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Where Are The Women In Ballet?

Members of the Boston Ballet rehearse for the 2014 production of "Swan Lake." (Lawrence Elizabeth Knox for WBUR)closemore
Members of the Boston Ballet rehearse for the 2014 production of "Swan Lake." (Lawrence Elizabeth Knox for WBUR)

When the Boston Ballet Company was founded 52 years ago, ballet was a matriarchy, and George Balanchine’s familiar quote “ballet is woman” made sense.

Boston’s was one of eight ballet companies started in cities across the U.S. — including Philadelphia, Houston and Washington D.C. — that were launched with a $7.7 million Ford Foundation grant in 1963. Created and nurtured by strong female artistic directors, these companies grew in size and stature, and all are thriving today. But the women leaders are gone; all of these troupes are headed by men. And the choreography is, with perhaps one exception per season, by men.

E. Virginia Williams with company in 1977. (Courtesy Boston Ballet)
E. Virginia Williams with company in 1977. (Courtesy Boston Ballet)

“I was staggered by the numbers,” said Boston Ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “I've heard these numbers before — that there are so many fewer female choreographers — and I don’t have any answer to that, but it’s very interesting.”

Nissinen seems to have a better handle on why it was women who founded the ballet companies: “Those companies were born from the good regional ballet schools,” he said. That was the case with the Boston Ballet and its founding director, E. Virginia Williams. Energetic, indomitable and witty, she was quick with a riposte when told “Virginia, your dancers love you.” “They darn well better!” she’d reply.

Williams was just one of the determined women, all ballet school directors, who started companies with the Ford grant. “At that point these really good ballet schools were all run by women,” Nissinen continued, referring to Barbara Weisberger in Philadelphia, Mary Day in Washington, D.C. and Nina Popova in Houston. “Women who then naturally became the directors of the companies in the pioneering era. Right now it happens actually that lots of these companies are run by men.”

Academics recognize the absence of women in top artistic positions, as well as the absence of female choreographers chosen by ballet companies. Dance writers do, too, though they rarely write about it. One exception is Luke Jennings, who took on Britain’s ballet record in The Observer a few years ago:

“It's 14 years since a woman was commissioned to create a main-stage ballet at the Royal Opera House. If this were true of women playwrights at the National Theatre, or female artists at the Tate, there would be outrage. But at the flagship institution of British dance, the omission has escaped public notice. As it did last summer when the Royal Ballet and the National Gallery launched a collaboration named "Metamorphosis: Titian 2012." Of the 15 artists and choreographers involved, none was a woman. An ironic decision, given that the subject was the goddess Diana, the personification of feminine power.”

Renown choreographer Twyla Tharp throws her hand up at the curtain call for the opening night of Broadway's "Come Fly Away" in 2010. (Charles Sykes/AP)
Renown choreographer Twyla Tharp throws her hand up at the curtain call for the opening night of Broadway's "Come Fly Away" in 2010. (Charles Sykes/AP)

An icon of woman-power in choreography has, for the past 50 years, been Twyla Tharp. She has just begun a self-organized U.S. tour to celebrate the half-century mark since she, at age 23, started her own modern dance troupe. When she visited Boston earlier this year, I mentioned the absence of female choreographers on ballet company’s schedules, and she laughed.

“Really? Have you noticed?” Tharp said. “And how many famous painters, philosophers, musicians, some writers — it’s not a woman’s prerogative to be an artist. We all know women have a high hill to climb whatever they do, and the world of arts is very chauvinistic, and one knows that going in.”

It’s not just in the U.S. that men lead and choreograph the ballet troupes. “The world class companies, for the most part, are run by men,” said Lynn Garafola, a writer, scholar and founder of the Columbia University seminar Studies in Dance. And why are women leaders gone? “The more professional a company becomes, in my observation, the more likely women are going to disappear from the leadership positions, and they’re going to be replaced by men. I think this is very typical of organizations when they get larger, when they get more important.”

Rachel Moore in 2010. (Javier Galeano/AP)
Rachel Moore in 2010. (Javier Galeano/AP)

One of the few women in powerful positions -- although on the business side, not where the artistic decisions are made -- Rachel Moore leaves her CEO job at American Ballet Theatre on Oct. 5 to become president and CEO of the Los Angeles Music Center. Like everyone quoted in this story, Moore is a former professional dancer, so she speaks from her own experience.

“The men are able to get the more stable, the more solid jobs. For a variety of reasons. I think that it’s still a man’s world and for many places the male candidate is going to get chosen over the female candidate," she says. "Because the boards [of directors] are more comfortable with that, there’s a history there. They’re seen as more credible on some level. I think that’s all still true.”

