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Ross Brown, Courtesy RNZB

It's been several years since former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Patricia Barker took over leadership of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In that time Barker and her husband, former PNB dancer Michael Auer, have had to acclimate themselves to a new country, a new hemisphere and a new culture.

She also noticed that RNZB had a different way of working when she took the helm in 2017. The company was then grappling with acccusations of abusive behavior and other workplace grievances by its former director, along with a few vocal New Zealanders with nationalistic agendas stirring up controversy. "The company was trying to lay low and let things blow over," she says. "You can never lay low; you just have to face your troubles head on."

Even though Barker says the turmoil had nothing to do with her, she took it on and moved the company forward by turning attention back on the art form, which she says is what matters most to audiences. And what matters to Barker with regard to that art form is creating more opportunities for female choreographers. So much so that the company's entire 2020 season will feature works choreographed by women.

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Profiles
Alice Topp in rehearsal for her work Little Atlas. Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet.

Though Australian Ballet coryphée Alice Topp has been dancing since she was four, when it comes to choreographing, she's just getting started. Topp created her first piece, Trace, on a whim in 2010 as part of The Australian Ballet's annual Bodytorque program. Since then, she has gone on to make several main stage works for the company, as well as music videos for artists like Ben Folds and Megan Washington; in 2018 she was named one of the The Australian Ballet's resident choreographers.

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Profiles
Hough in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon." Joerg Wiesner, Courtesy Norwegian National Ballet.

Melissa Hough's career is as dynamic as her dancing. After stints with Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet, Hough (our April/May 2011 cover star) joined the Norwegian National Ballet as a principal in 2013, and her dance card has been full ever since. She's turning heads as a choreographer, too. Her work Epic Short, commissioned for Norwegian National Ballet's 2017 Sleepless Beauty program, won Dance Europe magazine's Critic's Choice for Best Premiere that year and recently debuted at the 2018 Diaghilev P.S. Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Hough is also juggling her dance and choreography career with motherhood, and has had an incredibly eventful year since returning to the stage last fall after the birth of her daughter. On April 6, she premieres a new ballet called Bout of the Imperfect Pearl for Norwegian National Ballet's Baroque Motion quadruple bill. Hough took a rehearsal break to talk to me about her busy season.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet School Professional Division students take Eva Stone's modern dance class. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.

"Who here is terrified of choreographing?"

It was a question posed by Pacific Northwest Ballet School teacher Eva Stone five weeks ago, sitting on the floor among her class of female summer intensive students. "Almost all of them raised their hand, but I said, 'Don't worry, I got you,'" says Stone. "'I'm going to give you tools and skills and you're going to build on them.' It's amazing how their perspective changed in five weeks."

Stone's choreography class, introduced into the summer program last year, served as a pilot for a new initiative at PNB School beginning this September. New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance is a year-round class dedicated to educating and encouraging 14 to 16-year-old female students in the art of dancemaking. Made possible through funding from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the 38-week course was created to help address the lack of women choreographers working in major classical ballet companies.

PNB School is one of several academies offering choreographic opportunities to its students. Houston Ballet Academy and the Chautauqua Institution, for example, hold workshops during their summer intensives, while Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Ballet Academy East recently joined forces to create a choreographic exchange program. And School of American Ballet offers numerous choreographic projects for its dancers, including one for women. What makes PNB's initiative unique is its year-long scope and structured focus on composition.

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Profiles
Bouder in Lauren Lovette's "Red Spotted Purple." Photo by Bret Shuford, Courtesy Lake Tahoe Dance Festival.

Last week, Ashley Bouder joined an all-star cast of performers at the 5th annual Lake Tahoe Dance Festival. Co-directors Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher curated a dramatic evening that included a world premiere by Marco Pelle, iconic masterworks by Lester Horton and Paul Taylor, contemporary favorites by Baecher and Robert Moses, and the California premiere of Red Spotted Purple—a solo for Bouder choreographed by her New York City Ballet colleague, Lauren Lovette.

Named after a butterfly, Red Spotted Purple was made for The Ashley Bouder Project's most recent season at the Joyce Theater's Ballet Festival. Lovette's playful and free-spirited solo seemed ripe for an outdoor performance, especially against Tahoe City's gorgeous landscape of pine trees and its blue lake. Featuring both a commissioned score by Stephanie Ann Boyd and a gorgeous dress designed by Michelle Smith of MILLY, the solo dance was in line with Bouder's mission to promote more diversity in ballet's creative process. I caught the performance in Tahoe City and chatted with the two women via email about the experience of making this dance.

