Artistic director David Hochoy and managing director Jan Virgin always projected closeness and came off as the quintessential dynamic duo each time they gave curtain speeches before Dance Kaleidoscope performances. But now after 25 years of loyally standing at Hochoy’s side, Virgin, the good-natured, fashion-forward, white-haired beauty, known for her distinctive glasses and accessories, is retiring June 30. Taking her place at DK’s helm is Kim Gutfreund, her newly selected successor.
Wishing to hear Hochoy’s perspective regarding his long-time collaborator, I reached out to him by email. “Jan has been known to audiences, donor and grantors for forming lasting relationships in the community that made everyone feel part of the DK family,” he said. Hochoy went on to list Virgin’s major accomplishments while at DK, including a Lilly Endowment grant of $5 million in 2015 for the formation of an endowment, the first in the company’s history. Another significant coup spearheaded by Virgin was the procurement of a permanent studio for the company in the Circle City Industrial Complex near Mass Ave. “Because of her gregariousness and visible passion for the arts, she was able to network with all of the Indianapolis arts organizations and become a cheerleader for Dance Kaleidoscope,” Hochoy said. “She has been a beacon of enthusiasm for all of our patrons, whom she greeted and said goodbye to at every single performance. Because of her friendliness and accessibility, for many patrons, she is the symbolic representation of what we represent—beauty and excitement.”
Recently, I spent time with the affable arts leader to discuss her DK career, during what I referred to jokingly as her “exit interview.” In addition to her role as a widely respected and beloved arts leader, the Indianapolis native is also a wife to Joe Virgin, mom to two sons, three daughters and one stepdaughter, and a grandmother to 15. Calling from her DK office at Butler University’s Jordan Hall, Virgin discussed her tenure at DK and what it has meant to her as she prepares to write the next chapter of her life. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What do you consider your most important during your tenure at DK?
My greatest achievement is the trust I have built in my relationships with our audience and the donors. We have remained transparent and ethical from day one. When I say we need money, I know they believe me. So, I would have to say building trust in the community.
Why do you suppose that is?
Because everybody is asking for money. Everybody needs money and I think they know it isn’t easy for me to ask for money on that stage. People think it’s easy and comes right out. No, it doesn’t. Absolutely, not at all. When I get up there, I don’t know what to say. But what I say comes from my heart and I think that is what I have done to build the trust of my audience. When I ask for money, I need it. Also, when you are in the lobby, it’s a family. DK is a family. More so than a lot of other arts groups. We are in the lobby. We are laughing. We are sharing. It’s almost like a reunion. I am not sure all the groups can do that. It’s not because they don’t want to, but I am not sure they can.
The diversity of your audiences is the envy of other arts groups. Would you agree?
Absolutely. We exist for the community and we say this all the time. “We are for you. We are of you, and by you, we survive.” Our company looks like our community. It’s also what we put on that stage. It’s always current and put on beautifully. I think a lot of people’s eyes are opened up. It is a different way to look at things. Movement is beautiful in itself and to be able to say some of the hard things we have had to say in the community, and beautifully, works.
What do you consider your biggest regret?
I’m not real happy that I’ve aged (laughs). I’m ready for the next step, but this has been a great time for me. Maybe that I felt the dancers needed more and I couldn’t provide more for them. I’m not just talking salaries; I am talking everything. Maybe that I couldn’t get that building sooner. I’m passionate about DK and I think when you are passionate about something, it can be disappointing to convey to someone else who doesn’t feel the way you do. Another regret is that David did not call me ten years earlier (laughs). I tell him all the time, “Why didn’t you call me when you first came?” I must also say that I regret COVID prevented my saying my goodbye to donors, sponsors and audiences in person at the theatre.
Describe your partnership with David and what it has meant to you?
When I first met him, I thought he was one of the most gorgeous men I had ever seen. I was introduced to him after a performance. That time was with Ballet Internationale, which my daughter was performing with when she was a young person. I got to know and respect him, so when he needed someone, he called me and I was at the ballet and he said, “Jan come to DK.” Now, my training (she started studying ballet when she was five) is classical ballet and I said, “Oh no, I don’t think so, David. I am really more ballet.” He said, “Nope. Come to DK.” After two weeks of calling me every night and saying, “Jan, come to DK,” David said the magic words, “Jan, DK needs you.” And I went, “Whoa” and I said, “David, I’m coming.” And I did. So, he was persuasive and had personality plus.
