A native of the Pacific Northwest, James Nelson has spent nearly his entire career in the dance world.

Mr. Nelson received his professional dance training from Houston Ballet Academy  and enjoyed an 11 year performing career with Cincinnati Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Ballet de Santiago.

Following his onstage career,  Mr. Nelson served as Company Manager while achieving his BBA in Finance at the Bauer College of Business at University of Houston and was named General Manager of Houston Ballet in August 2000. In 2005, Mr. Nelson was selected for and attended the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Executive Program for Non-Profit Leaders and was recognized by Houston Business Journal’s Most Admired CEOs of 2021. 

Now in his 12th year as the company’s chief executive, Mr. Nelson has led Houston Ballet through a period of transformational growth and acclaim. During his tenure, Mr. Nelson has pursued an aggressive initiative of building large-scale, full-length ballets and expanding Houston Ballet's international exposure.  Since 2012, the company has developed lavish new productions of Aladdin (2014), Romeo and Juliet (2015), Giselle (2016), The Tempest (2017), Sylvia (2019), and Stanton Welch’s celebrated $5 million production of The Nutcracker, which premiered in 2016.  During this period, Houston Ballet made its first-ever appearances in Paris (2013), Melbourne (2016), Dubai (2018), and Tokyo (2022).

During Mr. Nelson's tenure as executive director, Houston Ballet's revenues have grown from $19.2 million to $37.5 million for the 2023-24 season, and Houston Ballet Foundation’s endowment has grown from $52.9 million to approximately $100 million, as of June 30, 2023. Mr. Nelson has instituted a multi-year financial planning process emphasizing stability and long-term resilience as part of the 2023-26 Strategic Plan, with the goal to grow Houston Ballet’s endowment to $200 million by 2035.

Under Mr. Nelson's leadership, Houston Ballet has developed a partnership with Houston Methodist that both provides health and wellness services to the dancers and staff and secures presenting sponsorship of The Nutcracker. In addition, Mr. Nelson initiated the development of the "Dance for Parkinson's" program in partnership with Houston Area Parkinson's Society, for which Houston Ballet received the 2009 Roy H. Cullen Quality of Life Award for this initiative. Mr. Nelson has also prioritized Houston Ballet’s IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) efforts, with Houston Ballet being honored as an Outstanding Diverse Organization in 2023 by the Houston Business Journal.