Megan LeCrone, Da'Von Doane and Russell Janzen in Emery LeCrone's "With Thoughtful Lightness." Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Guggenheim WOrks & Process.

Seen, Not Heard: Ballet Is Woman—So Where Are Ballet's Women Choreographers?

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.


Sarah Griffin and Weston Krukow in Amy Seiwert's "In the Time." Photo by David DaSilva.

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.


Ballet Memphis in Julia Adam's "Dew Point." Photo by Andrea Zucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis.

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."



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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Students of Canada's National Ballet School. Bruce Zinger, Courtesy Ballet Unleashed.

Ballet Unleashed Aims to Connect Emerging Dancers From 11 Academies With Freelance Opportunities

To any pre-professional dancer vying for a company position, auditions are a familiar and often dreaded scene: Hundreds of hopeful young graduates flock to an audition site, pin a paper number to their dance clothes and try their luck. But only a few will receive full-time contracts with companies—the rest will go home disappointed, potentially facing a gap year as they try to figure out next steps.

Mavis Staines, artistic director and CEO of Canada's National Ballet School, became frustrated with this flawed system years ago. Why were so many talented dancers not being rewarded with work opportunities? And why was the only acceptable form of work a full-season contract, when in the music and theater industries, project-based employment was a legitimized way to build careers?

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Birmingham Royal Ballet in Cinderella. Roy Smiljanic, Courtesy British Ballet Charity Gala

Darcey Bussell Is Putting on a Benefit Gala Starring 8 UK Dance Companies—and You Can Stream It From Home

Planning a major gala during a global pandemic is no easy feat—but don't say that to Dame Darcey Bussell. In an amazingly short time, the former Royal Ballet principal and "Strictly Come Dancing" judge has curated a historic evening to support the dance industry in her home country. The British Ballet Charity Gala will bring eight major UK dance companies together for a live performance at London's Royal Albert Hall on June 3, before it is streamed in the UK, U.S. and Canada on June 18.

The event, hosted by Bussell and actor Ore Oduba, a "Strictly Come Dancing" winner, will feature performances by Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet—marking the first time all of them have performed together on the same program.

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