popular

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"

Show Comments ()
Ballet Stars
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters has a good thing going on. Not only is he one of the company's rising young dancers, but he's also a ballet celebrity on social media, where he charts his life on Instagram and on his hugely popular YouTube series, "The Pre Show" (which he describes as "tons of ballet, banter, boys and lots of backstage shenanigans").

The Dover, New Hampshire, native, who seems just as comfortable in a pair of pink heels as he does onstage, trained at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and Portsmouth School of Ballet. While a member of Houston Ballet II, he landed an apprenticeship with the company after winning the Contemporary Dance Prize at the 2011 Prix de Lausanne. He joined the main company that same year and was promoted to soloist in December 2017. Known for his big personality, elegantly long lines and sensual flow in contemporary work, Watters, 26, is ready to take on the next phase of his career. He recently spoke with Pointe about his new rank and his mission to help others feel proud of who they are.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Cleaning is a daily procedure. Proper maintenance will help extend the life of your floor and protect its special slip-resistant surface.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Sara Webb and Connor Walsh with Artists of Houston Ballet in "Swan Lake" choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


The Australian Ballet's Triple Bill, Verve, Includes New Work by Company Dancer Alice Topp

Verve, a triple-bill program from The Australian Ballet running June 21-30 in Melbourne, will host revivals of works from resident choreographers Stephen Baynes and Tim Harbour, as well as a world premiere from company coryphée Alice Topp. Topp's Aurum is inspired by kintsugi, a Japanese art in which broken ceramics are mended using lacquer colored with silver or gold, so that the cracks are emphasized, instead of hidden. In Aurum, Topp applies that philosophy to the human ability to find beauty in vulnerability and imperfections. Completing the bill are Baynes's Constant Variants, which pairs neo-classical ballet with a Tchaikovsky score, and Harbour's Filigree and Shadow, a contemporary ballet featuring striking set and lighting design.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
ABT principals Christine Shevchenko and James Whiteside rehearse "Swan Lake" in Singapore.

In the middle of American Ballet Theatre's spring season, principal dancer Christine Shevchenko takes a break from her comedic role of Pierrette in Harlequinade to (briefly) transform into a swan. During the half hour rehearsal, Shevchenko seamlessly transitions from Odette to Odile, running through her various solos without pause—save for the short conferences with ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, which switch between Russian and English almost as quickly as Shevchenko whips out her fouetté turns (but more on those later).

"The rehearsal process is a lot different right now because every week it's a new ballet," Shevchenko says during a rehearsal break last week. "I'm really trying to squeeze in as many Swan Lake rehearsals as I can, and at the same time, I'm trying to prepare for Don Quixote, which is the week after," she explains of juggling the season's eight programs. "This is my first year as a principal during the Met season, so I'm learning how to figure it out as we keep going. In a way, I'm used to doing parts last minute because that's how I got most of my roles," she says. Ahead, Shevchenko shares exactly how she's gearing up for her Met debut on June 20.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Carla Fracci in "Giselle," via YouTube.

In the late 1950s and 60s, Italian ballerina Carla Fracci won the world over with her definitive interpretations of romantic ballets like La Sylphide, La Sonnambula, and, of course, Giselle. At just 22 years old, she left her home stage at La Scala in Milan to begin guesting internationally, eventually forming a famous partnership with the dashing danseur Erik Bruhn at American Ballet Theatre. The two appear together in this film of ABT's Giselle, in which Fracci's Act I variation is as near to perfection as any Giselle before or after.

Keep reading... Show less
News
David Hallberg in rehearsal. Photo by Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet.

Have you ever dreamt of the chance to choreograph for American Ballet Theatre? Thanks to ABT Incubator, the company's newly launched choreographic initiative directed by company principal (and recent author) David Hallberg, that wish could become a reality this fall. The two-week choreographic lab will run from October 31-November 10 at ABT's New York studios and will give both members of the company and freelance choreographers the chance to create new work on dancers from ABT and the ABT Studio Company. Participants will also have access to crucial dance making tools including a stipend, studio space, collaborators, feedback and mentorship from Hallberg and other artists. They'll present their creations in a private showing on November 10. "It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a statement released today. "I am thrilled that Incubator will provide the resources for emerging and established creators to explore movement and new paths in dance."

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande/Unsplash

Most commonly consumed as a powdery spice, turmeric has seen a recent spike in popularity but has been used in Indian and other Asian cuisines and natural medicine for centuries. Today, it's often consumed as a natural anti-inflammatory and a dietary supplement for a variety of medical conditions. Comparable to ginger, turmeric tastes warm and peppery. (It has a slight kick, so a little goes a long way.)

Thinkstock

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!