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Bruce Sansom

        New Directions...


Bruce Sansom talks about his new job with the Rambert Dance Company

by Jane Simpson


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Since Bruce Sansom left the Royal Ballet in July 2000, he has spent a year with the San Francisco Ballet learning every aspect of managing a company, and a year at the Kennedy Centre in Washington as one of the first Fellows of the Vilar Institute of Arts Management. On returning to London he was snapped up by the Rambert Dance Company to take over its development department, and I spoke to him when he was still in his first week in the job.

So you started on Monday?

I started on Monday, and today's Thursday, so it's three and a half days so far.

And your title is Head of Development, which is is another way of saying fundraising?

Yes. It's not a large department, there's actually just myself and a Development Officer. I work for Sue Wyatt, the Executive Director, and I'll work very closely with Pru Skene, the Chairman of the Board. As head of department, I'll also need to interact closely with all the other departments.

What sort of objectives are you set? Are you principally raising money for specific occasions or programmes, or just getting as much money as you can?

I wouldn't like to describe it as 'getting as much money as we can'. My remit is to raise money for anything and everything that needs to be covered - be it individual productions or general operating costs, which is the hardest money to raise, as there's nothing sexy to attach the donation to. So really I see my job as raising the awareness and the need for people to come and join Rambert and be associated with us. There is a financial level put on that, but I don't like to approach it as if I've just got to tick the boxes and get the money in. It's an American term, 'development', but what I think it's really about is developing relationships - that's where I understand the term comes from. You're there to ensure that people are interacting with the organisation in the best way that they can, and that they get the most out of it possible. I don't just raise money - I make sure that everyone who has given money secures the benefits they're supposed to secure, and that they get access to the tickets, or the open day events they're supposed to - and really provide service to them in the best way possible.

At the end of your year's contract, how will you know if you've succeeded?

I would like to think that I'll have brought in some more revenue to the organisation - but if I have put in place systems that encourage more emotional contact between our donors, supporters and patrons and the organisation, then I'll feel I've done a good job. One of the main areas for that is probably going to be in the corporate sector - though with the economy being in such poor shape it's a bad time to be even attempting that - but that's one of the areas that I'd really like success in. And although it's a difficult time for corporations, you're not just asking them to give you money.You're trying to build a connection between you and them, so that they're able to use you in terms of marketing - whether that means literally - using you as a visual in a campaign - or whether it means they use the audience Rambert attracts because that's the audience that buys their product. I need to explain how an association with Rambert will get their name in front of the people they want to impress, whether it's at the high end or the low end of their product. And it's finding those connections, rather than just going to everyone and saying 'Give us some money' - that's not fundraising.

You need to find the 10 or 20 people who can make a lot happen, allowing everyone else who supports you to provide the additional. It's a case of going out to find them, meeting them, introducing them, making them feel secure in the knowledge that how you look after them and their donation to Rambert will be appropriate to what they want. It's a challenge to find out what their expectations really are - but if you can, and if they feel secure with you, it's great. And look at what they can be associated with!

As well as the corporate sector, you'll also be dealing with the individuals in the Rambert Supporters?

Yes. I believe that it's important to make sure that anyone who supports us is aware of the benefits they're entitled to; if they want to make use of those benefits, that's great. We have to make sure that it's easy for them to do that. I would really be concerned if I found that members who wanted to make use of the benefits were having difficulty. And we have to encourage them to make use of the benefits - because many of those benefits are about getting tickets, and we want them to come and see the performances! But there are many people who will join the Supporters, or the Rambert Circles, simply to give support, as that's the easiest way and the most consistent way of being able to express their belief in us as an organisation.

A lot of what you set up in development will come to fruition further down the line - whoever joins today at the lowest level could eventually leave a legacy to be collected by the company 50 years from now. Everyone's important - you mustn't turn anyone away - everyone, whatever they bring to the organisation, is an important friend.

I was looking at the Rambert website this morning and I was interested that there are things on it that you can't access unless you're a Supporter.

That's part of development as a marketing tool - it's an important element: how do you make yourself accessible to everyone, but also give special benefits to those who want to support you? The website is one of the ways - and one of the things for the future. Rambert has had relatively good success in securing new members across the website, which is very exciting. And it's a great website! - it fits the image of the company perfectly.

The first thing you're doing is the farewell performance for Christopher Bruce. What will your responsibility be for that?

The programme will be decided by the artistic side. My understanding is that everything that happens front of house, and from the moment the final curtain comes down, will be arranged by my department. We have to make sure that the event is a fitting celebration of Christopher's time with the company.

It sounds as if it won't be too difficult to sell tickets, given his own personal popularity.

Right - it should sell very well. The event is being combined with the relaunch of the Ashton-Bruce Commissioning Fund, so what we're hoping is that people who've been invited to purchase tickets will also include a donation to this fund, which will go towards supporting new work in the future. It's a double whammy - we're saying thank you to Christopher and we're saying let's set up something that bears his and Ashton's name into the future as well.

You mentioned the Ashton-Bruce fund for developing new choreographers: that seems to be something the San Francisco Ballet is doing extremely well. Were there things you learnt from your time with them?

