W. Earle Smith directing "The Nutcracker" (copy)

Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith announced Thursday that he will leave the company.

Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith has announced that he will leave the company at the end of this season.

"We're going to celebrate Earle's achievements through the rest of the season," said general manager Gretchen Bourg, who has worked with the company since the School of Madison Ballet opened in 2005. "He has left a lasting mark on the organization."

Madison Ballet, a resident organization of Overture Center for the Arts, is in its 36th year. Since 1999, Smith has overseen the growth of the organization from a one-show-a-year, community-based arts company with a $250,000 annual budget into a professional company with a $1.1 million operating budget.

Smith has choreographed more than 25 new works for Madison Ballet’s repertoire. Among his five full-length ballets was "Dracula," a bold production that featured music by Michael Massey and went on a brief tour.

The company's largest production, "The Nutcracker," features a cast of some 150 people and opens in Overture Hall on Dec. 9. It has a long legacy: the Wisconsin Ballet Company, predecessor to Madison Ballet, produced the first Madison "Nutcracker" in 1968.

Smith said he's not sure yet what he'll do after leaving the ballet, but felt that the time was right after 19 years. He compared it to when he retired as a ballet dancer, adding, "I'm interested in reinventing myself again."

"As artistic director I don’t really have the luxury of going around and setting works on other dance companies," Smith said. "I definitely want to explore that.

"I don’t feel like I’m so entrenched that the organization can’t move forward and do the exciting things it does."

The ballet's board of directors will do a search for a new artistic director, a process Smith will likely be involved in. Smith's "Nutcracker" choreography won't likely change in 2018, to give the new director a chance to develop his or her own work.

Bourg said that both Smith and the ballet want to maintain their good relationship. He may return to choreograph work for the ballet's repertory shows or act as an advisor. 

Madison Ballet is currently based out of Westgate Mall, a dying shopping center on Whitney Way with few tenants left. A move is on the horizon for the company, which is also still mulling a deeper, more deliberate collaboration with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

On Thursday morning, some dancers cried when Smith announced his departure.

"Change can be a sad thing, but it can also be an exciting thing," he said. "I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about it too.

"I’ve ensured the board that it would be a smooth transition and I will do whatever I need to do to help them basically transfer my role as artistic director to another person."

"19 years is a long time for an artistic director," Bourg said. "The dancers' connection to Earle is much deeper than a boss/employee relationship. Some of them have grown up with us. It's a lot for them to absorb."

The decision to make the announcement just before "Nutcracker" opens on Dec. 9 instead of at the end of the season was deliberate, Bourg said.

"We wanted to give people a chance to celebrate all of Earle's great achievements," she said. "We want to share that with our audience as well."

As for Smith, the future feels open.

"I'm going to take the time and see where I land," he said. "I have a lot of skill sets. I don’t know how to put the pieces of the puzzle together to do something hopefully as rewarding as Madison Ballet."

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.