Ballet Stars

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

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

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."



The Conversation
News
Pacific Northwest Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

Thanksgiving is just days away, and while to some that means family and football, to bunheads it means one thing only: Nutcracker is coming. Looking for a Nut near you? We know that your next few weeks will be too busy with rehearsals to keep your eye on ballet news, so we've decided to help you out by rounding up 62 of our nation's Nutcrackers, state by state.

We're not perfect! If we missed a major Nutcracker production, we want to know. Email clansky@dancemedia.com for consideration.

Keep reading... Show less
The Royal Ballet's Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in La Bayadère. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH.

Do you ever wish you could teleport to London and casually stroll into The Royal Opera House to see some of the world's best-loved ballets? Well, we have a solution for you: The Royal Ballet's 2018-19 cinema season.

Whether live or recorded, the seven ballet programs listed below, streaming now through next October, will deliver all of the magic that The Royal Ballet has to offer straight to your local movie theater. Can you smell the popcorn already?

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Yu-Chieh Chao performs with the PBT Company in PBT: New Works. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea

When the artistic director of a professional ballet company saunters into the studio during school classes, students take notice. At Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, however, it's not just eager pre-professional students who pay extra attention. Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr watches carefully, taking note of standout students, individual talent and, of course, who might be the right fit for the company.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre added six PBT School students to its roster this year, and the presence of the ubiquitous artistic director made an impact on the preparedness of those students and the decision to sign them to the company.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
New York City Ballet soloist Claire Kretzschmar as the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

What bunhead hasn't dreamed of dancing Clara in Nutcracker? But with so many young dancers aspiring to the role, casting disappointments are inevitable each year. Today, three professionals share their childhood Clara casting disappointments and what helped them move on and learn from the experience. We hope their stories will encourage you this Nutcracker season!

Keep reading... Show less
Screenshot via YouTube

One Sergei Polunin is great but two, three, or four Polunins, that's something we can really get behind. And now we don't even have to go to an alternative universe to enjoy multiple Polunin clones. In Hozier's latest music video, "Movement" the legendary ballet dancer's drool-worthy technique is on full display as multiple versions of Polunin break out dancing. And though this isn't the first time the ballet superstar has teamed up with Hozier, this performance is even more haunting than the pair's 2013 collaboration in the "Take Me to Church" video.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
All photos by Jayme Thornton for Pointe, modeled by Payge Lecakes of Manhattan Youth Ballet.

A shallow plié can be frustrating for any dancer. But even if you think you've reached your limit, a deeper, juicier plié may be achievable, says Karen Clippinger, professor at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology. "Many dancers can improve the depth of their plié through persistent stretching and careful attention to optimal body alignment," she says. Barring any structural issues that would shorten your plié, such as bone spurs at the front of the ankle, these three exercises will help you access your full range.

You'll need:

  • a 1/2- to 1-inch thick book
  • a Thera-band
Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Cuba's Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, one of the four theaters in use during the festival. Photo by Quinn Wharton.

Anyone attending the National Ballet of Cuba's biennial Havana International Ballet Festival can expect an adventure that is equal parts treasure hunt and lottery, amidst a cornucopia of choices. This year's festival, the 26th, was no exception, offering 25 programs in four theaters. The event, held October 28-November 6, was also notable for the unanticipated absence of 96-year-old Alicia Alonso, the host company's founder and Cuba's ballerina assoluta. Due to flagging health, Alonso was unable to make her customary opening night appearance, where she would have been seated alongside Cuba's new President, Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
SFB corps de ballet dancer Miranda Silveira in Athleta. Photo Courtesy Athleta.

Just in time for Nutcracker season (and the cold weather that has us layering on our coziest warmups), fitness brand Athleta teamed up with San Francisco Ballet for their first Athleta Dance collection. Available beginning November 27, the capsule collection will include designs in women's and girl's sizes inspired by and created in collaboration with the dancers of SFB.

Of course, this isn't the first time a major athletic wear brand has teamed up with professional ballerinas. Under Armour has now launched two collections with American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland, and most recently, Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward created limited-edition designs with Lululemon.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe Magazine.

In and out of the studio, BalletX's Skyler Lubin pays as much attention to the quality of her clothing as she does the style. "I like brands like Yumiko and Adidas when I'm dancing because they have cute designs, but they hold up well, too," she says. Lubin saves her brighter colors for summer and likes to keep things seasonal with earth tones for fall—muted blues and greens are her go-tos.

