or you are. You take them into the office and go sit in on rehearsals and be close to the art they’ve created. Most times, even with regional theaters with rehearsals or tours or concerts, the artist comes in, they perform and they leave. You don’t get to know them or know their stories, watch them create this beautiful piece. So I really fell in love with being able to observe the process.

The Turnaround

JB: Orlando Ballet was on the brink of shutting its doors and now it’s building a 12 million-dollar, 38 thousand-square-foot performance arts center. A great deal of that is owed to Harriet Lake’s donation but to what else do you attribute such a turnaround?

SJ: Oftentimes with turnaround there’s not one thing you can point at and say ‘this is the sole reason.’ I think a lot of it started with bringing in new board leadership as Jonathan Ledden as our incoming board president had a background in finance and also in ballet before going to finance. So he really understood the industry. We just started doing this top-down, deep-dive into every department, the policies and procedures that were put in place, and are just organizationally getting the company back to where it needed to be. The artistic product is continuing to excel and people are starting to come back to the ballet again. In incredible numbers! We’ve broken records for almost every ballet we’ve had so far this season and the past season was the same. So we’re seeing a real resurgence right now for the excitement that’s happening with the company, with how we’re marketing and branding ourselves, our involvement in the community, has increased significantly in terms of our enrichment program. You know, our development team has been growing our donor base – There’s just so many things that’re working in our favor right now. Obviously the building is a huge statement toward that. Really we couldn’t do without Harriet’s incredibly generous contribution but what is also exciting to me and speaks a lot about how the community feels is that the remainder of the funds for the building came from Orange County. So to see the city and the county stepping up and saying, ‘Not only are you important to this community, but we’re going to invest in you.

JB: Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, Mowgli (The Jungle Book)… can we expect to see an adaptation of Frozen anytime soon?

SJ: [Laughs] I believe the term is ‘I plead the fifth.’

JB: Gotcha, gotcha. Personally I have no feelings about Frozen whatsoever, I would be just as excited if you did Finding Nemo. But I have no idea how you’d do that.

SJ: That one would be a little bit more of a challenge. Although they do have The Little Mermaid as a ballet.

‘…over 15 thousand students came to the Nutcracker for free last year.’

JB: You’ve been quoted as saying you wish you see ‘more productions, more dances, more classes’ for the school. Can I interpret that as the school growing beyond ballet into other dance styles? Or are those already represented?

SJ: We have already begun the process of adding different styles of dance to our classes. We want a class for anyone who wants to take—our mission statement is to entertain, educate, and enrich to the highest quality. We’re very specific about saying ‘dance’ and not ‘ballet.’ We have everything from Latin cardio, tap, to contemporary character and jazz. We’re still looking at ways to grow even more. The new building opening up is going to give us extra studio space that we can now fill with different types of classes. So anything dance-related, you can find something that you want at Orlando Ballet School.

JB: That’s great, and that leads into my next question about…

SJ: What a perfect segue!

JB: Exactly! What kinds of outreach do you currently have and are trying to develop in Orlando’s many diverse communities?

SJ: Right now we have several different programs. We have a steps program, where we are teaching ballet on a regular basis to over 21 different schools and Boys and Girls clubs throughout Central Florida. And predominantly those are underserved Title I schools. We’re just trying to make sure that – Part of our mission is to make sure that any child or anyone who wants to take dance or learn dance, it should be available to them regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status. It’s incredibly important to us. So the training is part of it but also it’s important to let children at a young age experience the live ballet. Every sixth grader in Orange County, over 15 thousand students, came to the Nutcracker for free last year. And we’re doing it again next year, and we’ve done it for several years now. What’s so great for me is that almost everyone who’s in the audience can tell you about something, a show they saw when they were a kid. For me it was West Side Story. And that show sparked a love for the arts that’s continued throughout my entire life. So when I think of those 15 thousand kids seeing the Nutcracker for free – many of them have never been to Dr. Phillips Centre and have never seen the ballet – I think to myself, I wonder how many of these kids today is this going to be that show for them. That alters their life and heads them into a life in the arts.

JB: That’s a lovely thought. That’s sort of on track with that philosophy—something about people planting trees they know they’ll never sit under having a real grasp of perspective.

SJ: Absolutely.

‘It’ll be nice for us all to be under the same roof.’

JB: The building will reunite the –going back to the Centre – the building will reunite the company, school, and offices. What sort of impact, if any, do you think the three being broken up has had?

SJ: Well first and foremost is communication. Making sure that every department and every location is on the same page with what’s happening. We have a weekly, hour-long staff meeting that’s hard to really keep people updated on the day-to-day of what’s happening in the office. I also think strategically it will allow us to be more creative in how we operate because we’ll have every department at our disposal to get their input on how we should handle something. Then I think just in general even for staff morale –we say we’re the Orlando Ballet family but sometimes it feels like we have aunts and uncles in one location and cousins in another location… It’ll be nice for us all to be under the same roof. One big happy family.

JB: Indeed. I just have one more question, I asked this same question of Mr. Hill yesterday. The Centre will be located in the locus of Orange County’s cultural and arts community, Loch Haven Park. What ideas for collaborations with your new neighbors, such as the Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Science Museum, or the Museum of Art are on the horizon? Are there any?

SJ: Well we already collaborate with the Museum of Art, we have our students go, and we’ll do various collaborations with different organizations including CFCR’s Bach Festival, Orlando Philharmonic, so we are always looking at ways that we can collaborate with our partners. We feel very strongly of the ‘rising tide raises all ships’ mentality. Anything that we can do to help make everyone stronger is something that we’re interested in. I can’t talk to any specific upcoming project.

JB: Of course. Well Mr. Jewell that’s all I have for today. Is there anything you’d like our readers to know specifically? About your background or…

SJ: You should let them know they need to come see a ballet.

JB: Yes sir!

Disclaimer: Late to the Theater has not received financial compensation to write any articles about Orlando Ballet. However, we are sometimes invited to view performances.

Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

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