It sounds like the way of the world, not just the ballet world, where women are underrepresented at the top reaches of organizations. Women founded these companies, and when the groups became established and no longer danced on wobbly legs, their boards of directors put men in charge, which may be simple sexism. But there’s more to the picture, and it begins with the inescapable fact that girls in ballet schools outnumber boys by at least 10 or 20 to one.

Moore describes the outcome of this imbalance: “The culture of how boys and girls are trained, and how men and women are treated in professional ballet companies is very different. The girls are trained to be ‘good girls,’ obedient and silent and to stand in a line and look all the same. And that’s not true with the corps de ballet for men or for the boys in the schools. They are encouraged to be much more individuals, to do solos, to stand out more than the girls.”

Of course boys in ballet are bucking the social norm when they spend their time in a studio wearing tights rather than on a playing field in a soccer or football uniform. Nissinen noted the image dilemma, saying that “because dance education is not organized in America” it’s been slotted as the domain of little girls.

“Every three-year-old prancing around with a tiara on her head and a tutu is called a ballerina,” the Boston Ballet’s director moaned. “And poor fathers and friends are dragged into these recitals. You know, you sit through one or two of them you never want to go anywhere near something that’s called ballet.”

Moore concurs: Ballet schools need to retain any boy who’s willing to show and train with a roomful of girls. “Even when they’re teenagers and in school the boys get the scholarships, are feted, are courted. That’s because there are so few of them and they’re necessary, especially in a ballet company where you have to have couples, a pas de deux. So they’re definitely in a privileged position.”

The boys are coddled, but the girls, says Moore, know that if they speak up or show individual personality, they’ll be replaced. “The demand of being uniform and the competition is so fierce, and to do what you’re told was so strong it just simply didn’t encourage women to stand out and take a leadership role.”

Jennifer Homans, founder and director of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University, echoes Moore’s experience. “The culture of ballet is one of hierarchy and obedience. That makes it difficult for women to excel as leaders.”

Garafola agrees. She’s very direct about why women are shut out of ballet’s top artistic director jobs: “I think it’s the fundamental mistrust of a woman. She should be a muse. She should be a ballerina. She shouldn’t be doing a man’s job.”

By the way, although that “man’s job” involves some heavy lifting (of their ballerina partners) their work load is lighter, and the competition is nowhere near as intense as it is among those ethereal women in tutus. So the men in ballet have time to develop their creativity, to experiment with choreographing, to get out into the non-ballet world and develop other skills.

Nissinen says he encourages his dancers to expand their horizons. “I always talk to the dancers and I ask what they’re interested in. As soon as I hear that people are interested I cultivate that."

Mikko Nissinen and the current Boston Ballet Company. (Courtesy Boston Ballet)
Mikko Nissinen and the current Boston Ballet Company. (Courtesy Boston Ballet)

Nissinen gives those dancers chances to choreograph for school events, fundraisers and end-of-year recitals. “That’s how it starts, little opportunities. Then when they start to be ready and do well they can succeed on [the] big stage.”

Right now, Nissinen says, he has more interest from the men.

Garafola said that the men in a company are encouraged to choreograph, but not the women, adding that the few pieces by women on the ballet stage are by well-established choreographers, not neophytes. “Karole Armitage, Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp — these are known quantities. They’re not taking a risk on anything. They’re not investing in someone who’s in the corps de ballet, letting her do seven-minute works, 10-minute works, work with students for school showcases, in other words, the kinds of things you have to do in order to develop choreographic skill.”

The result? The Cincinnati Enquirer compiled some telling numbers: In the 2012-'13 season, the country’s larger ballet companies — whose budgets are more than $5 million — staged some 290 ballets. Just 25 of those were choreographed by women.

It would bring change if more attention were paid, but the absence of women choreographers in ballet is simply not a theme for dance writers. In The New York Times in May 2015, Roslyn Sulcas wrote about “…new ballets by choreographers as diverse as Christopher Wheeldon, Jorma Elo, Mr. [Peter] Martins, Mauro Bigonzetti, Alexei Ratmansky and Mr. [Justin] Peck.” No mention that this “diversity” included only white males. A writer cannot bemoan gender inequality in every review or feature, but change is surely helped along with a spotlight.

As Jennings suggested in The Observer, if more attention were paid to this situation, people would recognize it as outrageous.

Moore summed up her own thoughts this way: “I certainly hope that we’ll have more diversity in leadership positions. Because not only are companies not terribly diverse but the leadership is equally non diverse. And it’s a weakness for the field to not have both gender diversity and cultural, ethnic diversity.”


Sharon Basco is a journalist, critic and public radio producer.

Sharon Basco Contributor, The ARTery
Sharon Basco is a a journalist, critic and public radio producer.

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