Sasha Janes has been coming to Chautauqua since 2001, and this summer he makes his return as the School of Dance’s newest artistic director. The renowned dancer and choreographer originally joined the dance community as a member of the Chautauqua Festival Ballet. Now, he’s excited to advance the dance program and continue the department’s long-lasting legacy.
Born and raised in Australia where he received his ballet training, Janes began his career with the Australian Ballet, performing with the company in the United States. Later, he joined the Hong Kong Ballet and eventually moved to New York City. Janes met his future wife in Dayton, Ohio, and he joined the Chautauqua Festival Ballet as a dancer.
Janes has long been involved in the dance and arts communities within Chautauqua in a number of different professional capacities — he’s been a choreographer, artistic adviser, and director of contemporary studies. Since Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s retirement in 2021 after nearly four decades in the role, Janes has served as interim director of the School of Dance. Over the years, he has become “really a part of the fabric of the artistic community at Chautauqua,” said Vice President of Performing and Visual Arts Laura Savia, and now he is “building on an already wonderful and nationally recognized program and making it his own.”
Focused, driven and ambitious, Janes has no shortage of ideas for the future of Chautauqua’s prestigious dance program.
One of Janes’ primary goals in his new role is to pull from the myriad vibrant arts circles in Chautauqua and continue to incorporate visual and performing arts into the dance curriculum.
“I feel like this (program) is unique in where it’s positioned in Chautauqua,” he said, noting the program’s geographic proximity to the Institution’s other arts programs and schools. “So, you have visual arts right there, you have opera over there, you have the theater company; you have all these cultural things, different performances to see every single night.”
By building other mediums like theater, voice and visual arts into the daily schedules in the dance program, Janes hopes to help dancers develop an appreciation and understanding of other mediums and, in turn, use those mediums to find inspiration and hone their craft.
Having a variety of dance faculty in the program — including dancers who are relatable to current students — is key as well, he said, in order to give students a varied, dynamic dance education.
“It’s good to have one teacher, but I think it’s good to just be exposed to different things and things that you may be uncomfortable being exposed to,” he said.
Beyond enhancing the experiences of students at the School of Dance, Janes sees an opportunity to welcome even more young dancers into that environment.
“I think there’s opportunity here to make this a really equitable place,” he said. “Hopefully, going forward, we can make it a place where anyone with any amount of means, or lack thereof, can get here, and we can get them here and they can have the same training that other people have, and there’s a lot of support for that.”
He cited the All-Star Dance Gala, an annual performance that welcomes alumni from the summer dance program back to the grounds of Chautauqua. This summer, the Chautauqua Dance Circle is working to create a fundraiser coinciding with this year’s Gala, with the aim to raise money to support student scholarships, pointe shoes and other necessary materials for the dancers at Chautauqua.
Janes said he’s perhaps most excited about both the first and last student performances of the season — he enjoys observing the progress that students make throughout the summer in advancing their technical skills and overall craft, as he has seen year after year.
“We are already benefiting from his acumen, his grace and his deep commitment to the educational instruction of early career ballet dancers,” Savia said.
Among the most compelling aspects of the dance program, and the primary reason he returns every summer, is the safe and welcoming nature of Chautauqua’s arts communities.
“It’s always been a really safe place. It’s a safe place to fail and I think that’s super important,” Janes said. “… You can really push yourself, and I think it’s important to know that it’s OK to fail. And generally speaking, if you know that, you don’t.”
Janes first came to Chautauqua as a performer with his wife. As young adults, they saw Chautauqua through “one set of eyes. Now we see it through our kids’ eyes. … We’ve seen them grow up, and they’ve just gained this confidence every summer when they come up here.” That joy and the support of the dance community, he said, is “what’s kept us coming back over and over.”