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Chautauqua Conversations: New trustee Anita Lin traces journey from stage to boardroom

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Anita Lin sits withe her husband, Mike Morley, and their dog, Rosie. Lin was elected to the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees in August 2016 and took her seat in November. PAULA OSPINA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER.

In a Chautauqua season during which four different dance companies will appear on the grounds, it is perhaps fitting that a former ballerina, director of a successful ballet academy and member of the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in Washington, D.C., has been named one of the Institution’s newest trustees.

Anita Lin and her husband, Mike Morley, an attorney, have been coming to Chautauqua Institution for over 20 years, enjoying the tranquility on the grounds as a respite from their busy careers. While she may have taken an unconventional path to her trustee position, Lin and her husband share many Chautauqua traditions. One of the most recent is that the chosen partners of both of their daughters passed the “Chautauqua test.”

We spoke on the lakeview porch of their condominium.

How did your Chautauqua experience begin?

Anita: Mike actually brought me here for the first time in 1995. He had been introduced to the Institution by the Chautauquan family of one of his friends. I knew Chautauqua before that, though. I am a former ballet performer, and after I retired, I directed the Ballet Western Reserve dance academy in Youngstown, Ohio. I had sent many of my dancers to Chautauqua over the 27 years I headed that academy. I knew Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride were outstanding teachers and mentors to my students. And it’s only two hours or so from here to Youngstown.

Mike: When I first came here, I knew there was a lake, an active arts program, and I knew about the old clay courts near the Main Gate. I’m an active tennis player.

Anita: The first time I came with Mike, we just came up for a long weekend. We fell in love with this place. We sat in the rocking chairs on the Athenaeum Hotel porch and watched the many children flying by on their bicycles with no parents around, and we thought, this is the perfect place to bring our kids. We brought our 6- and 9-year-old daughters to Chautauqua the following summer. You know how it goes: you rent for one week, that becomes two, which becomes four. We were renting this corner condo, and luckily the owners, when they decided to sell, asked if we wanted to purchase this one. It was an easy decision.

You were dancing on stages around the world. You wound up in Youngstown. How did that come about?

Anita: I was dancing with the New Orleans Ballet (Association), and I got dropped on a lift. It was a performance of “The Nutcracker,” and I was dancing the role of the Snow Queen in the first act. It happened a little off stage, and I actually came back on and finished the first act. I wound up herniating a couple of discs, went through a year of physical therapy, all the time still dancing. But in the end, the injury was too serious to permit me to continue my career. My dancing career ended early.

I was fortunate to have a father in the arts with a Ph.D. in music. He always emphasized to me as I was choosing a career in dance that I needed to get a degree at the same time I was training. Before New Orleans, I was dancing with the Cincinnati Ballet. It was housed at the University of Cincinnati, and I was able to get my B.F.A. with a major in dance. That enabled me to interview for this position at Ballet Western Reserve. I went there in 1982 and stayed for 27 years, training, coaching and building the program.

How did you two meet?

Mike: I’m from Youngstown. When we met, I was practicing law there, starting out doing civil rights law and representing labor unions. I think it’s fair to say I was with a left-wing law firm. Over the years, I expanded into real estate and other areas. I have always had an active interest in the arts in the area. One of the boards on which I sat was the board for Ballet Western Reserve. I met Anita through that work.

How about your kids?

Anita and Mike: They are both lawyers. Our eldest, Chelsea, is in New York City with a law firm there. She is a Duke University School of Law graduate. The younger sister, Darby, just graduated from UC Berkeley, and she is going into human rights law. She is in London working for a company called Safe Passage. She will be helping reunite children with their Syrian refugee families, in the context of the current European refugee crisis.

We moved to New York City full-time when our youngest daughter graduated from high school. We had an apartment there and got our periodic arts fix in shorter stays, but with an empty nest we moved there full-time.

I’m curious about your transition from ballet performer to a senior management position in the same field. My impression is that this can be a difficult transition to execute successfully. How did you do it?

Anita: I do credit my father. He taught me management and organization. I believe I am a very organized person. I was not ready for the transition that my injury forced upon me. I still had it in me to perform. My father mentored me through that tough time. Especially in that first year in Youngstown, it was in the back of my mind that perhaps I could return to dance. When I got to Ballet Western Reserve, it was going through a transition period as well. It had lost a lot of funding. Local patrons funded a lot of the operation, and in the early 1980s, the steel mills in Youngstown were starting to falter. Money was pulling out. There had been several directors just prior to my arrival. So neither the school nor I really knew our future when I became the artistic director.

Some of the dancers had left before I got there. The board of trustees asked me if I was in performance shape. I was. But I needed to figure out carefully what I could and could not do. So I had the opportunity to perform in certain selected roles, but still got the experience of teaching and choreographing.

