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Being the Change: Six Women Dance Leaders on Ballet's Gender Imbalance

Mayara Pineiro rehearsing with Helen Pickett for the world premiere of Tilt.Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

As I watched Helen Pickett rehearse her new work Tilt for Pennsylvania Ballet last week, there was no doubt in my mind that she's a natural leader. Hovering closely around young corps dancer Jack Thomas during a run through, she pushed him to carve more space through the air with his upper body. "Use those hands, do not stop," she said emphatically during a particularly tiring section, at once firm and encouraging. "It should feel like you're eating a meal rather than grazing." Yet earlier, Pickett had admitted to me that when she was first approached by a major company to create a ballet 12 years ago, she questioned her ability to lead. Despite growing up in a feminist household, being surrounded by strong female role models throughout her dancing and acting career, and learning the craft of choreography from William Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt, she says, "I still gave more credence to male voices than female voices."

Her realization is one component of a bigger issue in the dance world: that for all of the droves of women and girls who flock to ballet classes and pursue performance careers, the majority of leadership positions—be it directing, curating or choreographing—are held by men. To help illuminate the topic in advance of Pickett's world premiere November 9–12 , last week Pennsylvania Ballet partnered with Philadelphia's FringeArts to present "Challenges, Chances, Changes: Gender Equity in Concert Dance," a round table discussion among six women leaders in the industry. Joining Pickett was Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director Virginia Johnson; BalletX executive and artistic director Christine Cox; Big Dance Theater choreographer and co-director Annie-B Parson; Philadelphia Dance Projects executive director Terry Fox; and choreographer Francesca Harper, artistic director of the Francesca Harper Project.


From left: Francesca Harper, Virginia Johnson, Annie-B Parson, Helen Pickett, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Christine Cox and Terry Fox. Photo by Chris Kendig, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.


Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University and author of The Black Dancing Body, led the discussion and chose its title. Beforehand, she asked each participant to discuss a challenge, chance or change that proved a pivotal moment in her career, within an eight-minute time frame. The resulting discussion proved enlightening, troubling and hopeful.

For some, a traditional ballet company environment didn't offer enough opportunities for analytical thought. Johnson, who danced for 28 years as a principal at DTH, admitted that it wasn't until she retired and became the founding editor of Pointe that she started to learn how to trust her vision (as a former dancer and Pointe's current editor, I could relate). "I suddenly needed to question and observe for myself," she says, adding that through running a magazine and serving as its creative visionary, she found her voice—something that's proved useful since taking the helm of DTH in 2009. For Harper, who also began her career at DTH, moving to Europe to work with Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt "was the most exceptional experience of my life." She found both empowerment and equity through Forsythe's creative process and the company's collaborative environment. "Everyone there had something to say." Now in her own work, she says, "the thing that drives me is how do we empower each other and create more equity?"

Cox talked candidly about why she once saw her more curvaceous body as a curse (one artistic director even told her to get a breast reduction). She suspected it cost her a position at Pennsylvania Ballet when she was 17, although she eventually joined the company later in her career. She also opened up about the intensity of running BalletX on her own after her co-founder, Matthew Neenan, stepped down to focus on choreography. "People had a lot of doubts," she says. Even now, she notices that Neenan is sometimes given more attention in the press, even though Cox serves as BalletX's artistic and executive director.


Pickett rehearses corps de ballet dancer Jack Thomas for the world premiere of "Tilt." Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

While many consider the modern dance world to have a better track record of gender equity, Annie-B Parson and Terry Fox could relate to their fellow panelists. Parson echoed Cox's experience, noting that in a recent article her dances were mentioned three times, yet her name was not. "Another time I was described as somebody's wife," she says (Parson co-directs Big Dance Theater with her husband, Paul Lazar). Parson said she personally sent choreographer Alexei Ratmansky a letter suggesting he attend a diversity-training course after he downplayed the lack of women choreographers in the New York Times last spring (though she says he didn't reply). Fox, meanwhile, said that she had a difficult time being taken seriously as an artist at the forefront of the improvisational dance movement, and that she was one of the only female curators in New York City's downtown dance scene as managing/artistic director of the Dancespace Project. "I think there's danger thinking that women have to be of a different vision," she says, "in asking that the one woman in the room represent all women."

