A Q&A with Fiona Gordon

Fiona Gordon is the newly appointed General Manager of Cape Town City Ballet. As a respected, experienced arts manager, she has worked across a broad range of projects, festivals and cultural agencies, assisting businesses and organisations to “make things happen.” Since 2014, she has been the Managing Director of Creative Fix, developing strategies and providing support to clients in the cultural, creative and entrepreneurial sectors. Highlights of her career include working with organisations such as the National Arts Festival, the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the South African Cultural Observatory, Hatch Ideas UK, The Arts and Culture Trust, UJ Arts & Culture, the National School of the Arts, Jade Bowers Design & Management and a number of industry-specific conferences.

How are you doing in the midst of the lockdown?

I think there’s been a theme of ‘the best laid plans…’ for many people for 2020, mine included. With the change in circumstances that Covid-19 has presented, my role as General Manager at Cape Town City Ballet has looked very different than initially anticipated. Instead of supporting the Board and staff through four seasons at Artscape, the implementation of our audience and education programmes and numerous other projects for 2020; CEO Debbie Turner and I have had to go ‘back to the drawing board’ in almost every way, to figure out the details of a way forward for the company. After all company activities were cancelled in mid-March, it was only from 5 June that we were able to bring the dancers back in our studios in Rondebosch (albeit not every daily, initially), to take class, and then eventually to start with rehearsals for our digital streaming initiatives. It was my job to figure out and then manage the details of that process, so I’ve done very little else since – which has been quite a lonely process, but extremely gratifying. 

For those who don’t know you, professionally speaking, how do you choose to describe yourself?

I’m a lot better at describing other people and their work, than my own. I’m known for planning with Post Its, and categorising with colour, and making spreadsheets for just about anything and everything. People who succeed in the arts tend to be excellent generalists (and usually on a budget, to boot!) so that’s probably one of the most valuable things I have to offer – in the context of making things happen in an arts-related environment (especially from an administrative perspective), I’ve got at least some personal experience to draw on, in terms of just about anything that can come in my direction. 

Fiona Gordon pic by RobynDaviePhotography-FEBheadshots-43
Photo credit: Robyn Davie

Congratulations on being appointed General Manager of Cape Town City Ballet. What attracted you to Cape Town City Ballet?

The answer to that question is perhaps not as straightforward as one might expect in a ‘normal’ job. I grew up in the Eastern Cape, but have spent holidays in Cape Town for as long as I can remember, and – of course – that almost always included a trip to the ballet. When I was 10, I was one of the Village Girls in the then CAPAB youth ballet production of Coppelia performed at the Guild Theatre in East London (so I guess you could say I’m a direct product of this company’s ‘audience outreach and development’ programme) and when I was a student at UCT School of Dance, we shared premises with the company. My first full-time job was as the Manager of The Ballet Shop (now Ballet World) in Rondebosch, which (then, and still now) supplies the shoes for most of the CTCB dancers. So this company – even in its different iterations – has been a sort of constant throughout my life.  Having ‘grown up’ in dance, I’ve spent the last 10 years working across the arts and culture sector more broadly, and have really enjoyed the challenge and excitement of working in different and ever-changing environments; but I was starting to feel like I needed to take the next step in my career, and wanted to be able to sink my teeth into something of substance, where I could bring my experience to bear in a way that could really make a difference. When the opportunity presented itself to engage in a more substantive way with Cape Town City Ballet, I just knew that this was the thing. On a very pragmatic level though, I’m really excited by the vision that our CEO Debbie Turner has for dance in this country, and for the company; and I buy into that 110%. Since my role is really to help realise the vision of the CEO, as supported by the Board of Directors, understanding and being able to support that is probably the most important thing. I think that’s part of what makes this kind of work exciting for me. That both the bigger picture and the tiny details are equally important – and your days are spent oscillating in the weird space between them, making it happen, step by step. 

How has the current global pandemic affected Cape Town City Ballet and your role within the company?

Well, suffice to say that I’ve done very little ‘General Managing’ of the sort that was intended with my appointment; and an awful lot of wearing my ‘Covid Officer’ hat. We’ve basically had to start from scratch in so many ways. At the beginning of February, it would take the company an hour and a half to do class at the beginning of a day. For a while the company couldn’t do class at all, and then resorted to doing a daily ‘barre’ all together, via Zoom, to at least keep some semblance of movement and camaraderie up. At the beginning of June, it took us two and a half days for everyone to be able to take class, and we currently have that down to about 4 hours, across two studios. There’s no such thing as ‘under normal circumstances’ – not now, and likely not in the future either. We’ve had to rethink almost everything – and build from the ground up.

What do you hope to achieve in your new position?

For now, my biggest concerns are the safety and sustainability of the company as we navigate these unprecedented times. But if I can zoom out a bit; and think back to what I hoped for in accepting this position, and forward to a time when our obsessions with sanitiser and social distancing can be somewhat subdued; I was/am excited to be able to bring the things that I’ve learned and the things that I love, together. To be able to build systems, to build interest and diversity in our ecosystem, to help bring diversity to the fore in all its forms. To be able to be a part of shaping company culture, of taking dance in this country into its next season; to be able to contribute – even in my own small way – towards what I know will be a tangible difference, in an industry I hold so dear. 

