David Gray (Kansas City Ballet / photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios)
Kansas City Ballet’s new executive director is a devoted dad, a nonprofit veteran and an award-winning author
In the arts, storytelling doesn’t just happen on stage or in a script. It happens in the rehearsal hall, in the boardroom, backstage, and, especially, during fundraising: finding ways to connect, to convince, and to ignite shared passion.
David Gray, the new executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, knows a thing or two about storytelling. Not only does he have decades of nonprofit leadership and financial savvy, but he’s also an award-winning author in a variety of genres, including plays, TV pilots, children’s books, screenplays, nonfiction (“Finance Arts Guide to Nonprofit Cash Flow”) and fiction (“Escape from Verona”).
In July, he took over from Jeffrey Bentley, who was executive director of KCB for 25 years.
“There were a lot of things that appealed to me about Kansas City Ballet,” said Gray. “Under Jeff Bentley’s leadership and stewardship the company is in really good condition, even after COVID, and a lot of organizations can’t say that.”
Before applying, he also researched Devon Carney, KCB’s artistic director. “Everything that came back to me was that he’s a really hardworking, kind, responsible adult,” Gray said.
Originally from Princeton, New Jersey, Gray has worked in nonprofits for decades, first in the press office for the New York City Ballet, where he was promoted to press director, and then with stints as executive director of the American Repertory Ballet (and Princeton Ballet School), interim executive director for New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, The New Brunswick Cultural Center and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and executive director of the Pennsylvania Ballet (since renamed the Philadelphia Ballet). He’s also a Certified Financial Planner.
Just a year into his time with the New York City Ballet, though, Gray married Kyra Nichols, principal ballerina with the company. He quit that job to become a full-time parent when their first son was born (and returned to his writing), so that Nichols could continue her dancing career. (As a protege of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, Nichols would have a 33-year career with NYCB, the company’s longest-serving dancer.)
“It was a no-brainer,” said Gray. “There are very few people who have the range of knowledge and experience that my wife has.” Gray himself had been raised by a single mother, one of three boys. “Being there to do for her what my father did not do for my mother, you know . . . there it is.”
He quit his job once again, this time with Pennsylvania Ballet, to be a full-time parent when the family moved from New Jersey to Bloomington, Indiana, for Nichols’ professorship at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
When their youngest child went off to college, Gray found himself an empty nester and, frankly, bored. He’d completed yet another of his writing goals (he wrote and sold a screenplay, currently in production in England), and was looking for his next challenge.
The dance world beckoned once again.
“You get in and it’s really hard to get out,” he laughed. “I have left and done other things, but it sort of comes back. There is an excitement about being in the theater. There is a moment before the curtain comes up that’s just really intoxicating, the energy, either backstage or front of house, with the anticipation of this magical thing, the hundreds of people who have worked so hard to make it happen right in front of you.
“No one wants to see me dance, but in my way, I get to be a little part of that.”
Gray inherits a company on solid financial footing, which means he can focus on supporting the company’s artistic goals. “Internally, I have a lot to learn. I have a lot of questions for the staff. I need to know who’s doing what, how we do things, and learn as much as I can to figure out ‘are we firing on all cylinders or is there an opportunity for us?’”
“My mindset is: How do we continue to make Devon successful and fulfill his vision for what this organization can be,” said Gray.
One of Gray’s first projects was to oversee the opening of the Kansas City Ballet School South Campus expansion, a multimillion-dollar project in Prairie Village, in August.
His goal is to build on the successes already in place. “I’ve known Jeff Bentley for a while . . . I’m hoping if there’s something that we share, it is a level of integrity and character that gave the (search) committee some confidence that while I might not make every decision correctly, I will stand by and take responsibility for the thing we did, good or bad.
“I cannot lift the organization up to another level,” he said, “but I can hopefully inspire a team of people to collectively raise the organization up to another level.”
Kansas City Ballet’s season opens Oct. 13 with “Jekyll & Hyde” in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, kcballet.org.