Interview: Ballet Arizona's New Artistic Director Daniela Cardim

Daniela Cardim talks about her new role and the upcoming season.

By: May. 17, 2024
Interview: Ballet Arizona's New Artistic Director Daniela Cardim
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Interview: Ballet Arizona's New Artistic Director Daniela Cardim

After 24 years under the leadership of Ib Andersen, the Board of Directors of Ballet Arizona has announced the appointment of Daniela Cardim as the company’s new artistic director, effective July 1st. Andersen will become Artistic Director Emeritus.

Andersen’s tenure was notable for a diverse repertory of classical and contemporary ballets, including 36 works that he created specifically for the company. A protégé of George Balanchine, the iconic father of American ballet and director of New York City Ballet (NYCB), his choreography has been defined by plotless ballets, minimal costume and décor, and classical and neoclassical musical accompaniment.

Now, Daniela Cardim will place her own imprint on the 38-year-old organization, which has established itself as the Southwest's premier professional ballet company. She will be the first woman to hold the position and the fourth Artistic Director for the organization.

Cardim is a Brazilian/British choreographer, ballet teacher, producer, and director.  In addition to serving as Assistant Director and Associate Choreographer at New English Ballet Theatre, she is an independent choreographer whose works have been performed and acclaimed in both the United Kingdom (including six original pieces for NEBT) and globally. 

In 2015, she was cited as a “new name to watch” by Dance Europe Magazine’s Critics’ Choice Awards. In 2017, the Magazine chose her work, Vertex, as one of the 'Best Premieres” of that year ~ lauded by the publication’s critic as “a full-blooded, pure dance work with clear lines, lovely duets and a sense of symmetry."

In 2023, at the 17th Jan Kiepura Theatrical Music Awards in Poland, her work, Stabat Mater, was nominated for the Award for Best Choreography. Kultura Poznan, one of the region’s major providers of cultural news, praised the piece for “its symmetry, synchronicities, consistency, and the choreographer's understanding of music.”

Daniela has served as a guest teacher with Ballet Rambert, Hong Kong Dance Company, English National Ballet, Wayne McGregor Company, Akram Khan Company, and the Swedish Ballet School.

During her career as a professional dancer, she has performed the works of the great choreographers, including Serge Lifar, Vaslav Nijinski, Léonide Massine, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Sir Peter Wright, Alexei Ratmansky, Hans van Manen, Krzysztof Pastor, Ted Brandsen, Lar Lubovitch, and Rodrigo Pederneiras.

Her commissions are wide-ranging, including works for West Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo Companhia de Dança, Images Ballet Company, and the School of American Ballet.

Daniela Cardim brings a vitality and freshness of perspective and breadth of experience to her position as Ballet Arizona’s Artistic Director.

She graciously agreed to an interview during which we discussed her vision for the company, her approach to her new role, Ballet Arizona’s future repertoire, and the challenges facing the performing arts.  

Daniela, congratulations on your appointment as Ballet Arizona’s Artistic Director. Let’s start with your origin story. You were born and raised in Brazil and started your career there. What motivated you to become a dancer?

It happened naturally. I moved to a new house with my parents, and there was a ballet school on the same street. My mom asked me if I would like to do ballet, and I said yes. I was eight years old. I was really lucky that it was a very good school and I had a very good teacher from day one. I stayed at that school until I started working professionally. So, it was really an accident, but also because my mom had done ballet, not professionally, but she did it when she was a teenager, and she liked it. I pretty much fell in love with it straight away.

What is that you love about dance?

You know, when you’re a child and you start something and you’re good at it, it feels good, right? So, you want to keep doing it. I always was very fulfilled by the artistic side of dancing. I liked the technique, and I worked really hard. And, I think I felt an agency…I was more my own self in that space, and I was good at it. I absolutely loved the music, the interpretation, and the acting elements involved in dance. That appreciation carried on throughout my professional career as a dancer, too. I was a very good dancer and an exceptional actress. So, I got a lot of roles that were interpretation-based. I always enjoyed the theatre side of dance, and I still love it today. I think that's what is special about dance ~ that, you know, it's not only the athletic side of it, but it's the artistic side of it that is so unique.

