the flair Q&A





Sonja Kostich







Tell me about your business or specialty.

I am the Executive Director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, located in Tivoli, New York, a 153-acre facility where artists come to create, rehearse, train, and perform. I was brought in at the end of December 2018, as the first solely dedicated Executive Director of the organization. Prior to my arrival, and since inception, the organization had been run by two of the four founders. I oversee the organization’s management, operations, and short and long-term strategies to realize Kaatsbaan’s redevelopment, as well as envision, in partnership with our Artistic Director, our programming.


How'd you get to where you are now?

I had a 20+ year career as a ballet and modern dancer and transitioned into business, finance and arts administration upon retirement. I’ve taken on roles in pretty much every area of the dance and non-profit worlds including contracted and freelance performer, founder, director, teacher, writer, finance manager, programming manager, producer, as well as work in marketing and development. I also worked in the for-profit sector for two years as a finance analyst, which was an enormous learning experience. The level of professionalism (“effectiveness and efficiency”) is astounding and impressive to say the least. At the time, those seemingly disparate experiences have now come together to create a complete picture, which help me fully understand my current role.


How has the Covid crisis affected your work or business? Any new ideas or approaches…or lessons learned so far?

The COVID crisis has allowed for new perspectives to be recognized, as our daily lives and the world around us have changed. There are challenges for all businesses during this period of uncertainty and loss, with the need to pivot from “normal” operations in order to still provide service to its various communities (for Kaatsbaan that means professionals, students, local Hudson Valley – both as an artistic/educational offering and an economic contributor). One of the primary outcomes of this pivot has been a look at our operations and programming, and finally realizing a part of our mission that had yet to be fulfilled – that of a “cultural park” – utilizing our outdoor space of 153-acres. This has manifested into a Summer Festival running every weekend throughout August and September and includes live performances (dance and music solos and duets), as well as our very first light and sound installation in one of our barns and projected film installations – all with protecting public health as a top priority.


This is the first time Kaatsbaan presents programming that takes place outside – and it will now become part of our new normal. As with all arts organizations around the world, COVID forced normal programming (programming taking place inside theaters, studios, etc.) onto a digital platform. Normally, during the summer Kaatsbaan holds a nine-week ballet intensive, which brings around 150 students to our facility. Because this program went digital, it freed up the physical space at Kaatsbaan and allowed this dream of a “festival” to finally be born. Having now built the necessary outdoor stage, we have the additional resources to conduct multiple programs throughout the year, weather permitting. This would not have happened this summer had COVID not forced the need for solutions to its challenges.


What surprises you in your work, now or in the past?

Throughout my dance career, I never imagined myself transitioning from the artistic side to the business side. I did not attend college until I was 38 years old, having gotten into ABT, a full-time job, while still in high school. Going to undergraduate business school at that age and graduating at 42 was not something I had planned. It was humbling to go from the top of one’s field to a completely new world where I knew nothing and was twice the age of those around me, but it gave me a real sense of accomplishment as it was so far removed from anything I ever thought I was capable of doing. Persevering in this endeavor led me to a life I never imagined for myself – and which I am now so grateful to have. I see many dancers now transitioning into new exciting and fulfilling second careers post life as a professional dancer, and it is heartening to witness – there was a time that once you retired from the stage (in your mid/late 30’s or 40’s), you faced a void of uncertainty, without opportunity or skills beyond your dance technique and artistry. The internet and the acceptance of older students seeking a second career by colleges has been a game changer for retired dancers. Additionally, the growing acceptance of women (and especially women of color) to take on leadership roles is encouraging and long overdue.


What drives you crazy?

Not having something interesting and challenging to work on.


Who inspires you? (it can be anybody you know, or don't know)

My first inspiration comes from my parents and my family. I was adopted, as were my sister and brother, by two incredible people. The life stories of each person in my family could be a book/movie. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without the diverse influence and inspiration I received from them. From my professional life, I have been deeply inspired by the opera/theater director, Peter Sellars – pretty much every word that comes out of his mouth is inspiring, even more so - his actions. I am also deeply inspired by creative and smart people, entrepreneurs who bring to life the seemingly impossible and unknown, and by kindness.


You're a trailblazer - what are some highlights in your career to date?

I think one of the most important moments in my career came when I discovered that what I did could be connected to the rest of the world. Like many careers, you can become insulated in just your field – your area of concentration. Through the first half of my career, I always felt something was missing – there was a feeling of isolation and disconnectedness. I was always fascinated by what was going on outside of my professional world – all the things I didn’t know. I wanted what I did to be connected to the rest of the world. When I first worked with Peter Sellars I understood that was possible – it was the opera Nixon in China. It was wonderful to know that there was real significance in dance (art) in and of itself, but that it could also be part of something that was relevant to the rest of the world.


Words of wisdom or advice...final thoughts?

I think two of my lifesavers have been conviction and the ability to adapt. When I believe in something or someone, I throw 100% of myself into it. However, if I don’t believe in something or someone, it’s very difficult for me to muster up interest or energy. As far as adaptability, I had to learn to adapt early in life, I think as a survival mechanism – it’s very helpful. I also find the following words from Peter Sellars to be something wonderful to strive towards: “Imagine the world you want to live in. Second, create that world. Third, live in it.”

___


Sonja Kostich is the Executive Director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York. Prior to her arrival at Kaatsbaan in December 2018, Sonja's career included over 20 years as a professional ballet and modern dancer before moving into finance and arts administration. Her professional dance career began when she was hired by Mikhail Baryshnikov at the age of 17 to join American Ballet Theatre from The School of Classical Ballet, a fully-subsidized school for ABT created by Mr. Baryshnikov. Consisting of only 7 female students and 5 male students, Ms. Kostich later danced with the San Francisco Ballet and the Zurich Ballet before moving into contemporary dance, where she worked with Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project and on multiple collaborations with Peter Sellars and Mark Morris. In 2007, Sonja co-founded and co-directed OtherShore, a NYC-based dance company that thrived until 2013, during which time six original works were commissioned. The Martha Graham Dance Company currently holds one of OtherShore’s original works, which had its debut performance at Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2008 and garnered a “Best in Choreography of 2008” by Dance Magazine. Upon retiring from dancing, Ms. Kostich returned to school to pursue a business degree, with a focus on accounting and business communications. She graduated summa cum laude and was salutatorian of the CUNY Baruch College graduating class of 5,000 students. Following, she began a full-time position at Goldman Sachs in the Finance Division. During her two years at Goldman, Ms. Kostich pursued a master’s in arts administration, returning to the dance world first as the finance manager at Mark Morris Dance Group and then as program manager at New York City Center. kaatsbaan.org