This past summer, Amy Seiwert was looking for statistics on ballet’s women choreographers. She wanted hard numbers to put SKETCH 2: The Women Choreographers—an upcoming program by her company, Imagery—in context. Seiwert knew the ballet world suffered from a shortage of female choreographers; it’s a disparity critics have pointed out for years. But she didn’t know how pronounced the problem had become.

“We looked at all the works ballet companies were going to perform in the upcoming season,” says Seiwert, who is also resident choreographer at Smuin Ballet. “It turned out fewer than 10 percent of them were by women.” And the situation is bleakest at major companies. It’s been five years since San Francisco Ballet last performed a work by a woman. At The Royal Ballet, it’s been 13 years since a woman choreographed a main stage work.

Seiwert’s SKETCH 2, Houston Ballet’s Women@Art and a smattering of similar programs have recently put the spotlight back on ballet’s “woman issue.” But the underlying problem has never gone away. It’s not that there aren’t any women making works for ballet companies—Twyla Tharp has famously spent the second half of her career doing so. It’s that there are only a handful of women dancemakers who have come up through ballet’s own ranks. Ballet doesn’t have female equivalents to its Wheeldons and Ratmanskys, its top-billed, homegrown male choreographers.

Because there has been so little progress over the past few decades—and because there are plenty of prominent women choreographers in other styles of dance—some have written off the issue as intrinsic to ballet. “Onstage, ballet’s women tend to be ‘wounded birds’ who are constantly supported,” says choreographer and former San Francisco Ballet principal Julia Adam. “So if you wanted to, you could get really deep about the kind of women who are attracted to the classical form”—and assume that those who choose ballet prefer interpreting to creating.

But that’s a false paradigm. Things haven’t always been this way. Dance historian Lynn Garafola points out that Viennese ballet dancer Katti Lanner choreographed numerous pieces for London’s Empire Theatre as early as the late 1800s. Her Parisian counterpart, known only as Madame Mariquita, made “scores” of ballets at the Folies Bergère and the Opéra Comique during the same period. Then there was the prolific Bronislava Nijinska. “Nijinska was a product of the modernist period, which privileged the personal voice,” Garafola says. “It was an idea that gave women a real opening into the art form. Usually we think of it in terms of modern dance, specifically Isadora Duncan. But something similar happened for ballet choreographers, too.” In the west during the decades following the Ballets Russes, “there were a number of new ballet organizations founded or essentially founded by women,” Garafola says. “It was only natural that in these groups you’d find women choreographers represented”—the most significant example being American Ballet Theatre co-founder Lucia Chase, who encouraged then-fledgling choreographer Agnes de Mille in the 1940s.

By the ’60s, the power structure had begun to shift. Ballet was becoming increasingly popular, especially in the United States. As its appeal spread, ballet companies became better established, and men started to take the lead. “Historically, the more influential a ballet institution, the less likely that a woman will be in a position of power, and that includes choreographing,” Garafola says. “In smaller companies, in newer companies, in companies that have an experimental dimension—you’ll find women choreographers there. But once ballet is institutionalized, it becomes a man’s world.”

The “ballet boom” didn’t just happen on the world’s big stages. Thousands of young girls wanted to dance like Margot Fonteyn and Maria Tallchief, and ballet studios sprouted everywhere to accommodate them. Male ballet students have always been relatively scarce, but as the number of female ballet students increased dramatically, so did the number of studio owners desperate for boys to partner them all. Boys became, essentially, trophies. And the trend has worsened over the past 50 years. “Today, that kind of dynamic is established immediately,” says choreographer Jessica Lang, who’s on faculty at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. “In your average class of 7-year-olds, there are 30 little girls and one little boy—and he’s on scholarship, even though 15 of the girls are more talented than he is. If you’re one of those little girls, it doesn’t take you long to learn you’re replaceable, and that the more obedient you are, the quieter you are, the better you’ll do.” As choreographer Emery LeCrone puts it: “Ballet’s women have a regimented route to success, whereas the male ballet dancer is celebrated as a rarity.” Or, even more straightforwardly: “As a young girl growing up in ballet,” Seiwert says, “your ego takes a lot of hits.”

Compounding the issue is the fact that today, thanks to Balanchine’s innovations and the glorification of the limitless Sylvie Guillem physique, expectations for female ballet technique are extravagantly high. The fleet footwork and 6-o’clock extensions that once seemed incredible are now the norm. Because developing such high-caliber technique takes enormous amounts of time, and because competition among women is especially intense, to make it into a company, a female dancer must maintain a singular focus on the physical, perhaps to the exclusion of creativity.

Company life—particularly in the corps de ballet, where women are expected to fit the same swan-mold—doesn’t encourage creative effort, either. “If you slip, the girl next to you is ready to step right in, and by the way, she looks exactly like you,” Adam says. “You start thinking: What’s unique about me? Do I have anything important to say?” LeCrone, who still dances occasionally, abandoned the big-company track for that reason. “There was a point where I realized what made me a good choreographer was what hindered me as a classical ballerina,” she says. “In a company, you’re told to dance like everyone else. That can make for extraordinary moments onstage, but to choreograph, you have to embrace your individuality.” If you’re an exceptional dancer—LeCrone names Wendy Whelan—you might get opportunities to develop your personal identity. But those opportunities usually involve interpreting others’ choreography, becoming a muse, not a creator. And in the end, how many Wendy Whelans are there?

Several ballet companies have launched choreographic initiatives to give emerging artists a safe space to develop work, and most of them actively seek out women. The New York Choreographic Institute has nurtured over a dozen women—including Adam, Lang, LeCrone and Seiwert—since it began in 2000, for example, and ABT mounted the (sadly short-lived) Voices and Visions: The Altria/ABT Women’s Choreography Project in 2008. Beyond those supportive environments, opportunities for women are limited. “I don’t think there’s any conscious discrimination happening, but this is not a good time financially for ballet, which means there are fewer commissions to begin with,” Seiwert says. “And when companies do commission, they want a Wheeldon, or a Ratmansky, or a McGregor—you’ve got your top four or five safe bets, and they’re all men.” When directors hire women choreographers, they tend to group them on all-women programs, in part because those events get significant press coverage, offsetting the risk factor. But directors aren’t integrating women choreographers into their regular programming. 

That said, well-intentioned equality initiatives can backfire. “The last thing I want to have happen in this field is for people to say, ‘We need more women, bring in the women!’ and to start giving opportunities to people who aren’t ready for them, who haven’t been given time to develop,” Lang says. “The resulting work probably won’t be good. And that will only make it seem like women are weaker.”

Instead, Lang suggests, change should come from the bottom up. “We need to add creative courses to the ballet curriculum, so we can develop young artists who think creatively instead of just seeing their bodies as tools,” she says. “A ballet dancer is not going to lose her turnout if she plays around in a composition class for an hour. But that class will help her establish an open mindset, so she’s not inhibited and afraid.” Improvisation and composition courses will make students better performers, too. “If we get young girls more comfortable with actively making choices, instead of just teaching them how to point their feet on count three—that will only increase their value as performing artists,” Seiwert says. “They’ll learn how to take charge of their artistic development.”

College dance programs, Seiwert notes, also put a strong emphasis on independent thinking. The number of strong university ballet programs is steadily increasing, attracting more talented ballet dancers. As college graduates begin to make up a larger percentage of the ballet world’s swans and Wilis, we might start to see more of these women breaking into choreography.

Here’s hoping. “Choreography shouldn’t be a gender issue,” LeCrone says. “It should be a talent issue. There are great women’s voices yet to be heard.”

Margaret Fuhrer is Pointe’s associate editor.



























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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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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

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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