The trajectory of your career is dramatic. You started as a dancer at Ballet of Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro in 1994, and then joined the Dutch National Ballet where you performed for eleven years. In 2010, you retired and got a bachelor’s degree in arts management at London South Bank University graduating with a first-class degree. Then, you joined New English Ballet Theatre in London, starting as a project manager and ultimately become general manager in 2014. What was that transition like, and what did you learn about yourself as a leader?

The reason I chose that path was because, when I was at Dutch National Ballet, I was part of what they called The Works Council, which, in that company, is a group of people that represents the dancers and the staff of the company. I became chairman of that body. I really enjoyed that role because, while I was a dancer, I also started to understand how the company worked as a whole…as a machine…and how all those pieces needed to work well together for the company to be successful.

The culture in Holland was very collaborative. The artistic director was very open to listening to us. We felt like we worked together for the best…you know, to always be moving. That made me very interested in the management side of things. And, of course, I started choreographing, too…so, when you choreograph, you also direct.

I really admire Ted Brandsen, the artistic director at Dutch National Ballet, and his capacity for being not only a good artistic manager but being a good people manager and a good business manager. I thought that was a very important requirement for an artistic director…to have that knowledge.

So, when I retired, in Amsterdam, they have a retraining program [Omscholing Dansers Nederland ~ ODN]] that says, if you stay in a company for more than ten years, they will pay for you to retrain and do a study project, which is amazing. So, I had that possibility of studying something and getting that space.

Immediately, I thought, I am a choreographer, and I was already interested in one day becoming an artistic director. So, I decided to study arts management because I thought it would give me the knowledge that would be so useful in the future.

Bridging the artistic and the managerial certainly requires your working with both sides of your brain, doesn't it?

Yes, it does. I like that, too. I have a very artistic side, and I also have a very logical side of me.

When did you start to choreograph?

My first choreography. I was a student in Brazil, and I was about 16 years old.  I created a dance for the younger students. My teacher at the time was very encouraging. Obviously, that's like a small experience, but that's how I started. Then, I made another work when I was around 19 years old ~ it was a duet for myself and a friend from school. That was my last year of school.

Then, I started my career. When I joined Dutch National Ballet, they have this yearly workshop, which is a space open for any dancer who would like to choreograph. You have to find time by yourself…so we rehearse after hours…and you have to ask the dancers if they want to work with you. Then, at the end of the year, you give a performance. They do that every year. So, I decided to try it. It went well and I liked it, and from that year on, every year, I created a work for the workshop.

Then, slowly, people started liking my work. Ted noticed my talent and started to give me small commissions and smaller projects. So, officially, I started in 2003.

I’ve watched trailers of several of your works. Amazing! They are rich in imagery, emotion, and musicality, and so thematically different. I’m thinking of pieces as diverse as Baroque Encounters, Stabat Mater, and What Got You Here. For Arizona audiences who may not be familiar with your work, speak to your philosophy and approach to choreography ~ to the creation of dance.

My plan is not to choreograph straight away for the company. I am very interested in curating and bringing different choreographers that have never been seen here before and then having works created for the company by different choreographers.

I will eventually create for the company, but that is one or two years away. First, I want to get to know the dancers pretty well…and there is so much that I want to concentrate on before I get into the act of creation.

My artistic vision is not to be the main choreographer and have most of the works by me and then having a couple of other ones. It’s not. I'm going to be one of many choreographers that the company will use, and then we'll see how things evolve. So, I want to test the audience a little bit, bring different works, and see what they think.

I hear an orientation to providing the audience with diversity of choreographic styles, which suggests that you’re extending offerings beyond Balanchine.

Correct. I love Balanchine and Ib’s works and I hope to keep them. I very much want to honor the past and keep doing some of the favorite Balanchine dances. That’s why the Board brought me in…to bring variety and ballets that have not been seen in Arizona before.

