If you’ve been keeping up on developments in the ballet world, you’ve probably had cause to ask: Where are the female choreographers?
“I get asked to do interviews a lot because of that question,” says Emery LeCrone, a freelance choreographer and dancer based in New York City, “instead of just to talk about my work.”
The skewed ratio of male to female ballet choreographers has long been established, inspiring countless distraught—and necessary—conversations and articles (including in this magazine). The reasons for this imbalance—why more men than women are making work at top companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre—run deep, rooted in an ethos of conformity that follows female dancers from their first ballet class to the white acts of Swan Lake. Men, being a rarer breed in ballet, tend to get more specialized treatment from a young age. And at the professional level, women often rehearse longer hours (think of all the story ballets with multiple scenes for the female corps), giving them less time, energy and mental space to make their own work.
Yet in addition to women like Crystal Pite, Jessica Lang and Aszure Barton—who have choreographed for the likes of Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Joffrey and ABT—a young crop of female ballet choreographers is steadily gaining recognition. Pointe talked with three up-and-coming artists—Gabrielle Lamb, Gemma Bond and LeCrone—about their artistic paths, current projects and how they balance their dual lives as choreographers and dancers.
Gabrielle Lamb recalls a time, before she began to choreograph, when “improvisation” was a foreign concept. “I remember asking one of my colleagues, who was doing improv onstage, ‘What if you don’t know what to do next?’ ” she says.
At 39, having created pieces for Ballet Memphis, Milwaukee Ballet and Hubbard Street 2, among other companies, she’s put that question behind her. Since choreographing her first solo in 2003, while dancing with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Lamb has discovered the delights of making in the moment. It was improvising that initially drew her to choreography. “I realized that maybe my body had ideas that my head didn’t understand,” says Lamb, who received a 2014 Princess Grace Award for Choreography. “There’s this spinal intelligence where certain things come from.”
Now she often begins a process by filming her own improvisations. “I’m interested in how energy flows through the body,” she says, “and how the body language we use everyday could be magnified or distorted into dance.” As a freelance artist, she devotes most of her time to choreographing on others, though she continues to stay active as a dancer. Through a New York City Center fellowship last year, she commissioned a solo for herself, by Adam Barruch, while also creating new work for a group of dancers she auditioned and hired.
Her advice to young choreographers? “Don’t feel like you have to have everything figured out before you start. I think that’s what held me back for so long. I didn’t understand that you have to start something without knowing where it will end.”
Upcoming project: A premiere for Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Q Dance series, June 10–12.
Growing up as a student at The Royal Ballet School, Gemma Bond was, in her own words, “not very assertive”—except when it came to choreographing. Cast in her peers’ work for the school’s choreography competitions, she often found her 11-year-old self saying, “No, no, no—this way would be better.”
“I thought, I’m becoming one of those really annoying people,” she laughs, “so maybe I should just choreograph my own piece.”
That creative spark has flourished during her time at ABT, where she joined the corps in 2008. She has participated several times in The Innovation Initiative, a series for emerging choreographers organized by David Hallberg and Kevin McKenzie, in addition to making pieces for New York Theatre Ballet, Youth America Grand Prix and Intermezzo Dance Company, a fledgling troupe founded by ABT soloist Craig Salstein. Her latest accolade is a fellowship from the New York Choreographic Institute—“the most exciting thing that’s happened to me,” she says—which comes with space, time and a stipend to do whatever she pleases. She’s planning a ballet version of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which she’ll unveil at an invite-only showing in April.
Bond, 32, describes herself as “very content to be in the corps de ballet.” She pushes harder for choreographic opportunities than she does for star roles, and while some dancers spend the off-season guesting with other companies, she spends hers in the studio. Despite flirting with contemporary moves, she always comes back to a more classical vocabulary. In that vein, she aspires to create a large-scale work for a female corps. “I’ve always been extremely proud of the corps de ballet,” she says. “I get very excited by dancing with my friends, when we’re bang-on and our lines are amazing. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Upcoming project: A new work for New York Theatre Ballet, June 18–20.
At 28, Emery LeCrone has a chock-full resumé. Her crisp, geometrically inventive style has earned her commissions from Oregon Ballet Theatre, Colorado Ballet, Saint Louis Ballet, Charlotte Ballet, the National Choreographers Initiative, Juilliard and the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series, to name just a few. She also dances with the Metropolitan Opera, a steady gig that gives her both the stability and flexibility to choreograph.
The challenges LeCrone faces, she says, have more to do with being a freelancer than with being female. “I’m just trying to get consistent work, and that has nothing to do with whether I’m a woman or a man.”
LeCrone got an early start when, as a 19-year-old student at North Carolina Dance Theatre’s Chautauqua Summer Dance Festival, she was required to choreograph. Quite simply, she says, “I loved it.” Both she and Bond encourage young artists to generate as much work as possible—even if that means just noodling around in the studio and inviting friends to watch. “The number one thing is to keep making it and putting it out there, and things will happen,” LeCrone says.
Having made a lot of “15-minute concert dance and 5-minute pas de deux,” LeCrone wants to move toward creating longer works with larger casts. She also hopes to collaborate with a composer. While music is one inspiration for her, she gets most excited when talking about her dancers—their backgrounds, personalities, idiosyncrasies. “What inspires me most is being in the studio with them,” she says. “When I choreograph a piece, it’s about the people who are in it. It’s about how we relate as human beings.”
