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The Ballet World Asked For More Choreography By Women — And Got It

Students at José Mateo Ballet Theatre practice in Cambridge in March, 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Students at José Mateo Ballet Theatre practice in Cambridge in March, 2018. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In the not-distant past, major ballet companies went year after year, decade after decade, without a single ballet made by a woman. Then, seven years ago, choreographer Amy Seiwert did something no one else had done: She researched U.S. ballet troupes with budgets exceeding $5 million, looking at the number of female-made ballets in the 2012-2013 season. According to the Dance Data Project, she found that of 290 ballets staged that year, just 25 (or 8.62%) were choreographed by women. And people, like Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen, began to take notice. “I was staggered by the numbers,” he said.

Back in 2015, we published a story about the situation, exploring reasons women found themselves locked out of the creative process. It wasn’t some grand evil scheme by the guys, it was the outcome of ballet culture in general, where talented, athletic little boys are needed in ballet schools and are offered opportunities to keep them in the studio rather than out on the soccer field. They’re encouraged to choreograph for recitals, and when they’re older, for the stage.

As for the girls, well, they’re plentiful; in a ballet school girls can outnumber the boys 20 to 1. There’s tough competition, and girls know they’re replaceable if they step out of line. As ballet scholar Jennifer Homans said, “Girls are trained to be the perfect third swan on the left, to stay quiet and be ‘good girls,’ to fit in and show no personality of her own.”

But the spotlight that Seiwert put on the situation made a difference. The inequity had been identified, clearly and starkly, and it couldn’t be unseen. The ballet world began to look at the numbers, and ask why women weren’t choreographing for ballet.

When he retired from the New York Times last year, longtime chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote a farewell essay in which he expressed regrets. In a recent phone interview he told me, “I wrote a piece in which I mentioned that one of the things I wish I had given more attention to, if I’d had more prescience, was the status of women in ballet, particularly women as choreographers.”

Macaulay points to an awakening in the past few years. Changes are underway. “Suddenly since 2015 this has become a movement. And there’s actually something called the women’s Movement as a choreographic initiative at American Ballet Theater, which now is committed to having three female premieres per annum, and many other American companies are doing the same.”

At Boston Ballet, an initiative called ChoreograpHER is in its third year. “We want to give opportunities to female students, and to professional female dancers, give them a chance to do choreography,” said Nissinen. “Next year we’ll have a program on our main stage that is all female choreographers and world premieres.”

At New York City Ballet, principal dancer Lauren Lovette was excused from her usual duties, dancing the role of Sugar Plum Fairy, and given time to choreograph. The result? Rave reviews. Including this from Gia Kourlas at The New York Times: “there’s urgency to Ms. Lovette’s desire to turn ballet inside out. In essence, she has crossed a line from prettiness to power. ... Her dance wasn’t about homage, but about the future of the art form: how ballet might a find a way to sit within the larger world, where gender norms are unraveling, where women can become ballet choreographers and where all dancers can express their strength and fear.”

A sign that representation of women in the creative ranks will be sustained and improved upon is the emergence of the Dance Data Project as an official nonprofit last year. (The project began in 2015 as a simple database.) The organization describes itself as "a global resource for the study and analysis of major national and international dance companies, venues, and choreographic awards.”

The Dance Data Project compiles statistics annually to track progress (or lack of it) in major ballet companies with the belief that cold, hard facts will drive change. Here’s an example: Of the 50 largest (by expenditure) American ballet troupes, in the 2018-2019 season, 81 percent of the works were choreographed by men. In the 2019-2020 season, 79 percent of the works will be choreographed by men.

No one ever said it would be easy, or happen quickly, but the glass ceiling has been cracked. Now, there are other crucial gender issues to be addressed. One is equal pay. Another is the chance to fail. And a third is about creativity itself, about development of a special, individual voice, something that traditionally was discouraged in girls.

At 28, Lauren Lovette is on the young side of a new cohort of emerging dancer/choreographers. On equal pay, she said: “I think that is the next step. It’s like, ‘OK, thank you for giving me an opportunity. Now will you pay me the same?’ Do you really believe that I’m at the same caliber or are you getting sort of a sales deal by hiring women?”

As for the question of potential failure, scholar Lynn Garafola offers this historical perspective: “George Balanchine made an awful lot of mediocre works and works that he absolutely wanted to forget about, until he made works that he wanted to keep in his own personal repertory. And the same thing goes for many, many other choreographers. Women have to be allowed to fail. They have to be allowed to do works that are mediocre without saying that every time they choreograph something it has to be a masterpiece.”

In his role as artistic director of the Boston Ballet, Nissinen gets to choose who creates ballets for the company. He says he encourages female choreographers "to put forward concepts that are near and dear to them as women."

"Historically we’ve heard a lot from the men’s perspective, but let’s give the female perspective [a chance] on issues and on art,” Nissinen says.

Garafola agrees. “What’s most important is developing programs with not just one choreographic voice, but with a broader range of what ballet can possibly be. What’s often lacking is a female sensibility. I do feel optimistic that change is happening. Not quickly, and not one-for-one, not complete parity. But it’s coming.”

Related:

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

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