Absolutely. It's something every company strives for - to create an atmosphere and audience that desires new works. But you can't just do it for nothing - it costs money, and it's a question of finding a level of confidence in the organisation that the new works put on will be of value, and so draw in people to help fund them. And they've done that - SFB set a very long term goal of developing themselves from where they were when Helgi Tomasson arrived to where they are now. They would say 'We're looking seven years ahead - where do we want to be, how do we pace it?' It's strategic planning - exactly the sort of administrative studying I've been taking this last year at Kennedy Center and on the administrative and artistic sides the year before with SFB. It's very much a case of standing back, looking at the big picture and really considering what the risks are of what you're undertaking. There's almost nothing artistic you undertake that doesn't carry risks, and new work is one of the riskiest things of all. But if you get it right it allows so many other things to open up, not least people's confidence in you. That encourages them to support you in your artistic mission - and that's what they achieved in San Francisco. They started a fund in San Francisco specifically for new works, and it's one thing we'd love to provide more of here. We'll have the Ashton-Bruce Fund, and if we could get corporations to tie into that, and to feel some ownership of it - that would be fantastic.

Do you envisage that your job is harder working for a company like Rambert than it would be working for a ballet company, which is maybe perceived as more glamorous?

No, because, we're actually looking at a different segment of people. There's a lot of crossover of people who support, and will attend ballet and contemporary dance; but there's also a lot of people who will only support contemporary dance - so I don't see it as a big problem. Some people have an affinity for classical painting, and some for contemporary work, and the same happens with the performing arts. What we have to do is find the people who love us, who want to be associated with us.

The main problem is that ballet is visibly very expensive, it's showy in some of its presentations on stage, and it's obvious that it takes a lot of money; whereas contemporary companies often perform with less highly expensive production values in sets and costumes, it's not so showy and the need isn't quite so obvious.

Was it your choice to join Rambert on a one-year contract?

No , it was a natural length - my predecessor was leaving and the company's future plans may need a major enhancement of the department in a year's time - so I think it was by far the safest and most intelligent thing to do, when Rambeert said 'Come to us for a year'. It suits me perfectly as well - it allows both sides time to look at each other, assess our strengths, and work out where we want to go from there. Certainly if everything goes well, I see no reason why I shouldn't continue with the organisation.

And is Development an aspect that has particularly appealed to you while you've been in Washington and San Francisco, or is it just a useful further step?

I think anything I had come back to do would have been a useful further step. Fundraising is a real art form in America - they have a lot of opportunities to raise money out there, partly through tax rebates which are available to any American who gives to a charity. American development departments are very experienced with a wealth of knowledge, and in both San Francisco and Washington were able to pass a lot of that on to me. But I was looking at returning to London and taking a while to find a position, and was approaching that moment unsure what area I wanted to go into - so the fact that someone came and made it rather easy took the decision away, and I was really grateful for that.

That seems to be the story of your life for the last two years...

Things have happened, yes - I've been very fortunate. I had a great time in my former career: I've taken time out to retrain and the right courses came up at the right time, and it's led to this.

Is your ultimate ambition still to be artistic director of a company?

I would love to be, in the right circumstances, but it's not the be-all and end-all for me. I think so long as I'm bringing value to an organisation, I can be happy with that. There aren't that many jobs on the artistic side, and of those available there aren't that many that would interest me, in relation to where I've been in the past. But everything I've done to date works towards that, including what I'm doing now - with any arts organisation, in the future, whether I'm an executive director, an artistic director, working in strategic planning or marketing or whatever, fundraising will be a major element. But on day four of this job, it's a little early to be talking about what I want to do in the future!

Don't you think your skills and experience on the artistic side ought to be used?

It depends on what way they ought to be used. Yes, I hope they'll get the opportunity to be used by an organisation that wants to make use of them, for the right reasons.

It sounds as if you enjoy teaching, and you have an awful lot of experience that could be brought to coaching?

Yes - but I don't feel the need to be in a studio, just coaching and teaching - I'd want a broader palette than that.

So you'd want to be the director, influencing the way the company grew?

That, or working with someone whose artistic vision I believed in. I think it's very important to recognise if there are better people for the job, and if someone is and you can believe in them, they are the people to work with. I wouldn't want to work in an organisation with an artistic or executive director whose vision and desires for the art form ran against my own. That would just be doing a job. But if I found someone whose beliefs I can support - otherwise I want to be at the top encouraging others to support my artistic vision.

Wouldn't this experience in fundraising be rather wasted, since as an artistic director you'd have someone to do it for you?

No, no. As an artistic director one of your main jobs is to fund raise. You might not run the department, but you have to understand how it works, you have to be prepared to do that work as well. No question - the world is a different place now from ten years ago, and if you have an artistic director who doesn't want to get involved, then you've wiped out a whole group of people who could truly become more involved in your organisation. It's something that I believe is imperative from here on in for anyone in an organisation to understand the value they bring to it at every level and to recognise that what they do influences the potential for raising money to support the organisation. And if you're the artistic director you are the figure head.

So you have to do it, like it or not?

No: if you don't like it, you shouldn't be doing it. What I'm saying is, in the future, part of the job remit will be to like it, and be good at it. What alternative is there?

Can you imagine going straight from being a dancer to running a company without having had these years of experience?

Absolutely - I can imagine it; and I can imagine being eaten by sharks. Looking to the future, every arts organisation has to be so well prepared, so well run, so disciplined and accountable - I wouldn't have known how to begin to achieve all that. I'd have had artistic ideas of what I wanted, but to be able to say 'Here's where we are, here's where we need to get to, this is how we're going to do it', and to be able to galvanise the whole organisation to support that - no. Now, I feel I'm really beginning to discover a potential for leadership, so... you can do anything, but can you do it well? I now feel I've taken those first steps.

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