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.

Andersen in Balanchine's "Valse-Fantaisie." Photo by Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

I got my corps contract on my 18th birthday. It was such a relief. I had convinced myself that I would be okay not dancing, but inside I just wanted to get a contract with Miami City Ballet.

I'd trained at Milwaukee Ballet School pretty much my whole life, and in 2014 I went to the MCB summer program and loved it. They invited me to stay for the year, and right when I got there, they offered me an apprenticeship. I spent the next two years as an apprentice. My second year I got to tour with the company and did Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Bourrée Fantasque.

Once I was told that I had a contract, it felt like so much weight was lifted off my shoulders. Every single person came up and individually congratulated me. They were so kind, and ever since then they've been like a big family.

It's such a jump from being in a school setting to being in the company. I'm lucky that I was able to experience so much firsthand as an apprentice, but there were still some things that I couldn't get used to. As an apprentice, I would spend half my day rehearsing and taking class at the school, and the other half rehearsing with MCB. Once I got into the company, there was so much less work. It was hard to stay in shape and make sure that I was on top of my dancing. The ballet masters don't give you as many corrections, and I didn't have anybody there to discipline me. It was all self-motivation.

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Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee is back, this time sharing her tried-and-true advice from the streets of New York City. While conducting a pointe shoe seminar at the Joffrey Ballet School's NYC Ballet Intensive, Lee put together a list of five things to keep in mind when choosing a summer program. Whether you're about to embark on this summer's intensive or are already thinking ahead for next year, these are good tips to keep in mind. And what better way to receive advice than while viewing a stroll through some of our favorite ballet-happy spots in NYC?

American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary seems to have it all—not only is our June/July 2016 cover star a dazzling soloist at ABT, she has a sunny, down-to-earth personality and a life-saving hero for a husband. But her first year in the company had its fair share of disappointments—in fact, she almost left dance altogether to pursue acting.

In May, the National YoungArts Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships and mentorship to aspiring performing artists, brought Trenary (herself a 2011 YoungArts winner) and ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky together for a salon-style discussion. Together they talked about critical turning points in their careers, as well as the challenges of navigating the dance world as a young professional. Below are exclusive excerpts of their interview—we hope their words inspire you as much as they inspire us!



There's still time to enter YoungArts's national arts competition for a chance at scholarships, workshops and more. Click here for information on how to apply.

ADrian Durham in CPYB's production of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy CPYB.

As a teenager, Adrian Durham studied at his local ballet school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I was one of three or four guys training there, and there were no male teachers," says Durham. "Most of my partnering experience came from rehearsals for performances." But after he began training with the male scholarship program at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in 2014, he experienced a sea change. "It challenged me mentally, physically and emotionally, because it's such an intense program," he says. Now 20, he is preparing for a professional career with an integrated set of tools: ballet technique, physical strength and partnering skills.

Men's ballet technique classes have been available for decades, especially at summer intensives and urban ballet schools. Yet programs designed specifically for male dancers, often offering full scholarships, have been rarer—until now, that is. Training that allows boys to separately explore their skills, above and beyond a supplement of double tours en l'air and pirouettes à la seconde at the conclusion of a mixed class, can literally give young men a leg up as they aspire towards a dance career.

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Alessandra Ferri in "Romeo and Juliet." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

To watch Irina Kolpakova coach Swan Lake is to witness a true artist at work. Although long retired from the stage, the American Ballet Theatre ballet mistress still possesses a commanding presence and an instinctive artistic spirit.

"Don't think about your shape when you first see Siegfried," she tells principal Isabella Boylston during rehearsal for Odette's Act II entrance. "This is not 'port de bras.' This is 'Don't touch me!' " Kolpakova demonstrates, transforming instantly into the Swan Queen. Her eyes sparkling and alive, every inch of her diminutive stature swells with a palpable energy capable of reaching the highest ring of the balcony.

Call it stage presence, call it the "it" factor, some dancers just have a natural ability to draw people in and change the atmosphere around them. Stage presence can carry a dancer to a higher artistic realm. It's the final piece of the puzzle, the emotional heart of a performance that can bring an audience to tears. Without it, even the best choreography risks falling flat.

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Via Instagram

Last fall, Diana Vishneva shocked her NYC following when she announced that she would give her final performance with American Ballet Theatre on June 23, 2017. The Russian-born dancer has been part of ABT since performing in Romeo and Juliet as a guest artist in 2003, and has held the title of principal dancer with the company since 2005 in addition to her principal role with the Mariinksy Ballet. Throughout her time with ABT, which she spoke about in the below video for The New Yorker, Vishneva has danced as a guest artist with Bolshoi Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Berlin State Ballet.


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Karen Kain is internationally renowned as a performer and as the National Ballet of Canada's artistic director. The former NBoC principal always carries herself with the grace and sophistication of a true leader. However, in this 1976 clip from Giselle, the distinguished ballerina is convincingly naïve and bewildered in her interpretation of the mad scene.



Kain conveys Giselle's innocence at the start of the scene with pure, unaffected gestures and facial expressions. Then, after Albrecht betrays her, her eyes stare unfocused into the distance as if she's in a trance. Although this scene is mostly acting, Kain dances dreamily to the musical motif at 5:30 and conceals her technical strength in order to show the character's frailty. It takes a true ballerina to perform this heartbreaking and beautiful role, and with performances like this and her lifelong commitment to the art form, Kain proves that she is an extraordinary one. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Photo by Quinn Wharton

How can I wean myself off my coffee fix without experiencing headaches and crankiness that will disrupt my rehearsal process? —Lauryn

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