While I was training for dance in Louisville, Kentucky, I had had the opportunity to teach, and later, in Cincinnati, I was exposed to the art of teaching and managing. All of this helped in my major transition after I took over in Youngstown. Also, classical dancers must have discipline. If you put that discipline into managing a school or a company, it can help greatly.

At times, I was upset that my career had ended early. But because it ended early, it gave me the opportunity to learn how to become a better teacher, choreographer and director. It is tougher for dancers with longer careers to make the transition.

We did take the school from 30 students to 300. We took a budget that was in the red to a position firmly in the black. I was proud of what we were able to accomplish.

Mike: In the arts, it’s tough to find people who are both artistically and managerially capable.

You bring an unusual artistic background of performance and accomplishment to Chautauqua. What is your relationship with the dance program here?

Anita: It’s funny. I worked so hard keeping afloat and building the program in Youngstown that for the first 15 or so years we were here, I kept it quiet that I was even a ballet teacher. I’m sure Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux weren’t even aware that I was here. I wanted a break.

When you’re teaching dance, your hours begin when the students get home from school. I worked in the office until about 4 p.m. in the afternoon, then taught until about 8 or 9 p.m. at night. I missed a lot of important time with my girls. I would often miss their volleyball games. They did take ballet but stopped when they were 12 or 13.

So when we were in Chautauqua, it was time for the family. It was all about the kids. They would invite friends to come up. I did get to some lectures. We always took them to the symphony, the ballet. But I was just an audience member. I wanted to concentrate on our kids.

Do your daughters return regularly?

Anita: Yes. In fact, our daughter who is London now will be coming for a week, and our older daughter is going to spend her honeymoon here, after the season. Our younger daughter got engaged recently.

Mike: Both daughters have duly introduced their fiancés to Chautauqua; neither man is originally from the U.S.

Anita: The future sons-in-law have passed “the Chautauqua test.” In fact, Chelsea met her fiancé at law school, and they studied for the bar exam together at Chautauqua.

Mike: We were only allowed to come at the end of their stay.

Anita: Darby brought her fiancé and his parents here for a week, and they stayed with us last year. It was his parents’ first visit to the U.S., and they came to Chautauqua.

You have been honored with a presidential appointment recently.

Anita: Yes. In 2014 I was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts (and the Humanities). I was nominated by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who see things differently in a political context but joined in honoring what we were able to accomplish at Ballet Western Reserve.

Mike: And she is president of our condo association here.

Anita: Yes, I joined the board and about three weeks later I was asked to become the president of the association.

Are you still on the presidential committee? Does that expire with a change in administration?

Mike: It’s an ongoing joke in the family. Technically, you’re on it until you step down.

Anita: The position is supposed to be nonpolitical. We work out of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and I still get periodic notices from them about nominating people for certain awards and such. Under the Obama administration, I was pleased to submit nominations for Carole King and Cicely Tyson, and they were both chosen to receive Kennedy Center honors. And then in President Obama’s last year in office, we nominated Patricia McBride, and were thrilled, of course, with her selection. What a moment for Chautauqua.

How about your work on the board of trustees here? Do you have your committee assignments?

Anita: I’m on the Program Policy Committee, and they like you to serve on a couple of committees, so I’m looking into other possibilities this summer. I have an interest in marketing and communications.

Now that your formerly secret association with dance is out in the open, have you been approached by the dance department?

Anita: I think from my board perspective now, it’s important to keep my distance. I do have a fond relationship with Deborah (Sunya Moore, vice president and director of programming), and the presence on the grounds so early in the season this year of Ailey II is exciting. It’s my favorite troupe. Their being here does so much for this community, in several ways.

Mike and I accompanied President Obama to Cuba (in 2016), and were treated to a performance by Irene Rodríguez, the famous flamenco dancer. I got to nurture a relationship there, and now Rodríguez and her company are coming here in Week Nine. But that’s the extent of my program involvement so far.

I just don’t think it’s appropriate to push my ideas. I’m happy to share them with the administration if they wish, but it’s better, I think, to do it that way.

There cannot have been too many performers like you who have served on the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees.

Mike: I wonder if she is the first.

Anita: At the beginning of my term, I did feel a bit out of place. But I began to see that I did have my nonprofit management and organizational experience in addition to the dance and the performing arts, and realized that was why they brought me onto the board.

Tags : Anita LinBoard of TrusteesMike Morley
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The author John Ford

John Ford is in his eighth year with the Daily. He reports on general news, does feature reporting and writes the weekly Chautauqua Conversations column. A wire service reporter for United Press International prior to embarking on a career as a foreign service officer with the Department of State, he currently writes a regular column on American politics and foreign relations for one of the two principal daily newspapers in Nassau, Bahamas.