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Steamboat Magazine

Profile: Joan Lazarus

06/07/2013 05:45PM ● By Christina Freeman

Joan Lazarus and her dog, Rizzo, at Perry-Mansfield. Photo by Deborah Olsen.

By Kate Znamenacek

Steamboat Springs, CO - Joan Lazarus never attended Perry-Mansfield as a student. Still, throughout her career as a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher, Lazarus heard plenty of legends about this 100-year-old performing arts refuge in the woods. She appreciated whispers about Perry-Mansfield’s legacy as a stepping stone for emerging talent and a century-old reputation as a coveted hideaway for great artists who want to hone new works.

“I always knew about Perry-Mansfield, I used to teach about it in dance history class. It has had a profound effect on people; it’s a touchstone kind of place for artists,” says Lazarus, the camp’s new executive director. As the oldest continuously operating facility of its kind in the nation, Perry-Mansfield has proven its longevity and shared a rich past. Now, the camp is looking toward the future and Lazarus is the rare combination of artist and administrator who was tapped for the task.

 Idyllic Strawberry Park may seem like an improbable relocation for someone who grew up in New York and Boston and spent the past 30 years in San Francisco. But, “a profound experience in nature is an accelerant to the practice of creativity. It makes you a different person,” Lazarus says. She has discovered this personally since moving to Steamboat Springs and taking up residence in a log cabin at Perry-Mansfield last year.  

Lazarus, 61, has performed ballet and modern dance since age 5 and holds master’s degrees in both dance and arts administration. She was formerly the executive director of the Oakland Ballet and the WestWave Dance Festival for new choreography. She was the founder of DanceArt, a San Francisco nonprofit that supports dance productions and choreographers via consulting, fundraising and outreach.

“The route I took to get here is administrative. It’s nice. I’m not a (Perry-Mansfield) student or a teacher, but I am behind the scenes. I have some creative ideas, but I am really here to make sure the programs exist,” Lazarus says. Perry-Mansfield’s unique curriculum incorporates dance, theater and equestrian programs, with rustic on-site housing for students on its 76-acre woodland property. While many performing arts camps are at universities, Perry-Mansfield is nestled on the outskirts of Steamboat. It’s a full artistic immersion: No cell phones or computers allowed to campers.

“The beautiful thing about Perry-Mansfield is that it evolved. I believe deeply the formula evolved because it is in Steamboat,” Lazarus says, with a nod to the unusual combination of ranching, skiing, remoteness and a long-standing local respect for artistic expression that nurtured two modern artists who wanted, 100 years ago, to toil at their art unperturbed at the edge of wilderness.

Perry-Mansfield’s path to hiring a new executive director was lengthy. The board conducted an exhaustive nationwide search that went on for nearly a year. “Joan was the unanimous pick…partly for her knowledge of the field and partly for her vast experience as a teacher and arts administrator,” says Jim Steinberg, a 14-year veteran of the board. “She was the only candidate with both of those skill sets. Not only is she good at her job, but she is becoming an active part of the community.”

Lazarus spent her first whirlwind summer at Perry-Mansfield in 2012 and has since been initiated into the rigors of life with snow while falling in love with winter’s majesty in Strawberry Park.

Perry-Mansfield has proven a distinct departure from Lazarus’ urban life and the richly layered arts scene that she left in San Francisco. Timing was everything for her. “I wanted to be less urban. I used to need to be within walking distance of an opera house or symphony hall,” she admits. “It turns out that I am not really comfortable in cities. I love it here, and that is actually a big surprise. I knew I would love the job, but I didn't realize I would love Steamboat and the mountains and the elevation so much.”

Skiing isn’t her thing, but she did get snowshoes. She belongs to a book club. She has fallen in love with the hot springs and looks forward to finding free time to become more involved with the local yoga and dance communities. Rarely does she miss a local performance of music or dance. Lazarus is embracing Steamboat’s variety while making great plans to expand local performing arts opportunities to a whole new level. Don’t be surprised if adult programs emerge at Perry-Mansfield or you see camp action kick in year-round.

Relocation has also moved Lazarus closer to her identical twin sister, who teaches dance at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Widowed, with two grown stepchildren and one grandson, Lazarus shares her rustic space with Rizzo, her pampered 5-year-old Schnauzer-Chihuahua. Mostly, she loves her new morning commute, just steps to her office in the center of camp. “The job is great. Steamboat is neat. But getting to live here is the kicker,” she says. “When it snows, it’s like a snow globe and it’s so quiet.”

Quiet yes, but also busy. From behind her big yellow desk, Lazarus has figured out how to merge her artistic performer side with her city-wise business side to give Perry-Mansfield what it needs to march into a new century. With Rizzo standing guard from her zebra-striped chaise lounge, Lazarus knows how to present financials to those who don’t understand, has the skills to attach a price tag to performing arts, and knows what it takes to make the show go on.

"There are a few of us who have careers in the arts and also enjoy the administrative side – the business of the arts. For example, budgets tell a story about an organization. They reveal what an organization values. It really can seem like a narrative when viewed over time,” she says. “Digging through what an organization has done in the recent past, as well as the far-reaching past, allows us to ask questions, re-examine, realign and refocus. It feels almost as creative as making dances, and it's so much fun to do with other people."

Lazarus is acutely aware that Perry-Mansfield is a cornerstone in Steamboat’s history, and is deeply aware of what she and her board need to get done. “After 100 years, it’s not just about planning this year, but taking on the responsibility of the next century,” she says. “It’s like playing chess. You have to look many moves down the road. I do not think Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield would want us to just walk in their footsteps, but to be creative in designing the future.”