"I love Zimmermann, Reformation and Zara," Lubin says of the staple brands in her off-duty wardrobe. "Lately, I've been into secondhand stores because you can get designer clothes for much cheaper. And, I've been using the Poshmark app because I can buy and sell clothes." She adds with a laugh, "I usually spend the money I make, but it's a good trade." Being able to sell items on the app comes in handy, as Lubin enjoys staying on top of fashion trends. "I really like Arielle Charnas from the blog Something Navy, but just scrolling through Instagram is a fun way to get new ideas and see different styles," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Still via Youtube.

Throughout the last quarter of the 10th century Cynthia Harvey was a force in the ballet world. She had the unique distinction of dancing as a principal ballerina on both sides of the Atlantic, with American Ballet Theatre and then at The Royal Ballet, where she was the first American dancer ever to hold that position. A dynamo with impeccable style, her polished technique was matched only by her power. In this 1984 performance of a variation from Paquita, she bursts from the wing with a tidal wave of energy that carries her throughout the entire solo.

Paquita - Cynthia Harvey www.youtube.com

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Photo by Gez Xavier Mansfield/Unsplash

I want to be a professional ballerina, but I am currently a freshman at a boarding school where the dance program is nowhere near the level I need to get there. What can I do? —Lucy

Keep reading... Show less
News
From left: Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Michael Curley, Courtesy Cincinnati Zoo.

Yesterday Cincinnati Ballet announced an exciting addition to this year's Nutcracker cast: a character based on Fiona, the world's most famous hippopotamus.

Fiona was born at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in January 2017. Six weeks premature, she weighed only 29 pounds at birth as opposed to the standard 55-120, and required round-the-clock care from dedicated zoo staff. Cincinnati Children's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit even got involved. The zoo chronicled her progress on Facebook, creating the heart-warming Fiona Show (see the first episode below). The baby hippo's story went viral, winning hearts in Cincinnati and around the world.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Raffaella Stroik. Photo via stlouisballet.org

Update: Raffaella Stroik's body was found near a boat ramp in Florida, Missouri on Wednesday morning. According to the South Bend Tribune, the cause of death has not yet been released and the investigation remains open. Foul play is not suspected. A funeral Mass has been scheduled for Wednesday, November 20 at the Sacred Heart Basilica at the University of Notre Dame. Our thoughts are with her friends and family.

Raffaella Stroik, a 23-year-old dancer with the Saint Louis Ballet, went missing on Monday.

Her car was found with her phone inside in a parking lot near a boat ramp in Mark Twain Lake State Park—130 miles away from St. Louis. On Tuesday, the police began an investigation into her whereabouts.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Valencia Hochberg of Ballet Academy East in an A Wish Come True romantic tutu. Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

From tiny floral accents to full-on blossom embellishments, there's a stage-worthy take on your favorite feminine pattern.

Check out this behind-the-scenes video from our tutu shoot, and then see our full array of florals for all seasons in the gallery below.

Behind the Scenes: Flower Power Tutus www.youtube.com


Keep reading... Show less
News
Simulations of An's "Marie . T" prosthetic design, via jaehyunan.com

There's a new tool that lets amputee ballet dancers perform on pointe. As reported in Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, industrial designer Jae-Hyun An has created a prosthesis he calls the"Marie . T" (after Marie Taglioni, of course) that allows dancers with below-the-knee amputations to do pointe work.

A carbon fiber calf absorbs shock while a stainless steel toe and rubber platform allow a dancer to both turn and grip the floor to maintain balance. What it doesn't allow the dancer to do? Roll down to demi-pointe or flat.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Photo by Quinn Wharton.

The largest performance studio at the Fernando Alonso National School of Ballet in Havana, Cuba, is packed with lower school students, seated helter-skelter around the edges of its new sprung floor. They move over to make room for photographers and visitors in town for the 26th Havana International Ballet Festival, who have come from as far away as Mexico, England and the United States. They are all at the academy, known world-wide for its rigorous adherence to a scientific methodology painstakingly developed by ballet master Fernando Alonso, because Aurora Bosch is giving a mixed-level master class to the upper school, of which she is a graduate, becoming one of its first teachers at the age of 19. Bosch, known as one of the "Four Jewels" of the Cuban National Ballet (along with Loipa Araújo, Josefina Méndez and Mirta Plá), is now based in London, but earlier this month she returned to Havana to attend and participate in the festival.

Shortly afterwards, the school's director Ramona de Saá invited me to speak with her and Bosch about the expanding focus of this distinguished school that has produced such outstanding dancers as Carlos Acosta, Lorena and Lorna Feijóo, José Manuel Carreño, and a host of others who have danced with first-rate companies the world over.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Emma Love Suddarth and her husband, PNB soloist Price Suddarth. relax along the Seine river. Photo by Lindsay Thomas.

