Success and sacrifice for NZ ballet boss

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 05:00 11/05/2014
Amanda Skoog
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

AMANDA SKOOG: She was talented and determined, but when she applied at 18 for the school of dance, they roundly rejected her.

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Amanda Skoog seems to have it all. Her marriage has been long and happy, she's proud of her two teenage sons, and she has had an exceptional career.

She has been boss of the Royal New Zealand Ballet for eight years and had her performance endorsed this year by an august honour - she is now Amanda Skoog, MNZM.

The 51-year-old's life seems a veritable template for women aspiring to success and influence. But she's not, she says, a "career woman" at all, and her achievements have not come without sacrifice.

"I've taken opportunities because they interest me, rather than going up a ladder. It's not about the next step but what you want to do," she says.

"I never ever once thought when I went from ballet to education to arts administration that I would end up head of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. I just took opportunities I felt excited by at the time."

She won't pigeonhole herself as "having it all".

"You pay a price. I believe you can't have the best of all things. You make sacrifices."

Life for her is "my boys and the ballet and no time for anything else, and that's a sacrifice. I wouldn't change it. It's not a complaint but a reality. And I have a wonderful marriage despite his being away six months of the year.

"I'm lucky, blessed rather than lucky - a fabulous job, a wonderful husband, wonderful children and a family that supports me. There's a real understanding and co-operation between the different bits of my life and that definitely helps."

Skoog muses on luck in success and concludes: "I think you have to make your own luck, make the most of every opportunity and see ways to make things work, not be scared by issues and problems and see ways to turn things around."

Turning things around has been integral to Skoog's life since she was a kid and failed to get into the New Zealand School of Dance, entree to the nation's ballet company.

The blow should have been terminal to her hopes of being a dancer. She had, though, invested more than she was prepared to lose, in past effort and future dreams.

Skoog began dancing at 7 after persuading her mother to let her learn. At 11 she was setting the alarm for 5am, getting up in the dark and practising, alone, in the rumpus room of her North Shore home.

"The funny thing is if you really love something it's not a burden. I was a determined little kid. I knew what I wanted to do. There was never a lightbulb moment, just ‘I'm going to be a ballet dancer'.

"My teacher was really strict. Sometimes I'd be in tears and Mother would say perhaps I should stop. I wasn't unhappy, my emotions were involved. My mother was so not a ballet mum."

She was talented and she was determined, but when she applied, at 18, for the school of dance, they roundly rejected her.

Fortunately neither parent said "do something else," and Skoog had no intention of seeing her dream derailed.

Her father, architect Neville Price, lived in San Francisco and she decided to travel.

"I travelled across America and along the way changed my body shape and lost weight. I don't know, but maybe with the School of Dance my shape might have had something to do with it."

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She spent time in Montreal and eventually fetched up in London, where she scored a place with the English National Ballet. She was 23.

"I was a good height and could fit a corps de ballet. It was a matter of talent, tenacity and luck and being in the right place at the right time."

She wonders, sometimes, if she could get into the English ballet at 23 without fulltime training "what I could have done with that training."

But she's not one to feel bitter about the past. Soon she was deeply involved with the company's outreach programme.

A chance conversation with a dancer who had taken a job at London's famous Victoria and Albert Museum after attending City University, London, led Skoog, at 28, to study for a post-graduate Diploma in Arts Administration there. The academic environment "opened up a whole other world". She graduated to take a job at London's Design Museum, then became assistant director of the Central School of Ballet and later ran the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire.

She also started an online business selling New Zealand craft - "more of a lovely hobby".

At the beginning of this happenstance career she married Matz Skoog. It was the storybook union of the Swedish principal dancer and the little New Zealand swan from the corps de ballet.

"It was a bit of love at first sight and we're still together nearly 25 years on."

Somehow their careers dovetailed "but it has been hard," she says.

At first she fitted in with his career.

"I remember when I was offered this job he said it was my turn. You can only be successful if other people allow and want you to be.

"We've missed out on months of each other's lives and of the boys' lives."

The boys, she says, have "dipped out" as far as constant time with both parents goes but not, she hopes, with quality time - "and how they've seen Matz and I make it work and be good role models in that sense".

Matz, busy in London, missed the bestowal of her MNZM.

Skoog takes her early experience of independent decision-making into her management style.

"People make decisions and you have to let them take ownership of what they do, and empower them in their role and area of expertise. I'm not an expert. I'm good at an overview.

"That's something I love about being a manager - a sense of helping people do what they want and are competent at doing, helping them realise their potential. Maybe that's my mothering instinct coming out."

There is, though, "a fine line between mothering, supporting and empowering and not becoming everyone's best friend".

Skoog manages about 60 people. Surprisingly, in a business famous for its ballerinas, about half are men, including half the dancers. The rest of the staff, to senior management level, are fairly evenly split, too.

The company is less age than gender-balanced, not a management issue but an anomaly for contemplation.

"I'm in an industry of very young people - which can be slightly depressing on some days, all these young, glamorous, gorgeous people.

"But it keeps you young. And getting older has its rewards. There's no problem being in your 50s as long as you're fulfilled, and know it takes time to do things. I never look back and say I wasted that year. I should, maybe, think of taking more time for me. This is more than a 40-hours-a-week job. But as soon as you start to feel resentment about the job, you know you have to change your attitude and direction."

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