As a professional ballet dancer for the past two decades, Kathleen Breen Combes grew accustomed to changing directions on a dime. She did it since she was 18—floating across the stage during productions of Don Quixote, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake, among many others.
But now she’s facing a pivot of a different kind. Breen Combes, who closed out a 16-year career at the Boston Ballet with a final performance of ELA, Rhapsody in Blue on June 9, is retiring as a dancer to take the helm at Festival Ballet Providence, a professional ballet company in Rhode Island. And she’s doing it with the help of a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from Northeastern University.
Breen Combes participated in a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Boston Ballet and Northeastern that helps professional ballet dancers earn college degrees to prepare them for careers after dancing, a program she says equipped her to step into her new role come August.
“When I heard about the program, I was like, ‘I’m doing this,’” Breen Combes recalls. The program was flexible enough to work around her demanding schedule as a professional dancer, and offered opportunities to learn about topics she’d had a nascent interest in, such as collective bargaining, she says.
Breen Combes joined the Boston Ballet in 2003. She was promoted to second soloist in 2005, soloist in 2007, and principal dancer in 2009. She’s traveled and performed all over the world, including England, South Korea, and the historic Bolshoi Theatre in Russia.
As a dancer, she loved the opportunity to express herself with each performance, she says.
“My favorite place in the world is on stage,” Breen Combes says. “I love the joy of it. I can express anything through dance—anything I’m feeling that day, anything I’ve had to work through—and I really feel like it’s a form of meditation.”
Being a professional ballet dancer is a demanding profession, though, one that requires hours upon hours of practice and immense discipline. Immersed in this world, Breen Combes says it was difficult to see beyond her own ballet experience.
“As a dancer, you’re so focused on yourself as an individual; every day I’d go into work and I’d worry about what I’d have do with my body, how to prepare for a show, I’d only have to focus on myself. But over the last few years I’ve gotten to see new perspectives—there’s so much more to these organizations and this art form than just an individual experience.”
After her daughter was born, Breen Combes did an internship at the Boston Ballet instead of taking a traditional parental leave. She worked with the company’s administrative staff to learn the inner-workings of the organization.
With a newborn and her bachelor’s degree in hand, Breen Combes says she didn’t expect to go back to school. That is, until a friend made a case for Northeastern’s graduate certificate program. Breen Combes signed up, and thrived.
“I really enjoyed how practical it was,” she says, adding that she and her cohort worked with local nonprofit organizations to court prospective donors and develop acquisition plans.
The experience, she says, will be critical in her new role. Festival Ballet Providence is also a nonprofit organization, and the second biggest professional ballet company in New England.
Mihailo Djuric, who is the artistic director of Festival Ballet Providence, said that Breen Combes will usher in “an exciting new chapter” for the professional dance company.
“I have known her for many years, both on and off stage, and I admire the intelligence, creativity and charm she brings to everything she does,” Djuric said in a press release that announced the appointment of Breen Combes as the executive director of Festival Ballet Providence. “I’m grateful for the experience she was able to gain at Boston Ballet both on and off stage and I know she will use her many talents to bring a fresh energy and enthusiasm to this role.”
Breen Combes, who co-chaired the Young Partners Council at the Boston Ballet, says she’s eager to develop programs at Festival Ballet Providence that bring the community into the artform, and vice versa.
“I want to make the arts more a part of our culture,” she says.