It's Monday, June 25. Armed with neck pillows, compression socks and loads of coffee, we are ready for our flight to Paris! Les Étés de la Danse, a French festival held at the beautiful La Seine Musicale theater, invited Pacific Northwest Ballet for its 2018 season. Half of the company will arrive the first week to participate in its Hommage à Jerome Robbins celebration with a handful of other companies. The rest will join the second week for a PNB-only residency.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Wendy Whelan teaching at Jacob's Pillow's Ballet Program. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.

Last month The School at Jacob's Pillow announced a major change to its historic summer ballet program, which boasts alumni at companies including American Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. This summer, rather than focusing on coaching dancers in the traditional, story-driven classical repertoire, the intensive makes the shift to contemporary ballet. Directed by former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet director Alexandra Damiani and BalletX co-founder Matthew Neenan, the Contemporary Ballet Program will work to engage students in the development of new work and the ever-adapting repertoire (including pointe work) it requires.

Former New York City Ballet prima and longtime Jacob's Pillow participant Wendy Whelan played a large role in the decision making process. We touched base with Whelan to hear about what went into this decision, and whether she thinks that this focus on contemporary training represents a growing trend in the ballet world.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Knowing your rights can help you steer clear of toxic dance companies. Getty Images

I was applying to audition for this ballet company, and the form asked if I had a history of mental issues (i.e., eating disorders, anxiety, depression) and to give a detailed description of them and steps taken for treatment. Is this something that companies normally take into account during auditions? Moreover, are they allowed to ask this? I felt so strongly about not wanting to give that information that I decided not to apply. —Melanie

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Galina Ulanova and Nikolai Fadeyechev in "Giselle." Screenshot via YouTube.

The final moments of Giselle's second act are some of the most hauntingly beautiful in all of ballet: from the pas de deux between Giselle's betrayed spirit and the man she still loves, to the wilis' cold rejection, to Albrecht's heart-wrenching desperation as the curtain closes. The Bolshoi Ballet's late prima ballerina assoluta, Galina Ulanova, is among the most legendary interpreters of the ballet's titular role, admired around the world for her ability to utterly transform into character. Alongside her frequent partner Nikolai Fadeyechev, also a former leading dancer with the Bolshoi, their performance is an offering of sensitivity that stirs us even decades later.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Rosenfield in Dances Patrelle's Yorkville Nutcracker. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Rosenfield.

Shoshana Ronsenfield's career has not followed a straight path. In a surprising move, the born-and-raised New Yorker left a burgeoning career at New York City Ballet in 2012 to study economics at Barnard College. Upon graduating, Rosenfield spent six months freelancing with companies including New Chamber Ballet and Tom Gold Dance before spending two years working in global management at Goldman Sachs (and dancing on the side).

Now Rosenfield is on to a new chapter: She's just completed a boot camp in computer coding, and is currently doing a coding teaching fellowship. But she's still dancing. This weekend, Rosenfield will appear in Tom Gold Dance's fall season at Florence Gould Hall. We caught up with Rosenfield to hear all about how she's balanced college and career and how she's learned that it is possible to do it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Reverence
Xander Parish in Balanchine's "Apollo." Photo by Valentin Baranovsky, courtesy Mariinsky Ballet.

What do you enjoy more: performing or being in the studio?
Performing. My coaches understand that I'm not a studio dancer—sometimes, in the studio, it can go quite horrendously. They'll say: It's okay, we know onstage you can do it.

In reaching the top, how much was talent and how much was sweat?
A lot more sweat than talent. I've got certain attributes: long legs, nice feet. That's a blessing, but I wasn't naturally coordinated. I was called Bambi in school because I couldn't really control what I had. I was a very late developer: I got my strength together when I was maybe 27.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee takes Chicago. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's final stop: Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. She touches base with Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet and the Joffrey Academy of Dance.

Ashley Wheater on the Joffrey Academy of Dance youtu.be

Missed Lee's stops at Ballet West, Colorado Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theatre, Oklahoma City Ballet or Kansas City Ballet? Check them out now!

Trending
Sara Mearns and Joshua Bergasse said "I do" in a beachside ceremony on November 3. Photo by Perry Vaile Photography, Courtesy of Brides.

If you follow New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns on Instagram, you'll have noticed that for the past several months, her feed has included wedding prep pics in addition to her usual performance posts and cross-training clips. This past weekend, the big day finally arrived, and Mearns married Broadway and television choreographer Joshua Bergasse in a dreamy beach ceremony in North Carolina.

And if you were hoping Mearns' wedding day would include a bit of ballet, she didn't disappoint. Not only were some familiar NYCB faces in the bridal party and at the reception, but Mearns made sure to include a nod or two to her career. Luckily, Mearns also spent the day with Brides magazine, letting them in on the ceremony and the reception to exclusively capture all of the best moments.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!