Boston Ballet executive director Barry Hughson (right, with artistic director Mikko Nissinen). (Photo by Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Boston Ballet executive director Barry Hughson (right, with artistic director Mikko Nissinen). (Photo by Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)

Boston Ballet announced today that its executive director, Barry Hughson, will leave in January to become executive director of the National Ballet of Canada.

Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director, said Hughson’s decision “came as a surprise,” though he knew the National Ballet of Canada was looking for an executive director to replace Kevin Garland, who announced her retirement last year.

Hughson said his wife, Ashley Hughson, would have a better chance to further her acting career in Toronto, which he described as “one of the top television, film, and arts destinations in North America.” He said his family is also looking to be closer to his younger sister, who recently moved to Michigan, 3 1/2 hours from Toronto.

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Still, Hughson said, the decision to leave “didn’t come easy. We love Boston, and we love Boston Ballet. Mikko and I will be friends for the rest of our lives. And I will continue to support him in his dreams, and support Boston Ballet, just in a different role.”

Hughson came to the company in June 2009. He had been executive director of the Atlanta Ballet, and before that a dancer with the Washington Ballet in Washington, D.C. During his four-plus years in Boston, he steered the Ballet’s $10 million Clean Slate Fund campaign, which retired the company’s accumulated debt. He negotiated the land lease for the company’s Clarendon Street headquarters and in 2011 oversaw the $3 million renovation there, which included a 144-seat black-box theater. He also increased the Ballet’s corporate partnerships.

He leaves Boston Ballet, in its 50th-anniversary season, as the fourth largest ballet company in the United States.

The National Ballet of Canada has a similar profile in terms of operating budget and number of performances.

Nissinen said that since Hughson’s arrival, “the company has had an amazing run, and he’s been part of that. I had a wonderful executive partnership with him. He was very supportive of the company’s vision, and I can be very thankful for that. It’s not always a given in these situations. Boston Ballet was strong when he came, and it is stronger now.”

Nissinen said he’ll be looking “everywhere but Mars” for Hughson’s successor. He expects a new executive director to be in place between the end of March and the beginning of July.

Hughson said he was “very optimistic” about the future of Boston Ballet. “I think it’s one of the best companies in the world, I think it’s moved into a new league during Mikko’s tenure, and I think that’s just going to continue,” he said.

He noted that his present company and his future one “have always had a collaborative relationship.” So could the National Ballet of Canada tour to Boston? “That could definitely happen,” he said. “And Boston Ballet could tour up there too. And I’ll be back. I feel very connected with this organization, and that’s not going to change.”