Madison Ballet CEO Jonathan Solari leaving for New Orleans
The Madison Ballet, known for its annual “Nutcracker” and recent efforts to make an artistic leap with new leadership, is undergoing further changes.
Madison Ballet Artistic Director Ja’ Malik will assume the additional role of executive director with the imminent departure of CEO Jonathan Solari, the longtime arts organization announced.
Solari, who joined Madison Ballet from New York in March 2019, is relocating to Louisiana to take on the position of development director at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, he said.
“It was time” to move on, Solari said. “I was really proud of all the work I’ve done over the past four years and the development of the organization. I’m really confident that the organization will tackle this next chapter.”
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Solari’s move “was a bit of a surprise,” said Ja’ Malik, who Solari and the Madison Ballet board recruited from New York last summer.
Corkey Custer, longtime Madison Ballet board member, said the board will meet Wednesday night and plan to finalize the job description for Solari’s successor.
“We have every intention of filling Jonathan’s position,” Custer said.
Ja’ Malik, whose name is a mixture of his first and middle names, said he gained experience in the dual roles of artistic and executive director while running his own dance company Ballet Boy Productions in New York for seven years.
He’s comfortable doing that again at Madison Ballet on a temporary basis, he said, but stressed that the company’s “top priority” should now be finding a director of development.
“I’m able to take on the role of Jonathan for a good year and a half,” he said, “with the hope that we get a development director who can help us grow our budget and donor sponsorships to really bring us together.” to help with the outreach, the gigs, the touring and the things we want to do with the organization.”
The years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough for the performing arts, and many organizations are now working hard to lure audiences back. But Solari said he is leaving Madison Ballet on a solid financial footing.
Madison Ballet’s annual operating budget was approximately $1.1 million when Solari joined the performing arts company, Solari said.
“Last year it was $2.2 million, so we almost doubled that,” he said Wednesday. “We are in the best financial position the organization has ever been in, in my opinion. Much of this is due to how we have navigated the pandemic and taken advantage of the programs that have been available to us during this time.”
As of December 2022, The Nutcracker — the company’s flagship annual production and main source of income — “was, in my opinion, the highest-grossing production we’ve ever had,” Solari said. “Ticket sales were strongest and so was revenue.”
The Madison Ballet had just moved to its current home at 6734 Odana Road when Solari took over the helm. It is a resident company of the Overture Center for the Arts, where it performs “The Nutcracker” at Overture Hall each year.
The company’s next production will be Ballet Beyond, which runs March 31 through April 8 at the Starlight Theater at the MYArts Center. “Ballet Beyond” will feature the company’s professional dancers as well as dancers from the Madison Ballet School in works choreographed by Ja’ Malik and former dancers from the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
During Solari’s tenure, the company also innovated through outdoor performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Wisconsin parks and excerpts from “The Nutcracker” performed for Afghan refugees temporarily housed at Fort McCoy. The company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2022 with a program entitled “Turning Pointe” intended to signal an ambitious new artistic vision.
Madison Ballet also recently saw the departure of School of Madison Ballet principal Jacob Ashley El, who was previously a dancer with the company for 15 years.
“Unfortunately, we had to re-evaluate that role and take a step back,” said Ja’ Malik, who has since appointed rehearsal director Richard Walters as principal.
The ballet school is focused on training dancers for a potential career in the art form, but now has to compete with an exploding number of dance schools in the region, particularly those training for dance competitions, Ja’ Malik said.
“Frankly, there is a glut of dance schools in this community,” Solari agreed. “It’s a really tough market to run a school for success.”
Reflecting on his four years at Madison Ballet, Solari said he wishes the partnerships the company had formed with community centers and other nonprofits could thrive, but many of those outreach efforts have been hampered by the COVID-19 outbreak. pandemic stopped.
“We were still able to do good work with the Bayview Foundation and neighboring school districts,” Solari said, “but I would just like to see the organization’s education arm put more emphasis on these partnerships than putting these resources into the school.” I think a healthier, balanced organization would do as much outreach as it does school work.
“My other regret is that I won’t see the rest of Ja’ Malik’s work,” Solari said. “I think the season that we have started planning for next year and the year after is really incredible. I’ll do my best to fly in and cheer them on for the opening nights.”
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“We’re in the best cash position that I think the organization has ever been in.”
Jonathan Solari stepping down as CEO of Madison Ballet