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Why Aren't We Teaching Aspiring Ballerinas How to Choreograph?

Crystal Pite working with members of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

In February, I attended the Prix de Lausanne, where I moderated a series of panel discussions that were open to the competing students, their teachers and parents, and the public. One topic I was particularly excited about concerned women in leadership roles, and how the ballet world can better nurture leadership qualities in female dancers. My panelists included Korean National Ballet artistic director Sue Jin Kang, English National Ballet associate director Loipa Araújo and Gigi Hyatt, the deputy director of the Hamburg Ballet School.

There was just one problem—while there were plenty of audience members, none of the female students actually showed up. As I watched a few of them browse the pop-up ballet shop on their way out of the theater, I couldn't help but think “Don't you know this talk is for you?"


They had had a very long and stressful day and probably wanted to get back to their hotels. Still, it was an enlightening moment for me, one I couldn't help thinking about again in light of recent events.

This week, a New York Times interview with Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky sparked a heated debate on social media. When asked why the majority of ballet choreographers are men, they gave a range of answers that many felt didn't go far enough to acknowledge ballet's inherent sexism. Peck thought there needed to be more encouragement and support for women at an early age; Wheeldon wasn't sure why there was a disparity, but noted that many companies are actively trying to improve diversity; Ratmansky didn't feel there was a problem, citing the success of Crystal Pite, Jessica Lang and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. (On his Facebook page, Ratmansky later stressed that the question was not part of the original interview and that he had quickly texted back his answer in between rehearsals.)

Is ballet sexist? Absolutely. I have plenty of examples from my own career of being treated differently or paid less than my male counterparts. And these differences in treatment are baked in at an early age: Male students are rare and highly prized, while female students are a dime a dozen and easily replaceable. Many in the dance industry feel this, in addition to the fact that women tend to have busier rehearsal schedules as professionals, has a direct correlation to the gender imbalance in leadership roles, and choreography in particular.

Choreographic talent has nothing to do with one's gender, and shouldn't be judged such. But I think Peck is on to something. As my experience at the Prix suggests, I suspect most aspiring ballerinas aren't even thinking about choreographing or directing someday—I certainly wasn't at their age. By the time they do, it's difficult to find time in between long corps de ballet rehearsals to explore those skills, especially if they've forgone college to go right into a company.

This got me thinking: I didn't have aspirations to become a journalist until I took my first journalism class. But dance composition is completely absent from most classical ballet curriculum. Couldn't we do a better job at offering ballet students a chance—whether it's part of their weekly curriculum or a workshop or in summer programs—to explore their creativity, learn about the choreographic process and experience some mentorship? Not everyone wants to be a choreographer, of course, but since the majority of ballet students are girls, it might help inspire those with choreographic talent understand their potential and keep trying. Some schools, like the School of American Ballet, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and University of North Carolina School of the Arts' high school program already do this. Then there's American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Gemma Bond—she discovered she had a gift for dancemaking at a choreographic competition at The Royal Ballet School. And she's been steadily working her tail off to hone her craft and present work ever since. (Will she have a chance to choreograph on the main company soon?) While I don't think choreography classes are the only answer, who knows what talent could be nurtured if we took the time to develop it.

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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