What advice would you have for any young professionals looking to enter into the world of arts management?

There is no substitute for experience – but there are lots of opportunities to get it, if you’re prepared to put in the work. The devil is in the detail. But always remember the bigger picture. 

Fiona Gordon pic by Jesse Kramer
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

How are you feeling about the current state of the arts industry in South Africa?

Often the best creative responses come from a place of ‘challenge’, so if having to find a way through this complex period doesn’t bring our industry out the other side stronger, more resilient and having done some solid introspection about our value, then perhaps we all need to start asking some much more difficult questions. On a practical level, there’s nothing quite like a crisis to bring people together, and that’s certainly been the case here. As a result of this realignment of value(s), we’re seeing new organisations and ways of organising coming to the fore, and encouraging different means of engagement with government and industry bodies and communities. The birth of organisations like the Theatre and Dance Employers Association, STAND (Sustaining Theatre and Dance), and Blythe Linger’s SA Theatre on Demand platform all bode well for us, I think. For many of the dancers, the initial lockdown period was the longest in their whole lives that they have not danced. Imagine that?! That since you were perhaps three or four years old, you’ve been doing this thing. Obviously with different intensities at different stages, and with some holidays in between; but generally as a constant feature in your life and in your days. And then – because it’s your job and something you’ve worked your whole life towards being able to do – you’re quite used to spending eight hours a day, sometimes six days a week, doing that thing. And then, overnight, suddenly you’re literally not allowed or able to do that thing, for the foreseeable future. And even though we’ve returned to the studio, the stage remains an elusive thing. It’s very difficult. The flip side of that forced break is that we’ve seen many of the dancers return to the studio with a very clear renewal of their passion for the art. I keep coming back to the fact that we have been presented with such opportunities, but I really feel that so strongly. Our ‘coronavirus’ context has forced us all to reassess how we spend our time, and to consider different ways of doing things. In our ‘always on’ world, I feel like the sentiment of ‘stop the world, I want to get off’ was far too prevalent in our busy and overwhelming lives. And then the world did stop. For everyone. All at the same time. And has forced us all to rethink everything. We’ve been forced to prioritise health, and wellbeing. To reconsider our place(s) in the world. To make decisions differently, and different decisions. What an opportunity. I hope, as society, that we can make good on that gift. 

What can the general public do to further support the arts industry?

Buy tickets (and/or art and/or books and/or music)! And tell your friends to buy tickets (and/or art and/or books and/or music)! Seriously, though – there has perhaps never been a more important time for people to be spending money on art. I think most ‘regular’ people don’t understand quite how much of a difference them spending actual money on a ticket or artwork or book or album can make to the bottom line of what a performer or artist is able to put in their pocket. It’s very easy to think that your R150 or whatever isn’t going to make all that much of a difference in the bigger picture; but more often than not, it is through the cumulative power of those R150s that artists are able to put food on their tables, and every little bit really does help. I hope that this time, which has forced us to rethink our (financial and other) priorities, will also help us to remember the things that make life beautiful. 

Fiona Gordon pic by RobynDaviePhotography-FEBheadshots-30
Photo credit: Robyn Davie

What online platform or social media account should we all be following right now?

This is probably not quite what you had in mind as an answer to this question, but one of the places I’m spending the most time online at the moment is www.gov.za – which is where they publish the updated government information and regulations. Certainly a sign of the times… While we’ve all become attached to our screens with a new level of intensity, a spotlight is shining on quality African content; and it’s so wonderful to see our people making work that really steps up in this regard. And women particularly (I tried to make a list, but there are actually just too many) are doing incredible work in finding their own ways to tell the stories of our time. In this strange time, there’s been such a fine line between a desperate thirst for information, and absolute overload – so I’m interested in the way that ‘news’, and information sharing, is shifting. Despite unprecedented numbers of publications retrenching staff and shutting down; The Daily Maverick has just started printing a weekly newspaper; and News24 has just announced the introduction of a monthly subscription paywall. Verashni Pillay and her team at Explain.co.za are experimenting with different formats of their ‘news in bite size chunks for busy people’. In contrast, New Frame is giving almost unprecedented space to long-form journalism, and has recently advertised a position for a Culture editor. Journalist and filmmaker Diana Neille (who, incidentally, also boasts training as a classical musician) has just produced a documentary film telling the story of the Bell Pottinger saga, and which is currently doing the rounds on the film festival circuit. Charl Blignaut is perhaps one of the greatest gifts to our industry, and is in charge of academic-focused arts content at The Conversation. It’s fascinating to me that while the engagement and presentation formats may change, the throughline of audience-driven storytelling remains.

Catch dancers from Cape Town City Ballet on kykNET on 11 October in the premiere of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Cape Town Opera and kykNET in collaboration with Cape Town City Ballet, Camerata Tinta Barocca and Wyrd Films, present Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, an artistic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, conceptualised specifically for filming and digital dissemination and choreographed by London-based South African Mthuthuzeli November.

Stream the short dance film by Cape Town City Ballet and Norval Foundation, inspired by William Kentridge’s Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture exhibition at https://artsfundi.com.

You can follow Fiona on Instagram

For more information about Cape Town City Ballet visit their website.

Photos provided with permission. 

Special thanks to Christine Skinner.


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