Women making moves

Why are women ballet choreographers so rare? And why is this changing?

2nd October 2004





When Stanton Welch, the artistic director of Texan dance company Houston Ballet, chose to open his company's current season with works by three female choreographers, he commissioned some of the most talented women in the field. As opening night approaced, curiosity about his programming choice grew. Potential audiences wondered if Welch was making a feminist statement or questioning gender roles in US choreography.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, ballet choreography has shifted slightly. Women are asserting their talent, and a new generation of male directors champion women choreographers. Some companies in the US are slowly adding works by female choreographers to their repertoires, mapping a new landscape for dance.

Since classical ballet landed on US shores in the early 20th century, fledgling companies there relied on European influences to build an interest in the art form. After Russian choreographer George Balanchine started what later became New York City Ballet, dance in the US blossomed. Companies sprung up across the US from an active regional dance movement, and today those such as Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre boast some of the strongest ballet repertoires in the US and the world.

Although women such as Martha Graham and Agnes De Mille revolutionised modern dance in the US, it was men who created the ballets and who led the classically-based companies.

Welch points to the spectacular careers of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev in the 1980s as the beginning of the trend of having more women choreographers. Until that time, women had starred in ballet companies and men choreographed roles for them. But as powerhouse men gained attention on the stage, women shifted their energies elsewhere - including towards choreography.

Lila York began choreographing at that time, after working as a dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. She says contemporary dance has always supported women, and believes that as classical ballet continues to meld with contemporary, more opportunities will open for women.

Working with Paul Taylor, an icon of modern dance in the US, was an ideal training ground for York. Women and men learned each other's roles in that company - a practice virtually unheard of in ballet - preparing York to step in to a rehearsal studio equally comfortable creating work for either sex. With Taylor's company, she also learned to work with big groups - a talent often associated with men - which she applied to her most popular ballet, Celts. That dance features fast footwork inspired by traditional Irish dance, and is part of Houston Ballet's all-female programme. Boston Ballet commissioned Celts in 1995, the year before Riverdance hit the US.

Although some women choreograph for ballet companies, fewer women lead them. York points to history to explain why so many directorships go to men. "Ballet in the US grew up with Russians coming over and directing companies. One imagines an artistic director of a ballet company is going to be an elegant European man rather than a straight-shooting female."

Australian choreographer Natalie Weir crossed over from contemporary to ballet via commissions from directors such as Welch and Houston Ballet's former artistic director, Ben Stevenson. Being a woman enhances what she brings into the studio and adds a groundedness to her work, Weir believes. She feels choreographers are hired for their talent, not their gender. She, too, experiments with gender when creating dances. Her latest work, The Host, features an all-male cast with one female dancer.

Greater acceptance of men in dance has also exerted influence on ballet choreography. In the past, ballets relied on men to catch women from airborne leaps and spin them into a remarkable number of turns. Now men perform their own solos, and ballets such as Stevenson's Cleopatra feature entire sections of men dancing, adding intensity to the ballets.

As onstage roles shift, so do opportunities for those making them. Christopher Wheeldon, one of the most talented choreographers working today, constantly seeks new, challenging ways of interpreting the art form. He welcomes new work by women, but in the past several years, only two or three women have participated in the Diamond Project, New York City Ballet's programme for emerging choreographers. His explanation for why the field is dominated by men reaches back to childhood ballet lessons.

"Little girls are so focused on that shiny tiara and tutu that it doesn't even occur to them until later that they could do something else in the field. Once that bug bites them and they decide they want to become a ballerina, they have to be so much more focused than men, who can typically start their dancing careers later."

Meanwhile, directors such as Welch nurture female choreographers to enliven the art form, remembering the encouragement they got in their own careers. Although he claims programming ballets by three women to open Houston Ballet's season was a purely artistic decision, it still challenged ballet audiences to think beyond Giselle and Swan Lake. "How often have there been programmes of all-male choreographers, and people rarely question that," Welch says. "This programme is not about women's liberation, unless giving them the opportunity is."

© The Irish Times