Ballet Des Moines’ new executive director, Carolyn Jenison, plans to build awareness of the organization and to collaborate with other arts organizations in the community. Jenison has worked for several nonprofits, including the Iowa chapter of the MS Society, Des Moines Performing Arts and as executive director for One Iowa, a nonprofit organization that fights for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals living in Iowa. After the Iowa Supreme Court cleared the way for gay and lesbian couples to marry in Iowa in 2009, Jenison helped lead the charge to educate Iowa companies and residents about same-sex marriage and increase support for the organization. “People didn’t always agree with us, but they always listened to us,” she said. “We helped change the conversation.”


What was it that drew you to Ballet Des Moines?

This organization is right on the cusp of greatness. It just celebrated 10 years, is financially sound and has a great, solid board that is passionate but not micromanagers. I really want to elevate the profile of the organization – we now have six professional dancers and not a lot of people know this. And these dancers are great; they’ve come from all over. I want to do this through public education and by meeting people where they are, bringing the dancers to them. I also want to have the dancers be more involved with the community and to be embraced by the community. This city so embraced the guys from “Triple Espresso” it made them want to live, work and play here. These dancers are here for 26 weeks with us; we need them to want to stay.


How do you want to get the dancers more involved outside of the season?


They just re-signed their contracts in May, and some have gone home. For instance, one dancer is from Brazil. But I want them to become recognizable by being out in the community. They are opening for Paula Abdul, they’ll be participating in the (Des Moines Art Center’s) Big Hair Ball (in June) – there are just a number of opportunities. We are also working with a friend of mine who works with the blind for IRIS (Iowa Radio Reading Information Service for the Blind and Print Handicapped Inc.) to have audio description of our spring performance. No one else in the Midwest has done this; I think the only other place is Philadelphia. A few people came to watch during practice so they could describe the turns and choreography. I hope we can continue to do it for future shows. I always try to be conscious of making things accessible.


What are some goals or things you’d like to accomplish?

Right now, I really want to keep administrative costs low and build awareness so we can hire another dancer. We have some truly talented students here in Des Moines … and it’s important to retain talent here. I believe this is the best place to live and we are constantly ranked for different things, but we have never ranked in the top 25 in regard to arts and culture. We definitely have a burgeoning arts scene. The foundation for a strong arts and culture scene is having a strong opera, ballet and symphony. We just need to build on that three-legged stool and make it stronger. These are the things that when people come here, make them want to stay.


Tell me about your time at One Iowa

The work we did at One Iowa was history in the making. I worked there from 2007 to 2011, so I got there right before the first couple married and really hit the ground running. I remember driving home that day, and I was looking at all of the windows on the outside of homes, and I knew that at that point in time, our relationships were just as important as everyone else’s.


What do you like to do outside work?

I donate a lot of my time to Amanda the Panda, which does a lot of great things, and Children and Family Urban Ministries, which helps the working poor. Over the past 14 years, I have worked tirelessly to educate people about my neighborhood, River Bend, through opening our home to annual house tours, private tours to those considering moving to the area and to corporate and charitable organizations. I have worked closely with city officials to increase services, stop the demolition of houses, and rezoning our neighborhood to prevent further homes from being broken up into apartments. I have been personally responsible for recruiting more than 15 families to move into the neighborhood and most recently I worked with a group of neighbors to secure local historic districts within River Bend.