Many of the panelists admitted how easy it is to perpetuate the status quo, and acknowledged their responsibility as leaders to create change. "I only realized last year that I was not reaching out to ballet companies [about commissions] besides DTH—I was almost discriminating in my own way," says Harper.

Cox and Johnson agreed that as directors, they need to be vigilant about equity in programming. "The change that needs to happen is in female hands," says Johnson. "We get to change it, and that is awesome."

Pickett hopes to inspire more women to lead by example, and to mentor young people though her Choreographic Essentials workshops. "We must encourage women and men to be part of the conversation, without being vitriolic," she says. "Because the world is much better when we can all sit at the table and have a discussion as equals"

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Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker.' Photo by Rich Sofranko

Catching a performance of The Nutcracker has long been a holiday tradition for many families. And now, more and more companies are adding sensory-friendly elements to specific shows in an effort to make the classic ballet inclusive to children and adults with special needs.

While the accommodations vary depending on the company, many are presenting shorter versions of the ballet with more relaxed theater rules. Additionally, lower sound and stage light levels during the performance, as well as trained staff on hand, make The Nutcracker more accessible for those on the autism spectrum and others with special needs.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's performance will take place on Tuesday, December 26th, and they are one of the pioneer companies in presenting sensory-friendly performances of The Nutcracker (their first production was in 2013). PBT also offers sensory-friendly versions of Jorden Morris' Peter Pan and Lew Christensen's Beauty and the Beast throughout the year.

See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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Your Best Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Pointe Stars

At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


Pointe Stars
Ingrid Silva and her dog, Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

You're probably already following your favorite dancers on Instagram, but did you know that you can follow many of their dogs, too? We rounded up some of our favorite dog-centered accounts and hashtags to keep you pawsitively entertained (sorry, we can't help ourselves).

Cora and Maya (American Ballet Theatre's Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda)

Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda's pups Cora and Maya update their profile pretty frequently. Often accompanying Lane to the ABT studios, they can also be seen using tutus or piles of pink tights as dog beds.

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Pointe Stars
Vladislav Lantritov and Ekaterina Krysanova in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Alice Blangero, Courtesy Bolshoi Ballet.

If you haven't checked your local movie listings yet for this weekend, hop to it. The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema series and Fathom Events is broadcasting a performance of Jean-Christophe Maillot's The Taming of the Shrew to theaters nationwide on Sunday, November 19. (To see if it's playing near you and to purchase tickets, click here.) While the rest of the Bolshoi's cinema season features 19th- and 20th-century classics, The Taming of the Shrew gives audiences a chance to see the revered Moscow company in a thoroughly modern, 21st-century take on Shakespeare's famous play.

Aside from a limited run in New York City this July, American audiences have had little exposure to Maillot's 2014 production. To learn more, check out these two exclusive, behind-the-scenes webisodes below. Principal dancer Ekaterina Krysanova, who stars as the hotheaded Katharina, gives an intimate play-by-play of two major scenes in Act I. The first is her fiery rejection of three potential suitors (who all would prefer to marry Katharina's younger sister Bianca).

The second scene breaks down Katharina's first encounter with Petruchio (danced by the larger-than-life Vladislav Lantritov), the only man who seems to be able to challenge her. Here, too, we see the shrew's heart start to soften. (Don't miss her time-stopping attitude turn at 4:27.)

The Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Series continues through June; for more details on upcoming screenings, click here.

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Smuin Ballet dancers Erica Felsch, Rex Wheeler, Mengjun Chen and Tessa Barbour in "White Christmas," choreographed by dancers Ben Needham-Wood and Michael Smuin. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin Ballet.

Nutcracker-ed out? Or just can't get enough holiday ballets? These unique Nutcracker interpretations and non-Nutcracker productions will make your season bright.


The Hip Hop Nutcracker

Through December 30

Tchaikovsky's masterful Nutcracker score isn't just for classical ballet…

Hip Hop + a live DJ + an electric violinist unite in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, currently touring the U.S.

Familiar characters such Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker, Mouse King and Marie (here called Maria-Clara) dance through an updated New York City storyline with choreography by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the Brooklyn-based theatrical hip hop company Decadancetheatre.

Premiered in 2014, The Hip Hop Nutcracker is produced by New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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