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Q&A with Houston Ballet Executive Director, Jim Nelson
Jim Nelson is no stranger to the world of ballet. Arriving at Houston Ballet Academy in the 80s, Jim completed his professional training and went on to have an 11-year professional career. After hanging up his ballet shoes, Jim went to school for a finance degree and upon completion found himself back at Houston Ballet as the company manager. This was the first step of many to his position now as executive director. His experience and his passion for the art of ballet provide insight into what it is like to love where you work.

Q. You are a veteran when it comes to Houston Ballet. What was the transition like to go from dancer to company manager to general manager and now to executive director?
A. Houston Ballet has been my home since the 80s. I came to the Academy as a student and completed my professional training here. I went on to have an 11-year professional career and retired from dancing to pursue a finance degree. Afterwards, I was the company manager for a few years, left for a little while and then came back as the general manager of Houston Ballet for 12 years. I will have been the executive director for Houston Ballet for four years this coming February.

Q. What habits as a dancer have you carried over into your job as the executive director?
A. As a dancer you’re focused on doing it perfectly. There’s not a whole lot of gray area between perfect and bad because right or wrong is a real dancer focus. It’s got to be right, and throughout my life I certainly approached school and work the same way. But you have to realize as a dancer you’re focused on yourself and your own performance. As a manager you’re no longer controlling only your own actions, you’re guiding and leading a team of people. At Houston Ballet we certainly strive for the top! We are going to put excellence on the stage, in our community programs, and even presentations to our board. It is all driven from that quest for excellence, like the performances you see on stage.

Q. How does Houston Ballet compare to other large city residential ballet organization?
A. In North America the major companies are pretty similar in structure, and have a similar combination of classics and contemporary works. The greats like Balanchine, Robbins, Cranko and other choreographers of the past century are well represented in our repertory. What makes us different from the other major companies is that we are a company that is driven by a choreographer. Stanton Welch, as well as Ben Stevenson before him, are prolific choreographers making a contribution to the art form. Here we focus on a lot of new work that comes out of Houston along with the great classics and new works created by the best names in the business.

Q. To what do you attribute Houston Ballet’s large social media following?
A. We are striving for authenticity. I believe allowing our artists to capture images or videos of their view from backstage, life on tour and at rehearsals makes it much more interesting. Ballet is such a visual art, and people really enjoy seeing an artist in their element.

Q. Why is it important for Houston Ballet to create programming for the schools and community?
A. We do this to provide access to the arts that would otherwise not exist. When I was in public school I had the opportunity to be exposed to different art programs. That original exposure to the arts completely changed my life. It changed the focus of what I wanted to do, and it opened up a whole different world to me. When school budgets get cut, arts programming gets cut. We have 11 different programs in 200 schools and were able to reach 40,000 students last year, and we hope to bump that up to 50,000 in the next 5 years. The Ballet and our colleagues in the cultural arts community have all stepped up to provide opportunities for programming that was traditionally done by the schools but now falls to us. We are happy to do it. It is service to our community.

Q. Being a professionally trained dancer do you ever still get to dance?
A. I dance in the elevator! Due to a few surgeries on my foot, I am unable to take barre or class anymore which I always loved, so I can’t do any ballet dancing. So I do most of my dancing in the elevator.

Q. Houston is saying farewell to Ben Stevenson’s The NutcrackerI, how will Stanton Welch’s The Nutcracker be different?
A. We are saying a fond farewell to Ben Stevenson’s rendition of The Nutcracker. It has been a family favorite for many Houstonians for the past 29 years. But we are excited for an updated version of The Nutcracker with new costumes and new set designs and choreography by Stanton Welch.

Q. How much time do you spend watching other ballet performances?
A. I spend a lot of time traveling and watching other ballet performances. However, I’m not looking at just what is put on the stage, I am looking at the overall experience from beginning to end. I am thinking about the patron experience and how we can make our visitors feel welcomed as soon as they enter our doors to the time they leave.

Q. What is on your Houston Fave Five List?
A.
  1. Gardening
  2. Cooking
  3. Da Marco Italian Restaurant
  4. Buffalo Bayou Park
  5. Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Menil
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