Paul Seaquist is a ballet impresario, which conjures up an image of a Diaghilev figure with a fur-collared coat and silver-topped cane. However, Seaquist is quite different physically: a recent television interview saw him in jeans and a V-neck T-shirt, and he's quite a bit thinner, and certainly better looking, than the Russian impresario. His thinking is modern too:
I often think of Steve Jobs who, as a computer freak, didn't only place his bets on one slot, he diversified. He understood things most of us can barely fathom – especially in the ballet world! – and by doing this he didn't only revolutionise the computer industry, but the movie industry, the music industry, the mobile telephone industry, just to mention a few. This is the kind of leader the dance world needs: people who think outside the box.
What does ‘thinking outside the box' actually mean for a ballet impresario?
Thinking outside the box is what makes something good become perfect…
Every time things are rethought, they are improved. This is the basic essence of reflecting. When you stop reflecting and you start believing on constant facts, things stop moving forward and stop being re-invented therefore improved. Somehow, I believe that for some time now, ballet has stopped being re-invented.
Of course, it depends on who's doing the rethinking, but his passion is evident.
Except for the works of a small few like Larbi or maybe the people at C de la B* things have remained dangerously static. To think outside of the box in a managerial aspect would be to create associations and partnerships that have not been explored yet… no matter how crazy… and unorthodox they might appear. A few months back, I found myself speaking to Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber´s manager, about joining forces for creating a production of Giselle on the moon!
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Maybe the best choice for the next leaders of companies and the leaders of our art form should not come from the same stale formula and egg basket of the retiring dancer, the retiring star. Maybe our next leaders should come from elsewhere. Maybe we should believe a bit more in the unorthodox, the rebels, the outsiders.
The above paragraph should certainly be censored if Seaquist's client and friend Vladimir Malakhov happens to be reading this!
I asked Seaquist just how you get to be a ballet impresario anyway:
I believe that most important things in life happen by a perfect combination of luck and passion. I am not sure how other people have become ballet impresarios or what has motivated them to do so. Other than my reading of the lives of the big ones, like Diaghilev or Sol Hurok, maybe Paul Szilard, my real communication with other ballet impresarios and/or ballet talent managers is nil. I don't think I´ve ever met another ballet impresario. I've had much more communication with music executives and managers as Andrew Loog Oldham, famous manager of the Rolling Stones, who in many ways seem more open-minded and articulate.
And his experience of ballet before impresario-ing?
I came in to the ballet World at a very young age, when I was six or seven years old. I remember my mother taking me to watch a performance at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago in Chile and how I fell completely head over heals in love with what I experienced: the beauty of the Opera House, the sound of the instruments tuning before the show, then the blackout before the performance began, the excitement, and then the magic of the dancers on stage!
I still remember once the show was over not wanting to leave, and crying, asking my mother to let me stay. The only way she could get me out of my seat was promising me I could begin taking ballet lessons the next day. The next day I began training with a Royal Ballet teacher my mother knew. After this came my more formal ballet education with the Ballet School of the Teatro Municipal. Although I never danced professionally, I did my ballet school like all dancers.
Going from a ballet studio to producing evenings of ballet all over the world certainly isn't a normal step: the financial risk is great and the organisation complex.
As in most businesses or endeavours in life, I believe it takes vision and perseverance to become successful, whatever the definition of success you might have.
I remember when I started working as a ballet manager and impresario I didn't have a very clear view of what I wanted to do, but I did have very clear view of what I didn't want to do. I believe that was already a very good start. Organisation is without a doubt paramount, yet the vision you have is what is really important. At least for me it is important to answer your own questions and address your own doubts as you move forward in life as in business.
Although ballet is a small art form, without a great following, and therefore with limited revenue streams, it is spread in arms, which differ greatly among each other, around the world. Although the language is the same, the phonetics vary. How do you find the perfect marriage between these different styles, vocabularies and phonetics is an important question to address.
At the same time how can I find a marriage between other art forms. A communion that makes sense both artistically and financially and that allows for more people to buy tickets and be part of an awesome experience. It's not a question of ‘massification' – or maybe yes, why not – but a question of making a product which is more commercially viable in the market place.
Apart from producing something that people are willing to buy tickets to go and see, what does Seaquist want to communicate with the galas he produces?
Interesting question… I think it depends on where and why the galas are being done. For example, if the performances are being staged in Europe or Japan – especially Tokyo, where we have a very strong audience and fan base – it gives us the liberty to try out different things regarding repertoire and cast options. Japan has a very good ‘shit detector' since they have a large number of performances on offer every year. They have an amazing knowledge of what it is or should be… something similar, although not to that extent, happens in Europe.
And when the ballet culture is less present?
When the purpose of the shows is to open a new market, as we did just recently in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I believe it is important to educate the audience in terms of the history of ballet and dance. So it is of extreme importance to go back to the classics full on and show them the Swan Lakes, Sleeping Beauties, Giselles, a bit of the old Forsythe… what I call the warhorses. The idea is to do a Ballet 101 kind of performance and begin building up from there in the coming years.
I believe that, like in most of life´s real pleasures, it is important to educate yourself before you really can enjoy what you are doing. Ballet is an acquired taste and as such, it is important to be guided through the different stages of the process wisely. When you begin reading you begin with simple-to-understand books, maybe children´s books, or Harry Potter, you do not begin with reading Hamlet or War and Peace. Before you really enjoy a Rothschild Château Mouton you must first understand what lies inside a simple bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. With ballet, I believe it is in many ways the same. I don't think you can really appreciate Sidi Larbi´s Babel if you haven't first gone through the experience of any one of the big classics. You can't really understand what Wim Vandekeybus is doing if you haven't seen or gone through the experience of Kylian´s work… “A” always goes before “B”.
