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  • Zoe Phillips

Empowering Ballerinas to Choreograph and Lead

By providing celebrated and elite opportunities for those women who do find success in choreography, we create an example for other young women.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa working with the San Francisco Ballet in 2018 (photo: SFB YouTube)

"It's a ballerina world. Ballet is woman, in a way, but I do think it is still run primarily by men."


Royal Ballet First Soloist Beatrix Stix-Brunell made this nuanced observation in the introduction to Duet, a 2017 short film by Andy Margetson.


"Ballet is woman" remains one of the more famous quotes from George Balanchine, and I recently argued that it's wholeheartedly true onstage. From my perspective, ballet celebrates women through a well-rounded empowerment of femininity and strength that can be hard to find elsewhere.


Behind the curtain, though, stories in choreography and administration get a bit more complicated. In 2016, for example, New York City Ballet performed 58 ballets-- not one was choreographed by a woman.


Today, I'm twirling on why and how this is a problem.


Due to ballet's age, a company's repertory will probably never be balanced perfectly between women and men; no one was out there commissioning female choreographers alongside Petipa, Ivanov, or Bournonville and I'd still like to see their works on the bill today. That said, we absolutely need more of a balance than this.


It's not just NYCB. At San Francisco Ballet's 2018 Unbound choreography festival, two out of the 12 new works were choreographed by women. That same year, international superstar Tamara Rojo said that she had never been part of a commission with a female choreographer. She began her career in 1991.


So -- ballet is woman, but created by a man?


Though I'd argue that this sentence makes the issue seem too explicit, the absence of female choreographers glares at me as we twirl towards the second decade of the 21st century.


Equal opportunity is only one part of my frustration with the issue, too. Women deserve a balletic voice because that voice could be — and is — refreshingly different.


Starting at a (very) young age, ballet segregates the sexes (the potential issues with that should be addressed in its own essay). Boys train in different classes to learn different aesthetics, and in certain cases different steps. Dancers then use this learned movement as a language. In some ways, therefore, we're giving female and male dancers different languages to use. Increasing the female choreographer's representation thus diversifies the type of communication we see onstage.


For examples of this, look to Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (below), Cathy Marston, and Twyla Tharp. Each of these linked videos are stunning and thought-provoking in impressively new ways.


I'm eager to learn about the languages of female choreographers, if for nothing else than to learn about these different perspectives from which I could be approaching dance.


So why don't we? Sure, there might be a certain amount of blatant discrimination at play, but I genuinely don't believe in the sexist hellscape that some critics use to explain the disparity at hand.


There are several twirls to consider, the first being the divide of work available in the ballet performance world. As I've mentioned, women dominate the stage in ballet. Every time a company stages Swan Lake or Coppélia, the entire female corps will be onstage every night. The men will be left in the dressing room twiddling their twirling toes. Most Balanchine ballets follow suit in this trend, too (think: "ballet is woman").


These days, most great choreographers get their start while still employed in a company, but you need time to do so. In a 2016 article with the New York Times, Artistic Director of Miami City Ballet Lourdes Lopez put it this way: "If you’re Christopher Wheeldon or Justin Peck, and you want to get into a studio and work on your choreography, as you should because it’s your craft, you have the time to do it."


The women, even if they feel like developing choreography, may just not have enough time.

If women are really left out only because they're caught up in rehearsal, then we could argue that this misrepresentation gets made up for in the female celebration that happens onstage. Unfortunately, this argument discounts the doors that choreography often opens after a dancing career.


Much like professional athletes, dancers start retiring in their 30s, but choreographers don't face these harsh timelines. When we give men more opportunities in choreography, we're also giving them much longer-lasting job security.


Moreover, one of the more traditional paths towards Artistic Director takes a stop at the choreographer position; if more men have time to gain experience in choreography starting from such a young age, they are thus more likely to land roles in the higher-paying and longer-lasting positions of administration.


The statistics back me up on this one: at 22 of the world's most esteemed ballet companies, the list for which can be found at the end of this post, 18 have male Artistic Directors. That's 81%.


How can we encourage women to push their bodies to the limit and refuse them time to develop other creative processes, only to brush them away at the end of their split-second careers?

There are efforts out there trying to enact change. New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder created her own foundation with the goal of providing choreographic and leadership opportunities specifically for women and other marginalized groups.

In 2018, Tamara Rojo, who is now Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, commissioned a triple bill of female choreography entitled She Persisted for the company's 2019 season. This comes after Rojo's 2017 female Triple Bill She Said. (I can't help but note that both these premieres come from one of the few elite companies with a female director.)


Ultimately, it's these opportunities that will create improvements. If women cannot see hope in the prospect of taking time out of rehearsal to develop choreography, we cannot blame them for not doing so. By providing celebrated and elite opportunities for those women who do find success in choreography, we create an example for other young women. Hopefully, this example also inspires administrative staff to allow female dancers time to develop choreography while still dancing.

I first published this article on the original twirls4thoughts blog, Sep. 8 2019


Here is the list of Artistic Directors mentioned earlier:


FEMALE:

Royal New Zealand Ballet

Miami City Ballet

English National Ballet

Paris Opera Ballet

National Ballet of Japan


MALE:

Houston Ballet

West Australian Ballet

Queensland Ballet

Royal Danish Ballet

Stuttgart Ballet

Wiener Staatsballet

Acosta Danza

American Ballet Theater

Alvin Ailey

San Francisco Ballet

New York City Ballet

Bolshoi Ballet

Mariinsky Ballet

National Ballet of Canada

Royal Ballet

Australian Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet



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