Upcoming projects: YAGP Gala, April 16; evening-length program for the Joyce Theater’s Ballet Festival, Aug. 13–14. P
Siobhan Burke writes about dance for The New York Times and Dance Magazine.
Agon. The Goldberg Variations. In the Upper Room. We hear these titles today and think, “Classics.” But at what point does a ballet achieve that status?
For Peter Boal, when the ballet was Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH, almost instantly. “I had a really strong reaction to that work,” says Boal of first seeing DSCH at New York City Ballet, shortly after its 2008 premiere. “It felt as fresh as some of the Robbins premieres that I’d seen, some of the Balanchine premieres I’d seen. It tapped into humor. It had strong classical technique and elements of experimentation. It used the ensemble incredibly well. I felt like I was seeing one of the greats unveiled.”
It wasn’t long before Boal, the artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, brought the brisk, bright, architectural work to PNB, presenting it on a mixed bill titled Contemporary 4 in 2011. The Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald greeted the program with a simple request, echoing the rave reviews that DSCH had received in New York: “More Ratmansky, please.”
Every generation has its classics. Ratmansky is one of a handful of contemporary choreographers making ballets that, if their rapturous reception and increasingly global presence are any indication, might prove to be the classics of tomorrow. Right up there with DSCH—which, in addition to its Seattle run, has traveled overseas to the Mariinsky Ballet and La Scala—are Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia and Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Fourteen companies in six countries, have acquired Polyphonia since New York City Ballet first performed it in 2001. Chroma, which premiered in 2006 at The Royal Ballet, has entered the repertories of San Francisco Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet and, most recently, Alvin Ailey. Whether we’ll call these “classics” decades from now remains to be seen. But at the very least, as Ib Andersen, the artistic director of Ballet Arizona, puts it, “They have legs.”
Which raises a simple question: Why? What accounts for how widely these ballets are performed, for their appeal to artistic directors in search of new repertory? Is it some objective “greatness”? Or more practical assets, like the ease and efficiency of producing them? Is it the excitement they bring to audiences, the artistic challenge they offer dancers?
In the case of Polyphonia, all of the above. At once strident and playful, the 10-section work, set to Ligeti piano pieces, shuttles eight dancers between demanding solos, duets and trios. The costumes are spare—a nod to Balanchine’s “leotard ballets”—and the set nonexistent, save for a muted backdrop, letting the eye focus in on the blade-like mechanics of the body. As Wheeldon says, “It’s low on production and high on dance, which makes it easy to stage yet a rich experience for both audience and dancer. Plus it offers eight dancers soloist roles.”
And not just any roles, but richly layered ones: “Each dance has its own little story,” Wheeldon adds, “so it demands dancers with a great sense of theater and imagination in order to transcend the technical demands of the choreography.” He observes that the ballet “seems to take pleasure in new interpretations. It allows the individuals to shine and their own personal character to come out.”
“It has good bones,” says Andersen, who brought Polyphonia to Ballet Arizona in 2009. “It’s structured in such a way that your mind keeps itself busy. It is not so predictable—there aren’t many choreographers who are not predictable after a while.”
That sense of invention also impressed Boal, who brought the work to PNB—the company’s first taste of Wheeldon—in 2007. “It’s interesting when you feel like you can see the world in just eight bodies,” Boal adds. “Polyphonia really runs a gamut of expression and unexpected form. You think there’s only so much you can do with two legs and two arms, but Chris came up with a whole lot more.” Like Wheeldon, he notes that the ballet “wears its multiple casts well,” suiting new dancers as much as its original interpreters.
McGregor’s Chroma, with its barely-there beige costumes and austere set by the British architect John Pawson, may also seem “low on production”—but deceptively so, says Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, which gave Chroma its U.S. premiere in 2011. “You can call it minimalist,” Tomasson says of Pawson’s set, which frames the stage with three towering white walls, one open at the back to serve as an entryway for the 10 dancers. But despite the “linear and clean” aesthetic, he explains, “it’s very complicated to put up.”
As, too, is McGregor’s famously pliant choreography, which prods the body into creaturely realms, often thrusting dancers into sensuous confrontations. “He really challenges and stretches the dancers, bends them—you name it,” Tomasson says. “He has them going into positions that, again, we don’t normally see the body going into—like a rubber doll sometimes.”
“It’s not easy dancing, and it took them a little while,” he adds, referring to the dancers cast in the piece, “but they got it.” Joby Talbot’s clashing, brass-heavy score was difficult in a different sense: not something that Tomasson would “sit down and listen to on its own,” he says. Layered with McGregor’s preening, elastic movement, though, it clicked: “I felt the score fit very well what he was doing. They came together.”
For the moment, Chroma, Polyphonia and Concerto DSCH have a broad appeal—which also stems from what they offer even the most accomplished dancers: a steep challenge. But for Tomasson, the term “new classic” inspires some skepticism. “It’s fantastic. It’s very now,” he says of Chroma. “Will it be very now in 20 years?” Andersen takes a similar stance. What makes something a classic? “Time,” he replies. “Time, time, time.”
Siobhan Burke is a New York dance writer. She contributes frequently to The New York Times and Dance Magazine.