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The Perfect Storm and the Turning Point

Janet Rollé ’84 has always been keenly aware of her place in her family’s story—a difficult but straightforward path of advancement from generation to generation. But throughout her life, Rollé has rarely followed paths: she forges them, and they’re anything but straightforward.

By Jamie Kenney ’05

Janet Rollé Portrait
The daughter of a Jamaican-born mother, Rollé was a bright child… with a lot of energy that, her mom was convinced, needed to be harnessed more productively.

“I was spending, in her words, too much time playing kickball on the street,” she recalls, a gentle smirk audible in her voice.

That’s how she found her way to her first ballet class at the YMCA in Mount Vernon, New York.

There, Rollé found “the perfect storm of lots of things that were coursing through my 8-year-old veins,” synthesizing her love of music, movement, and self expression. After graduating high school at 16, however, dance was set aside for other ambitions: the “holy grail” for Rollé’s family was to see her become a physician. She received a scholarship and went to Barnard, Columbia University’s all-women’s college, as a pre-med student.

But during that year, there was a turning point: specifically the 1977 film The Turning Point, in which a woman forgoes a promising career in ballet only to grapple with the consequences of her decision later on.

“I was so emotionally impacted by that movie, this idea of the path not taken,” she recalls. “The depth of the reaction I had made me start to reconsider my choice. I thought, ‘I don’t want to have that feeling of regret.’”

It wouldn’t be easy—from telling her parents to succeeding in the highly competitive world of dance, which historically had not been welcoming to Black performers—but she knew she had to try.

“What is going on here at Purchase?!”

Rollé was drawn to Purchase, she says, because it was the perfect combination of serious, conservatory-style training and the benefit of a college education.

She managed to make it to the last audition before the beginning of the fall semester, only to find it being run by legendary (then recently retired) ABT dancer Ivan Nagy. Rollé was stunned.

“I literally in my mind thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I had idolized Ivan. I thought, ‘What is going on here at Purchase?’”

She was accepted to the Conservatory of Dance where Nagy (who died in 2014) became her faculty advisor, one of many “legends” she had the opportunity to train with. ABT alumni Rosanna Seravalli, who is still on staff (“I actually had dinner with her last night”), and the late Gayle Young were professors. The legendary Bronislava Nijinska came to stage Les Noces. Choreographer Kevin Wynn even asked her to be a founding member of his company.

“Something I had not fully anticipated or appreciated before coming to Purchase,” says Rollé, “was the ability to be in such close proximity to seminal, legendary artists and artistry. There’s no way to describe what that meant to me personally: I’d taken a lot of risks to make the decision to become a dancer. The positive reinforcement that provided for me very, very early on is something that I remain eternally grateful for and wish Ivan was here to see the path that set me on and where it has led me.”

Making It (and Bowing Out) on Her Own Terms

Shortly after graduation, Rollé decided to move to London to jump-start her career.

“I went the freelance route, which was non-traditional in some ways,” she says.

The decision enabled her to perform in a variety of styles and venues—ballet, contemporary, jazz. English National Opera Ballet, a musical in the West End, television.

“It was great because I got to use everything that I had learned at Purchase.”

But despite having a “very fulfilling and gratifying career” in dance, she left abruptly. The death of her uncle—and her inability to attend the funeral—made the ocean between her and her family more palpable. Though the decision was made quickly, the plan to switch careers was not: she’d always had the sense she didn’t necessarily want to stay in dance after she could no longer perform. And when she thought about her career, she realized she didn’t feel there were any dances undone.

“People were very, very surprised by that choice—my agents, my colleagues—but I don’t have any regret about what I did,” she says. “Sure, I could have done other things, but I was so fulfilled by what I had done, that it just didn’t feel to me that I had anything left to prove.”

The Art of Business

Initially thinking about becoming an agent, Rollé decided her best bet was business school. In choosing Columbia Business School, she felt she had come full circle from her year at Barnard.

There, she found faculty who saw value in her unorthodox background and supported her ambition to go into media and entertainment spaces… even when that meant eschewing interview offers from recruiters that didn’t align with that goal.

“I think in some ways that stubbornness was a risk,” she says. “There was a chance I would graduate with an MBA and no job.”

One interview she did take was with Michael Fuchs at HBO for a newly created position—special assistant to the chairman.

“I’ll never forget that interview. One of the first things he said to me was, ‘So, you were a professional dancer,’” she recalls. “In a lot of my other interviews that led very quickly to comments like, ‘So you must be really flexible,’ or ‘Tell me what it was like to dance on those pointe shoes.’ In Michael’s case, his follow up was, ‘So you must be incredibly disciplined.’ I thought, here’s a person who understands me. The fact that he saw my being a dancer as a huge benefit, not just a curiosity or a novelty.”

Rollé got the job, launching a career in other, mostly entertainment spaces—MTV, AOL, BET, and CNN. In all but her role at CNN, the positions were new—she would have to make the blueprint herself.

“There’s something about me that’s attracted to the white space that represents,” she says. “Whereas, other people might be frightened by the ambiguity or the risk involved with that. I actually embrace it.”

Rollé attributes this idiosyncrasy, in part, to having been a dancer—to occupy a role and imbue it with life and meaning. She also found that her dance training—its emphasis on preparedness, discipline, and professionalism—not only followed her throughout her career but enabled her to thrive.

“I tell people, if I hadn’t been a dancer, I probably wouldn’t have ended up where I’ve ended up. My foundation as a dancer is the reason I see the world the way I do.”

From Beyoncé to Ballet

In 2016, Rollé joined Parkwood Entertainment—the management, production, entertainment company, and record label founded by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter—as the general manager (a new role, naturally).

Among her many accomplishments in the five years she was there, Rollé served as associate producer of the Emmy Award-winning Homecoming—as well as the historic Coachella performance it was based on—and executive producer of the Emmy-winning Black is King.

When Rollé told Knowles-Carter that she was leaving the company to become the CEO and executive director at American Ballet Theatre, the superstar responded with understanding and support.

“Her generosity of spirit made the transition as easy as it could be for me,” Rollé says. “She rightly said very simply, ‘I know that dance is your first love.’”

Rollé has occupied the position at ABT since January 2022. With an eye toward not just survival but sustainability, she seeks to expand access to the institution for audiences, engaging them where they already are, not just waiting for them to walk through the doors of a theatre. She also hopes to provide more growth opportunities for the artists of the company as the company grows. After all, she’s well aware, from personal experience, what they can bring to the table.

As for herself, she’s still in awe of having the opportunity to have a role at the ABT, even if it’s not the kind of role she might have imagined herself in when she began pursuing a career as a dancer.

“There’s this thread in my life of bringing certain things full circle,” she says. “To be the CEO of ABT… if you had told me when I was at Purchase that I would be here? It would have been a dream too big to have imagined.”