When you look at ballet you enjoy the movement, the shape of the dance, the performers, and, if there is any, the music and the story. You may marvel at the dancers’ skill, strength, artistry and charisma. Chances are, you don’t immediately focus on the person who created the work.
But now, for very good reasons, the ballet world is thinking about who makes its dances.
Historically, it’s overwhelmingly a male domain, with most ballet companies going year after year without a single piece made by a woman. In the 2012-2013 season, U.S. ballet troupes with budgets exceeding $5 million staged some 290 ballets. Just 25 of those were choreographed by women, according to research compiled by the Cincinnati Enquirer. According to a new research organization called the Dance Data Project, men will choreograph some 79 percent of works this season.
The Boston Ballet is trying to strike a more even balance. They’ve given female dancers the time and opportunity to create short ballets. This effort, called “ChoreograpHER,” presents its second season this week (it’s sold out) featuring six pieces by female company members. The venue is the small but well-appointed theater in the company’s South End headquarters.
The program is a blast of ingenuity and talent. Two standout pieces are by principal dancer Lia Cirio and soloist Chyrstyn Fentroy.
Cirio’s “Lenore” is an intriguing duet to Antonin Dvorak’s “Piano trio No. 2 in G Minor.” Addie Tapp and Desean Taber seamlessly breeze through simple but evocative movements. A few beats of angular and witty semi-robotic arm movements melt into delicate, rounded shapes. They dance in unison, then as partners, and again in unison, always with elegance and intention.
In the after-chat, with all the dance-makers moderated by the renowned choreographer Helen Pickett, Cirio said that “Lenore” is about loss and the change that comes with the death of loved ones. That notion suggested a deeper way of experiencing the duet’s sense of moving together, then apart, and the sudden edgy gestures that soften and sigh.
Chyrstyn Fentroy’s “you,” with a larger cast, proved this choreographer to be thoroughly in charge of each dancer on every beat; she knows how to handle a group. There are three sets of partners and a waiflike, ghostly character who haunts the proceedings, crouching on the side. To bombastic music by Camille Saint-Saëns, the ensemble surges across stage, vaulting, spinning and charging from one corner to another.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek sensibility to the bombast, which is beautifully controlled, and there’s mystery to the droll little observer. Fentroy’s sense of humor was evident in her remarks after the concert, as she described a long day spent searching out potential costumes at Kmart.
The program opener, “Baroque in Beauty” by Lauren Herfindahl, is a joyous, celebratory piece. This bouncy and robust work is the most conventional of a much-varied evening. It’s a sampling of accomplished classicism made to look easy by a stylish trio: Emily Entingh, Mallory Mehaffey and Tyson Clark.
“Safety” by Joy Womack, set to music by Jordan Hall, explores the elements that comprise a relationship. Nina Matiashvili and Sangmin Lee bring clarity and purpose to this moody, sensuous piece.
Sage Humphries’ “True Justice” (with music by her brother Michael Humphries) is the most narrative piece on the program. Literally. A voiceover reading of Psalm 82, “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” booms out as a solo dancer, Madysen Felber, flits and charges back and forth. She’s agitated and troubled by a threatening character (Matthew Slattery) who sits atop a throne made up of a trio of subservient fellows (Sangmin Lee, Sun Woo Lee and Fuze Sun).
By the end of this skirmish the woman has taken the throne, and we’re left to hope and wonder what the narrative would be under her reign.
“In Every Step” is Abigail Merlis’ vibrant quartet to music by Maurice Ravel. It illustrates the proficiency of this dynamic company, given spirited appeal by Haley Schwan, Isaac Akiba, Chyrstyn Fentroy and Graham Johns.
With “ChoreograpHER,” the Boston Ballet does well to offer the time and opportunity to its female dancers to create new works. But it’s up to the women to make that chance count. And in every case, these women show promise, skill and daring.
Coming attractions: for the 2020-2021 season, the company is developing a program dedicated to female artists in creative fields including choreography, music, design and visual art.