A final bow: Rozsa Center director stepping down

Rozsa Center director stepping down

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Mary Jennings, who has been director of the Rozsa Center since 2014, is leaving to become executive director of the Grand Rapids Ballet.

HOUGHTON — The longtime director of the Rozsa Center is moving on to a new position downstate.

Mary Jennings, who became director in 2014, stepped down last month effective Wednesday to become executive director of the Grand Rapids Ballet.

She first served on an interim basis after former director Susanna Brent left. By that point, she had been at Michigan Technological University for two years working at Michigan Tech Recreation, where she had helped put on youth dance shows at the Rozsa.

The arts has been a lifelong journey for Jennings. She earned a degree in contemporary dance from Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts. Before that, she received extensive professional dance training at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, which she moved away from home to attend when she was 16.

She’d never thought about arts administration. But it was an exciting opportunity. And after a search, the interim tag became permanent.

“There was a significant leap of faith that I had to take, walking away from the things that I was doing in recreation, but having an opportunity to come back to the arts in a significant way, I couldn’t pass it up,” she said.

The event she’s proudest of bringing in was the Minnesota Ballet’s 2015 performance of “The Nutcracker.” For that performance, they collaborated with the Keweenaw Symphony Orchestra and 50 dancers from the Superior School of Dance.

“We had the orchestra, we had the local dancers, and then to see it all get put together on stage was really magical,” Jennings said. “It was important for the community for our young dancers to be sharing the stage with professionals, for the orchestra to be able to play live ballet with dancers onstage, turning it into something that we repeated a few more times because it was such a valuable experience all around.”

One of her biggest focuses at the Rozsa has been making it a place the public felt it could access beyond the university’s productions. As one of the largest gathering spaces in the community, it was being underused as a rental, she said. The Rozsa made the calendar available, and streamlined prices.

The Rozsa has also broadened access to its events through the “pay as you are able” pricing system added last year, which lets patrons choose between several pricing tiers.

Booking those events starts about 18 months in advance. The Rozsa works closely with faculty in the Visual and Performing Arts department to lay out major academic events to determine what dates are available.

Some performances, such as “The Nutcracker,” have obvious places on the calendar. The events also need to be balanced between art forms: it can’t be all dance shows, “as much as I’d love to,” Jennings said.

Industry contacts pitch some of the acts; others, like Midwestern comedian Charlie Behrens, had been eyed for a performance. When a good spot on the calendar opened up, the Rozsa reached out to agents to see if it would work. The result: Two shows in November, one of which was added after the first quickly sold out.

“There’s a little bit of luck involved when the stars align to make something like that happen,” Jennings said. “And then we see what kind of an impact that had on our community and the whole region.”

One of those acts wound up planting the seed that led to Jennings’ new job. The Grand Rapids Ballet came to the Rozsa last September. Jennings had been working with the Grand Rapids Ballet’s artistic director James Sofranko about a year in advance on the performance, a collaboration between the ballet and the Woodland Sky Native American Dance Company of Crystal Falls.

Taking the Grand Rapids job brings Jennings back to her artistic roots in ballet. The 50-year-old organization is also Michigan’s only classical ballet company, and is in an area known for great arts experiences, Jennings said. And she gets to work alongside Sofranko, who she called “an incredible visionary and artistic director.”

It also brings her closer to family in the Chicago area.

“All the boxes were being checked, as I kind of went through what would make this an opportunity I’d really consider,” she said.

Wednesday, Jennings was busy packing up her office at the Rozsa. She’ll miss the staff, who she called “just a really great ecosystem of wonderful people who are very talented in their own areas, all sharing a vision for what the Rozsa is for campus and the community in the region.”

She’ll also miss curating the presenting series season, which she likened to assembling a puzzle piece. Though she won’t be around for the shows she helped book next season, she said “everyone’s going to be delighted by what they see.”

Whoever the new director will be is inheriting an expert team, who they should trust to do their jobs well, Jennings said. She also advised them to balance the blockbuster shows with smaller ones they think are interesting — like the Grand Rapids Ballet and Woodland Sky shows last fall.

“It was such a specific kind of vision,” she said. “Was it a sellout? No, but not every show has to be. And the impact that it made was well worth the investment and the risk of doing something unique like that. And being a part of a university community allows you a little bit of room for taking those risks when the opportunities come up. And it’s exciting for our community to see cutting-edge work being presented way up here in Houghton, Michigan.”

People could still see Jennings up at the Rozsa from time to time. She’s excited enough about the upcoming season that she’s looking for ways to travel up for a couple of shows.

“The 25th anniversary season is also something that is lining up to be the celebration that this place deserves, for all that’s it’s done for our community in the past 25 years,” he said.


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