2019 is our 50th anniversary and we are championing some of the people who help make Scottish Ballet a great place to work. Each week we will introduce you to a different career at Scottish Ballet and the person behind it.
Steven Roth trained as a conductor at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne. After graduating he established the Chamber Orchestra of Geelong, and for ten years presented annual concert seasons as well as conducting and producing throughout Australia and internationally.
Steven was appointed Chief Executive of West Australian Ballet (the state ballet for Western Australia) in 2007 before moving across the world to become Executive Director of Scottish Ballet and join the Scottish Ballet Board in 2016.
We caught up with Steven to find out what makes him proud to be at the helm of Scottish Ballet.
You studied to be a conductor at the Victorian College of Arts (VCA), did you always want to be a conductor?
Ah… that's a good question! From a very young age, I was always singing, and I used to wave a stick around while I sang. So, I guess I was either going to be a singer or a conductor. But then my voice broke…
What was your instrument before you decided to focus on conducting?
I had a bit of a go at everything, which is really useful if you're going to be a conductor. I played the piano, violin and tuba. The piano I took through to university, but I loved playing the tuba. When I first came across to the UK to live (many years ago), I joined the Windermere Brass Band. I had to put my tuba in my backpack and walk to gigs. That was good fun, and kept me fit!
Was there a style of music you preferred to direct most? Is it different from the style of music you like to listen to?
I tended to focus on Haydn and Mozart, and any kind of vocal repertoire. I used to coach a lot of singers – opera, musicals, the whole gamut. I really enjoyed working with singers. As part of my degree, I spent two years coaching in the opera studio of the VCA. I seemed to have a natural affinity for the voice and vocal repertoire. I listen to pretty well anything, depending on my mood.
Tell us about your journey from conducting to ballet
I was always interested in dance – I had a few friends who were choreographers and really enjoyed watching rehearsals or attending performances in the VCA School of Dance or The Australian Ballet in Melbourne. Whilst I was conducting, I was also producing lots of concerts and events; so the transition into the production/ management side of the business was quite a natural one. The skills that you (quickly!) learn when producing your own events encompass everything from managing risk to fundraising, marketing, overseeing the customer journey etc. These skills are transferable across the creative industries. In the commercial world, where producers are putting their own money on the table, and sometimes very substantial amounts, you quickly learn that there is an imperative to succeed… because if you don’t, you’re fast out of a job!
I was very lucky to cut my teeth in the commercial world working for Andrew McKinnon Presentations – a company that presents major international acts and artists within Australasia. From there, I went back to the VCA to take up a development role and then onto the West Australian Ballet in Perth as Chief Executive.
You joined West Australian Ballet (WAB) in 2007. What was it like to lead them through a significant capital project and create a state ballet centre for the company?
West Australian Ballet is the oldest continuing ballet company in Australasia (est. 1952), but when I took it over, it was in real difficulty – financially, the facilities, the repertoire… just about everything. So, the new Artistic Director, (appointed at the same time as me) Ivan Cavallari and I set about a major transformation programme. That wasn't easy in a city as remote as Perth, and there were some significant obstacles and challenges. Money, as always, being the primary one.
Ivan had great connections in Europe, so we were able to establish the repertoire quite quickly. The funding was more of a challenge. On my second day in the office, the dancers' union issued papers to begin strike action. We ended up in the Court of Arbitration for three days – and the dancers won their battle for higher wages; which was deserved as the salaries were a misery at the time. But this action also woke up the government to the need to put more funding into the company and the arts more broadly.
We were eventually awarded a more significant annual grant and some seed funding to scope out a business case for a state ballet centre. The ballet shared digs with the opera in His Majesty's Theatre, and neither company had enough room to operate effectively. And the rest, as they say, is history...
Tell us about your journey with Scottish Ballet
Scottish Ballet had just completed the Tramway building as we were starting ours in Perth. I had heard how terrific it was, so I phoned Cindy [Sughrue, former Chief Executive / Executive Producer] and asked if we could see the plans. That was really helpful, and we stole a couple of neat ideas – such as the shoe room! When we were preparing the business case to government for a funding uplift, we included Scottish Ballet as one of the six companies benchmarked as great examples for comparison and analysis. There were synergies between both companies in scale and repertoire, meaning that Scottish Ballet was always on the radar.
An opportunity arose at Scottish Ballet to come and be their Executive Director. I applied for the position, spoke to the Board a few times over skype, before flying over to meet them.
What makes you proud to lead Scottish Ballet?
The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is helping to assist super talented young people in achieving great things and being the best they can be. I also love standing in the foyer after a show, watching people leave the auditorium totally engaged in conversation about the performance.
Knowing that the strength of the whole organisation – all of its constituent parts – has enabled something worthwhile and memorable to be presented and enjoyed by people from all walks of life is very rewarding. Art has a truly unique ability to inspire intellectual stimulation, joy and wonderment, excitement, conversation; very few things in life bring people together in this way.
In the 50th anniversary, I am loving the Five Wishes campaign. It is great to be able to say thank you and give a little extra something back to the communities and audiences of Scotland. It really reflects who Scottish Ballet is and what we stand for as a national organisation.
What is your favourite thing about working at Scottish Ballet?
Seeing the curtain go up on opening night!
What's your 'get up and go' song?
'Put on Your Sunday Clothes' from Hello Dolly