Artslandia recently caught up with Michael Greer, the new Executive Director for Oregon Ballet Theatre, to discuss his fascinating path from ballet dancer to Mandarin-speaking international businessman, to his most recent stint as Executive Director for the Portland Ballet in Portland, Maine, where he led a major turnaround for the company.
What led you to become a dancer? What did you love about it?
I was born slightly pigeon-toed, and the doctor recommended to my parents that I do ballet in order to help with turnout. After a period of not dancing and doing other sports, a young woman that I was fond of convinced me to try again. I believe it was that year that I also got to spend my summer in NYC at the Joffrey Ballet school. Being a young man, on my own in NYC for eight weeks was enough to seal the deal for me. Looking back, and in all seriousness, I think it was the combination of discipline and expression that I enjoyed. That, combined with the opportunity to travel and meet new people, was a lot of what made dance so appealing to me.
You were the first Black dancer for Ballet West. What was that like for you? What are your thoughts on diversity in ballet today?
That’s funny because I don’t think I realized that until after several years with the company. I joined Ballet West in my teens, and the simple thrill of working as a professional was pretty much all I had time to think about. Looking back, I see that there may have been some significance to being the first, but I was fortunate to grow up watching and idolizing several dancers of color that I didn’t think too much of it. Not just in ballet, but the entire world is more diverse than ever before, and I think that is a good thing.
What prompted you to retire from performing and transition to the study of economics?
I remember seeing the difficulty that some—not all, but some—dancers had transitioning after a successful career. Ballet gives individuals an incredibly strong set of tools. Discipline, commitment, problem-solving; these are all areas that a dancer excels in just by working every day. But I remember doing a rough calculation of where I would be in life if I retired at a given age, and it just made sense to retire younger. I had a really great career for me. I was never a soloist or principal in rank, but I got to dance a lot of really great work with some wonderful people.
Economics seemed like it offered a broad set of new skills that I could take into the business world. It is, essentially, the study of choices, and that has always appealed to me.
What led you to pass on an opportunity to continue your study of economics at Stanford in favor of experience in international business?
I think, deep down, I wanted an adventure. Either path would have been an adventure, but I am quite pleased with the one I chose.
When and how did you learn to speak Mandarin?
I remember my first or second night on my own in China and being very hungry. I wandered into a place looking for food that turned out to be a foot massage parlor. In my embarrassment, I decided it was probably time for me to get serious. I had several courses and tutors over the years, but I mostly learned on my own and by practicing on the street. It is a difficult language, but being immersed and forced to use it daily goes a long way.
During the time you were away from the ballet world, was dance at all a part of your life?
Not really. I remember taking an elective in ballet at university, but that was about it. I spent the majority of my time away from the ballet world overseas in Asia. There were not as many opportunities for me to be a part of that world. I enjoy the idea that a large group of people I have met, gotten to know, and have significant relationships with, have no concept of me as a dancer. The ballet world can be all- consuming, and it is nice for me to have an identity outside of that.
What was the impetus for leaving China and returning to the U.S. and the dance world?
My children. My wife and I felt that we should choose a single country to raise our children. After some debate and a few trips, we settled on the U.S. As for returning to the dance world, that was actually recommended to me by a very dear old friend that has been in the industry for decades. The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. I also feel that it is a gift to be able to grow up in a theater environment. If I can be giving that gift to my children the same way it was given to me, that’s a reason in and of itself.
Did you plan your career path from dance to business to the business of dance? Or did you just follow opportunities as they arose?
I think calling my career path a “plan” of any sort is generous. I always knew I wanted to be a dancer. That was quite intentional. A lot of what followed stemmed from wanting to grow my skill set and following opportunities that would let that happen. Returning to the business of dance was also quite intentional. So I guess that says something for my love of the art.
What does an Executive Director do for a ballet company?
An Executive Director works hand-in-hand with the Artistic Director in order to provide leadership, guidance, and vision. I also feel that a Director or leader’s primary responsibility in any industry is to ensure that everyone around them has the tools they need to be successful.
What has it been like for you to be involved in ballet as a dancer and then an Executive Director?
I remember thinking one day, earlier on in my career as an Executive Director, that I needed to call my past ED from my dancing days and tell him how much I appreciate what he did. This is a multifaceted role with a high degree of complexity. I don’t think I knew enough about the role when I was a dancer. I also really enjoy interacting with all the dancers. I admire their commitment from a place of experience. I know how hard it is to do what they do every day. I also respect how hard it is to provide all the other key functions of a professional ballet company and school. Having seen this world from both sides, I can really appreciate everyone’s dedication and passion for what we produce.
What did you learn as a dancer that helps you in your role as an ED? What lessons from international business translate to your role as ED?
I think that dancing provides young people with a tangible example of the rewards of discipline. Dance is tough. But the rewards are like few others. When you realize that hard work really does translate to success, it makes the thought of achieving any goal much more attainable. Working abroad in the for-profit sector taught me a good deal of empathy. Working closely with cultures and languages very foreign to me, it forced me to think often about the lenses through which we see each other and how to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
What advice would you give to a young dancer as they embark on their stage career? What advice would you give to a dancer facing retirement?
The paths are so individual that advice is hard, but overall I’d say to both dancers, appreciate what you have right now because it is something very special that you will never have again. And don’t worry if your path is not 100 percent clear because, it may come as a surprise, but the best days of your life are probably yet to come.
What were the keys to your success in leading the turnaround at the Portland Ballet (in Maine)?
Without a doubt, it was my team. From my board to my AD, staff, dancers, parents, volunteers, etc., I was surrounded by talent and passion. I don’t think that anyone in my position would have accomplished anything without those people.
What do you hope to accomplish as the ED at OBT? What will it take for you to consider your first year a success?
My first task as an incoming Executive Director is to listen and learn from the entire community. I had a great mentor that often told us, “If you shut up, people will tell you exactly what you need to hear.” My first year will be a success if I begin to understand what it is that the community wants out of this organization. OBT has been around since 1989, and there are a lot of great minds that I want to hear from.
In your opinion, what do the two Portlands (Maine and Oregon) have in common? What’s different?
Ha. Both have a strong arts environment that punches well above its weight, great people, and an amazing craft brewery scene. There are also a lot of similarities in the natural beauty of the cities and states. I am glad that Portland won the coin toss. As for what is different? Snow. Lots and lots of snow.
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