Juan Jose Escalante named Executive Director of National Dance Institute
Juan Jose Escalante named Executive Director of National Dance Institute
Juan Jose Escalante has joined the National Dance Institute after heading the José Limón Dance Foundation for over 8 years. Previously, he held various executive positions with the Miami City Ballet and New York City Ballet where he worked in arts management and campaign development.
Escalante, who joined NDI earlier this month, serves as its executive director. The institute, founded by New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d’Amboise and established in 1976, provides New York City children of diverse backgrounds and abilities transformative programming, both in person and online. Collectively, 60,000 children participate in NDI’s programs each year.
NYN Media spoke with Escalante about what sparked his passion for the arts, his career growth and what he envisions for the future of the institute.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to dedicate your life to the arts?
I think the arts are fascinating to me. Art speaks about what's right with the world, what's right with us, what's right with humanity. Every time you hear the news it’s always bad news, but with the arts, whether it's dance or music, it's how we express ourselves in a very positive way, even those plays that are tragic. There's a lot of beauty in it as well. So to me, the arts have been a great ride. It happened by accident. In college, I went to Lehman and obtained a degree in business management. The goal was not the arts. The goal was working in Wall Street in banking, in the business sector. But my first job out of college was with New York City ballet working in the finance department. So I was concentrating on the business side of the arts, and after many years I felt that I wanted to walk out of there with a masters degree in management. It's fascinating to me how the process takes place, because as an audience member, you get a ticket to see a performance. A lot happens before that curtain goes up, from the lighting, the choreography, the music, it's a long process for you to see something for 30 minutes. So that made a lot of sense, not just from the beauty of it but from the infrastructure of it.
What has been the most challenging part of your career? And how have you grown from it? What do you think you'll bring to NDI because of it?
Well, the most challenging part is like a recurring dream. With some organizations, I walk in there and there is no infrastructure. Things like that are always very challenging but I handle myself with a lot of transparency. I'm a great listener and I know that I'm not the guy who's going to have the right idea all the time or the right answer all the time. And sometimes when you have an open door policy that empowers people to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. So I always had a team approach. Credit given where credit is due. It often happens at the board level where some board members say, “Well that was a great idea that you guys did” and I will say, “Well that was someone else’s idea”. The programs that the National Dance Institute has are phenomenal. What really motivated me was arts education. It's my real passion because I have seen the power of the arts in the children and the students, from the very beginning. When you see, especially boys, that you bring to a dance program or a movement program or some kind of arts program and they don't want to participate, and then, several sessions into it, they're right in the middle of the classroom dancing the choreography and they're working together. They're creating, and that sparks something in their brain. As a result of that there's not going to be a lot of behavioral problems. The grades go up, discipline is better, even nutrition is better at that level. And they bond not just as classmates, but as collaborators making new things.
What inspired you to move to the National Dance Institute?
Well when you see my resume, I've been working with a lot of performing arts organizations. A lot of dance companies, all of them actually have an education component. NDI’s mission is education, and the amount of children that they reach surpasses most of those organizations combined. I'm very passionate about getting the arts into the public schools and to where every child should be exposed to it. That's what NDI does, and that's really what motivated me the most to come join the team. Plus the fact that they have a wonderful team in place already. There's a common theme around here that people come in and they're here for 10 years or 15 years. Our production manager has been here for over 21 years, but it's that commitment that is not just a family, but they're committed to the mission.
Why do you think inclusivity and diversity in the arts, particularly in dance, is important?
The students that we serve in the communities that we work with are very diverse communities and from every walk of life.. We're putting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility on the top of the list, in terms of creating opportunities for people to come and join us. We are going to be expanding our teaching artist staff. We have some vacancies here and we're going to be aggressively looking for folks to join us. And diversity, inclusion and accessibility is going to be on the top of the list for that. It's an initiative that is extremely important to the organization to the point that there is a committee that pays attention to that and we meet regularly. There's training that is happening at the staff level. There are conversations that are happening on how we can address this better. It's one of the top priorities here and it will continue. We are taking it seriously. I want to see the diversity at the staff level, as I see in the classrooms when we work with the children, and also at the board level across the organization.
As the pandemic hit, we were seeing a lot of arts organizations closing their doors. Why do you think it's important we continue to invest in the arts and what role do you think the arts plays in times like these?
The arts are an economic engine for the city. The arts industry generates over $110 billion in economic activities, so that in itself is really important. At the same time, as we are collaborators with the school system, they are desperately trying to find a way to open the schools and keep the students safe. We do the same thing with our staff. Even though things got shut down in 2020 for a while, we immediately went in and created virtual programs for the children. So we never stopped working. We might have to put a pause on the in-person situation until the schools figure out a way to keep everybody safe, but we’ll continue to produce content for them. We're partnering with 41 schools right now. My goal is to expand throughout the five boroughs and also, continue to build partnerships around the country. We're in 12 different states, plus New York, it will be great. Everybody here is committed to bringing the arts to every child in America, and that's a very ambitious goal, but it's something that is doable through the partnership and collaborations with other folks. We can build capacity with teaching others , we can build capacity with other schools by training their teachers, but we're all in this together. We are well committed and we are creating better citizens moving forward. It’s not our goal to make every child the next professional dancer, but it is our goal to expose them to that so that the level of creativity increases there, they have an open mind and they have that level of equity. They can dream bigger, they will feel that they can achieve anything that they put their minds to. We're very lucky here in NDI because after 46 years you could imagine how many alumni we have out there and they're doing great things. They’re lawyers, they're business people or bankers and I see them all the time. We're sort of building a better society by creating better human beings and bringing more humanity to it.
What are you excited about in your new role and what do you hope and envision for the future of NDI?
I am very excited at the direction that NDI is going. We are committed to creating more accessibility for the students, and we are committed to building more capacity with the teaching artists. This is all stuff that we're going to be doing and collaborating with other organizations on as well. And we are also looking forward to figuring out a way to open up the center to the community in a more aggressive way. Meaning I would love to see the community board for the district have their meetings here. I would love to see some collaborations with musicians and dancers and choreographers happen at the center here. I'm very excited to help work with the team in figuring out how this place could be a seven-day operation. We need to figure out how to do that in a safe way, we're still dealing with this crazy pandemic. But I would love to be put in the spotlight as a community asset that is not just servicing the kids but we're servicing the community as well.