After three days in the office, I turned on the database and we were less than half of what we were the day before and I said, “Something’s happened to the database.” And he said, “I surprised you. I deleted all the duplicates.” And I said, “No, those duplicates were there for a purpose.” And he said, “How can I help you fix this? How can I help you?” I had never had an artistic director take that kind of responsibility and I was so impressed and I said, “From this moment on, this company is going to be run, from the top to the bottom, with ethical behavior. And ever since, we have been transparent, and so David has been my best friend. He has been the person I can fight with. He’s been my mentor. He’s been the person I have danced at galas with. He bought shoes for me for me every birthday in Oregon (DK performed several years each summer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival). We have laughed. We have cried together and we have fought and we’ve dreamed…everything you can imagine a couple could do. People have told us, “Oh, you are just an old, married couple. You bicker just like an old, married couple.” And in a way, that is true because we know each other so well.
Moving forward, I presume you and David will remain friends. This isn’t the end?
I would like to think we will. I would imagine what is going to happen is it will take a moment for me to accept someone else is in my spot. It is going to take a moment when that someone else is on that stage with him and I’m not. But I hope we both know we can share with one another and that I will be there for him and when it is his time to retire, I will celebrate what we did together. I got a wonderful card from the mayor, telling me what I had done for the city and saying how proud he was. That meant a lot to me…I’ve done something for the city I was born and grew up in.
Why now? Why retire?
Prior to COVID, we needed to come up with succession plan. We needed to get our ducks in a row. I am aging. David is aging and what were we going to do? Somebody had to say when then were going to retire. So, I said a few years ago, “OK, I’ll retire” and gave the date. Little did I know we would have COVID, but I thought, I’ll be 75 years old in June and I thought that would be a good time. I used to think 50 was old and now I think it is young (laughs). So now that I am closer to 75, does that necessarily mean that you are done? I think also what I had to recognize is that this is a young, vibrant dance company. It was probably time to pass the mic, so to speak. So, I want to see what I can do. I also want to be healthy enough and alive enough and involved enough that I get to watch someone else.
What else do you plan to do?
Well, I really haven’t thought that much about it. After 25 years (laughs), I guess I am going to clean my house.
Are you anticipating a grieving period once you retire?
Well, I am going through it now. A lot of patrons are calling me, wondering why I am doing it. And I cry talking to them. Yes, I will grieve. I will miss my staff, my loyal, loyal staff. I will miss the dancers. They’ve come and gone. I will miss David. I don’t want to talk about it. I will miss him so much. I think I’ll miss the challenge too. The challenge of keeping the dance company going in a city that is more sports-oriented. I love our grantors. I love our donors. As for what I will do, I love to read. I just had a donor call and ask, “Do want to join our painting group?” I did painting and used to have an art business. I said, “I never thought of that.” But I know that God has a plan for me. I know He does because I didn’t plan on being at DK and I didn’t plan on being at the ballet. It just happened and so I know something wonderful is going to happen. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Maybe I will be a wonderful grandmother (laughs).
What have you learned about dance and dancers?
I will tell you one thing I learned. When I was a young person in ballet, it was said that “If you can’t do ballet, you’ll do modern.” That is not true. I wish I had done modern. I say that truthfully. I have a daughter who was one of our professional dancers. You have to dance. It is in you. I learned that from the dancers. Going to Oregon, when we were at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, spending all that time with them…there is something in you that says you can do nothing else. My daughter Jaclyn, who danced with DK, was injured badly in Carmina Burana and could not dance. Motionwear (a dance clothing company) hired her, created a job for her, and she made more money than she ever would as a dancer, plus she traveled. She came home one day and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to dance.” And that’s a dancer. I admire how they put dance first.
I am in awe of our dancers and sometimes I don’t know what to say to them after a show because I know I can’t say what I really feel. I don’t know what to say to dancers to absolutely let them know what I feel. A choreographer once told me, “Oh, come on. Just tell them they did a great job.” She’s right, but you think, “Is that enough?” Remember, they are giving you their hearts and souls. When I was a dancing student, I didn’t have the guts to get out there and say to them, “Watch me. I don’t care what you think. Watch me.” I was so scared of what they would say. Dancers are brave. They are putting it out there for the audience to applaud or not and I think that is extremely brave and I have learned how much I admire dancers. I admire them tremendously.
What is your hope for DK’s future?
That is goes on long beyond my lifespan. I want them to have a school. I want them to be a force to be reckoned with. When people say “Dance Kaleidoscope, who? What is that?” I want them to finally know who it is.
What do you wish your legacy to be?
It’s the transparency I spoke of. Also, the honesty. People who know me are aware that if I say I am going to do something, I do it. As far as something tangible, it would be DK’s first endowment. Right now, it is $6 million. It grew over the pandemic. We did really well. But we don’t spend. We are good stewards of our money. We spend what we have to, but not anymore than we need to.
What is your farewell message to the community?
I have had the privilege of asking, for nearly 25 years, this community to support this phenomenal dance company, but the community has the power to keep us dancing and that would be what I would want my last words to be. “You have the power. I’ve had the privilege to keep us going, so I hope you will too.”
For information about Dance Kaleidoscope go to dancekal.org.