The 2024-2025 Season has been announced ~ the makings of another great Season: SWAN LAKE, THE NUTCRACKER, the U.S. premiere of FRIDA (choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa), the SPRING MIX, the ALL BALANCHINE program (including Western Symphony, Scotch Symphony, and Walpurgisnacht; and EROICA. What role will you be playing in the mounting of these productions?

I will be primarily overseeing things. While I do have a few projects in mind, there is so much work to be done…I have to get more familiar with the organization, the School, and the community. So, it’s actually very good that the Season is already programmed and I can pay attention to these details.    

By the way, I’m very happy that Frida has been programmed, because I happened to see the premiere in Amsterdam and I really liked the work. It is perfect for here, for Arizona.

Whenever there is a change in organizational leadership, every new leader aspires to bring their distinctive signature or imprint to the role. As you follow in the footsteps of Ib Andersen, who set his distinctive mark, what are your long-term goals for the company…your vision for Ballet Arizona beyond the first year?

The company already has a really good reputation. I want to elevate the company to the top of the American companies. I want people to know about Arizona; I want people to travel to Phoenix to see us. It is a little bit ambitious, but you know, why not? You have to be ambitious. I want to bring the company to the highest level of dancing in the U.S.

And why not?

Exactly. It’s going to keep growing. I’ve been talking with Jamie [Kozemczak], the executive director. She is going to be a really good partner. She also has ambition. We’re going to keep working to make it grow and become always better. 

Does your cultural identity impact your work as an artistic director and your selection of themes?

Not directly. I consider myself as a citizen of the world. I have lived in Brazil, Holland, and the UK. I am really interested in local culture. I don’t think I use my Latino identity so much in my career, although there are a couple of ballets that I made that were influenced by Brazilian culture. Here, I think that side of me might flourish, because In Europe, I was so Euro-minded, and here, in Phoenix, there is such a big Latino community, and I understand that culture. Obviously, Brazil is different from the Spanish-speaking community.

New audience development has been a critical issue for sustaining the viability of the performing arts. Many performing arts organizations are falling by the wayside, whether symphonies, theatres, and dance companies. An issue that has to be top of mind for any manager. What strategies are most effective in positioning ballet as a valued art form, enhancing its visibility. and building audience? Particularly because the established print media is not covering the arts as they used to.

This problem is not unique to the U.S. We have the same problem in the UK. Most newspapers don’t cover the arts. We are in a difficult era. We are competing with social media.

What I can say is that what I have learned and that I will apply here is that we have to work very closely with the marketing department and create strategies. We need to work as a whole, as an entire organization, and not isolate the marketing department. The artistic side can’t just say we’re doing this ballet and the strategy is your problem. You need to work with them from the beginning. A company works like a machine, and every piece is important. This is my strategy. I will bring my ideas to them early on and they will help to plan how we approach our audiences. To build engagement, we need to work with schools, work with young people, and work with communities that do not normally have access to the art form. We have to be smart and keep learning, and we have to keep testing. It’s very much a work in progress.

What opportunities for collaboration do you envision between the Ballet and other performing arts.

I’m very interested in collaboration with local artists. I will encourage choreographers to do likewise…with local composers, musicians, designers, visual artists. All of these artists can inspire dance. I hope to get to know key leaders of other organizations like the museums, orchestras, and musicologists. By communicating with these people, ideas emerge.

Dance is an inherently collaborative art form. Dance critics have observed that, as a choreographer, you give great importance to musicality and that your creative process involves close collaboration with the dancers. How do you, as both choreographer and director, envision your relationship with the dancers?

One of the reasons why I was so interested in this position is because of the dancers. I was excited to meet them. You know, it’s funny, sometimes things click with people.  Immediately, I felt a connection with the dancers. They felt a connection with me. There was a very good atmosphere in the studio. They liked my class. They felt comfortable. We connected. That doesn’t always happen. This is key: The dancers are the company, and I’m very excited because I think we’re going to do great things together.

What role do you envision for the use of new technologies ~ for example, AI and digital projections ~ in both enriching the stage performance but also reshaping the audience’s viewing experience and immersing them into an experience where digital and physical realities blend?