Seaquist is also Vladimir Malakhov's manager and its a relationship that has survived over the years.
Vladimir and I met almost twenty years ago in New York. He was dancing with ABT at the time. We had our first meeting because I had written a ballet libretto for him called Le Cirque set to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. We had a long and interesting meeting, which began in a very business-like fashion at Fiorello´s restaurant in front of the Met and ended at 4am drinking vodka in his house. At the time, I never imagined that 20 years later we would still be having business meetings and drinking vodka… though in reality we've switched to wine now! We've done amazing things together and I am very honoured to be Vladimir´s friend still!
And other friends… colleagues…?
My company has managed a large roster of ballet stars during the last fifteen years, and has worked and collaborated with them in many ways. I have been very fortunate to have worked with amazing dancers and people during my career: Vladimir, Aurélie Dupont, Mathias Heymann, Robert Tewsley, Dorothée Gilbert, José Carreño, Paloma Herrera, Daniil Simkin, Polina Semionova, Leonid Sarafanov, Alessio Carbone, Johan Kobborg, Marian Walter, Iana Salenko, Osiel Gouneo… the list goes on… I've been a very lucky man.
Producing star galas is a central part of his company's work, but that's not all.
We are doing a lot more than just galas. Galas are one aspect of our enterprise, which allows to create audience awareness and allows me to create a presence of the art form in different places where otherwise it wouldn't exist, much less flourish.
For the last years, we have been doing a lot of charity work. I realised how important it is to give back. Ballet has given me all I have, so I believe it is fair to give back. And giving is so easy, plus it feels good, so it's almost a self-serving thing to do.
So what does that mean practically?
During the last 8 years we have created alliances with a few charity foundations, specifically helping sick children around the world, and we provide not only ballet performances of the highest level to them, and of course the complete ticket sales, but also dance and ballet education free of charge. I have been lucky to have a great cast of dancers who have joined me in this cause. Everybody from Vladimir Malakhov, Paloma Herrera, Iana Salenko, Viengsay Valdés, Alejandro Virelles to Shoko Nakamura, Tigran Mikayelyan, Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae, just to name a few, have been part of this outreach and I am very thankful to them.
More recently Seaquist has become involved with dance in Cuba.
A few years back Vladimir Malakhov and I created an outreach project to support Cuban dancers in their own country. We began the project creating a full out festival which I called a Gift from Malakhov that attracted twelve Cuban companies to perform in the city of Holguin, Cuba. After this we had the idea of creating a ballet competition in Cuba but for all Latin American Dancers and choreographers called Grand Prix Vladimir Malakhov. We finished the first edition a few months back, which was an amazing success! We already have dates for the 2nd Grand Prix in September 2015 [22nd to the 30th], and we will be adding a category for the best company.
The Grand Prix Vladimir Malakhov also donates Master Classes to less affluent children and professional dancers, educational initiatives such as seminars and speeches, and it allows a platform for all Cuban companies to perform on our stage. For both Vladimir and I this has been an amazing experience of which we're very proud!
So what's next for Paul Seaquist?
Charity has become an important aspect of my life. The fact of giving has really changed my outlook of life. There is definitely a Paul Seaquist before and after I started with our “giving back” phase. So, in one way, I want to keep on with my charity work as much as it is feasible. There is nothing quite like holding someone and protecting someone when they need help and support. If I could keep on doing this, I would for my whole life.
On another hand, to permit this the business side has to be in good shape, so keeping your nose to the grindstone is important. For a long time now, I've been trying to enter the Middle East market, which has been more difficult than anticipated, especially after the financial debacle in Dubai a few years back… nevertheless I'm still trying to muscle myself in. We will see…
Seaquist is a mix between one who has a ‘go get ‘em' attitude, not afraid to ‘muscle in', and someone who observes and contemplates the world and his place in it. What does he think about today's ballet world?
I believe things should always change. This is the basis of evolution. The moment change stops, or movement stops, it is the instant in which we stop getting closer to perfection. Intellectual and emotional sedentarism is one of the most dangerous things in life. Once you stop reflecting you stop moving in the right direction.
In many aspects, I believe we have been stuck for the last decade (or more) in many ways. Especially in the classical scene. Creations are dated, they many times are bad copies of bad copies. And the real geniuses have already given what they had to give and died. I cannot understand what the thrill is in making yet another version of Swan Lake, or Sleeping Beauty, or Giselle for that matter. It seems many choreographers are out of ideas and are just cashing in on old ones and not doing a very good job at it.
I tend to see management focusing on the small picture instead of the large, still focusing on Petipa and pirouettes and not really understanding what is going on in the real world. Micromanagement is always a mistake.
But it is not all doom and gloom surely?
I think that many good things are happening in the ballet world today. I see how new and young Artistic Directors are already making their mark and somehow leading a way that was already lost by the last generation of Directors who apparently were a bit tired to lead the way. Tamara Rojo´s work as head of ENB for example as an amazing and inspiring tenure. She is without a doubt to me the leader of this new pack of leaders. This is one of the ways to move forward.
Dreams for the future?
There are still many… I want to create a ballet performance with Metallica or the Rolling Stones playing live on stage. The idea of a crossover between Dance and Rock & Roll is something that has motivated me for a long, long time.
Whether it is Giselle on the moon or a Mick Jagger ballet, Paul Seaquist is determined to think outside the box.
* Les Ballets C de la B or Ballets contemporains de la Belgique
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.