It’s good, but it’s one way of creativity. Somebody, once told me, Good dance doesn’t need any sets. Balanchine exemplifies that. Dance shouldn’t be overshadowed by the technology. Sometimes, it’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s overpowering, and then you’re not looking at the dance anymore, you’re looking at the projection or the special effects. So, you need to be careful.

What are the attributes you look for in a dancer?

Personality and charisma and the ability to perform. Obviously, you want a dancer that is technically good and able to deliver technique. That goes without saying. I do like dancers that have individuality. You know, you watch them because they have something about them that is interesting ~ their individuality, the ability to dance and to enjoy it. I mean, it seems silly to say that, but then you see dancers who are so perfectionist and they are always concentrating on their technique, and then you see dancers that are “dancing” and your eyes go to that dancing. I love that. So, for me, it's very important that dancers are complete that way, that they are versatile, that they are able to dance different styles and to work with different choreographers and to be open and collaborative. 

Is there a role for ballet in addressing contemporary social and political issues…in terms of thematic relevance to the issues of the times?

I think it can be. I think there is room for some productions to address current issues, but it should not be the main thing we do. I think it’s wonderful that dance can touch people with different points of view.

But, you know, when you have a ballet, for example, like Frida, it’s fantastic, because it’s talking about the challenges that she had as a female artist in a world that was not helping her.

However, the theme needs to be the choreographer’s passion. It has to be an idea that comes from the choreographer because he or she is inspired by something and wants to discuss it.

What has been your greatest artistic challenge ~ a challenge that may have influenced your sense of yourself, your skills, your perspective on the creative process?

Yes, as a choreographer, there were a couple of projects that challenged me.

One was Stabat Mater, this ballet that I did in Poland. I was asked by the artistic director of the Poznan Ballet [Robert Bondara] to use the music from the Polish composer, Karol Szymanowski. The theme is very difficult because it’s all about Mary grieving as Jesus Christ is on the cross. It’s a hymn about that scene. The music is very sad. He specifically asked me to use that music. I would never have chosen that music.

Then, I started working on it and listening. I then quickly made a parallel with war, because it was right when the Ukraine War started. And that theme of mothers losing their sons came very clearly to my mind. So, I basically made a war ballet, which I'd never have thought to do in my career. But it was great, and I'm so proud of it, and I'm so happy that Robert gave me this challenge because it took me out of my comfort zone, and it took me somewhere that I would have never have gone by myself.

So, I think this challenge and the work on other occasions where I was asked to use specific music are hard. In the beginning, as an artist, you think, “Oh my God, how am I going to do this?” but you learn so much from the challenge, and I think, you are a better artist and choreographer after that.

When you're not working, what do you do for fun?

I love audiobooks…especially detective stories. I listen to a lot of subjects, but I always go back to that. I’m very interested in art, in general, so if I have free time, I will walk through museums.  I love visual arts. I love it When I came to this city the first time, I went to three museums in two days because, for me, it is a way of understanding the culture and the community.

Someday, when that day comes when you’re ready to move on, what is the legacy that you wish to leave behind?

That is a huge question. I hope that the company is established as one of the top companies in the U.S. that it gets commissions nationally, and I hope that some of my work will be part of that…but, if not, it’s really not all about me. It is about the organization and the people…and also about enabling people, encouraging them, having the dancers grow and revealing their talent, and discovering new choreographers. It’s really about making it a great center of creativity and excellence.

Daniela, thank you for your candor. You bring great depth, perspective, and energy to your new position. Congratulations on your appointment and best wishes for yours and the company’s great success.

Photo credit to Peter Leung

Ballet Arizona ~ ~ 2835 E. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ ~ Box Office: 602-381-1096

2024-2025 Season

SWAN LAKE ~ October 24 -27, 2024

THE NUTCRACKER ~ December 6-24, 2024

FRIDA ~ February 13-16, 2025

SPRING MIX ~ March 27-30, 2025

ALL BALANCHINE (Western Symphony, Scotch Symphony, Walpurgisnacht) ~ May 1-4, 2025

EROICA ~ May 14-31, 2025


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