How did this commission come about?

Ashley Bouder: I was brainstorming female choreographers that I'd want to create a solo for me. I thought, who better than a colleague that grew up watching me dance? There isn't a female choreographer out there that knows my dancing better, or my personality on and off stage. I think Lauren is brilliant, and after having seen her two pieces for NYCB, I felt that she could make something special with a clear point of view and message. I wanted the solo to open the [Joyce] program and I just knew she could make a statement piece to fit.

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Les Grabds Ballets dancer Mai Kono in a promotional phtoo for next season's production of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Photo by Sasha Onyschenko, Courtesy Les Grands Ballets.

The latest front in the controversy over the underrepresentation of female choreographers in ballet is at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. They're facing a petition and choreographer resignation that forced them to rebrand a season and publicly defend their programming.

On February 26, artistic director Ivan Cavallari, who started the job in the summer of 2017, announced the 2018-2019 season, which included a program titled Femmes. The program announcement said the evening would have "woman as its theme," and that Cavallari had "chosen three distinctive voices, rising stars of choreography, to undertake this great subject."

The three voices Cavallari chose to create on the theme of women, however, were all men.

"This was just too much for me, it was the last straw," says Kathleen Rea, a former member of National Ballet of Canada who now freelances, choreographs and teaches in Toronto. Rea says she's been bothered by the dearth of women choreographers throughout her career. But referring to women as "subjects" and excluding them from choreographing on a program about them compelled her to take action.

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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.

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While ballet may feel female-dominated in that there are plenty of onstage opportunities for women, key behind-the-scenes roles like choreographer and artistic director are still largely held by men—a point that is increasingly being raised and questioned in the dance world thanks to female choreographers like Crystal Pite and Charlotte Edmonds. Also helping to break that mold is rising female choreographer Kristen McNally, who not only choreographed a recent duet for CNN Style, but also paired two women to bring it to life.

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Profiles
Photo by Andrej Uspenski, Courtesy ROH.

Wearing leggings and a puffy vest as she works in one of The Royal Ballet's light-filled studios, Charlotte Edmonds could pass for a corps de ballet member. Instead, she is choreographing on them, creating dynamic, ballet-based contemporary dance in her role as the company's first-ever Young Choreographer.

"At the Opera House you have dancers who have 20 years more experience," she says. "I bow to their experience, but I also try to hold the room. It is sometimes quite nerve-racking! But it is always exciting."

Edmonds' uncanny instincts for choreography and leadership were already apparent at age 11, when she was a first-year student in the Royal Ballet School's Lower School—and a finalist in its competition for the Ninette de Valois Junior Choreographic Award. She got her first professional commission at age 16, and was barely 19 when Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare named her the inaugural recipient of the company's Young Choreographer Programme. The paid position provides her with studio space, access
to dancers and the mentorship of renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor.


Photo by Alice Pennefeather, Courtesy ROH

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Crystal Pite working with members of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

In February, I attended the Prix de Lausanne, where I moderated a series of panel discussions that were open to the competing students, their teachers and parents, and the public. One topic I was particularly excited about concerned women in leadership roles, and how the ballet world can better nurture leadership qualities in female dancers. My panelists included Korean National Ballet artistic director Sue Jin Kang, English National Ballet associate director Loipa Araújo and Gigi Hyatt, the deputy director of the Hamburg Ballet School.

There was just one problem—while there were plenty of audience members, none of the female students actually showed up. As I watched a few of them browse the pop-up ballet shop on their way out of the theater, I couldn't help but think “Don't you know this talk is for you?"

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We're seeing a lot of Crystal Pite in the ballet world this season—and no one is complaining. Only a few months after debuting a work for the Paris Opéra Ballet, her first creation for The Royal Ballet premiered last night, alongside work by Christopher Wheeldon and David Dawson.

According to The Guardian, the last time a woman choreographed a ballet for the main stage at the Opera House was 18 years ago, and it sounds like this piece pushed limits in other ways too, with its dark and very timely subject matter.

Called Flight Pattern, it features 36 dancers and is set to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It takes on the experience of refugees during the current migrant crisis, exploring the pain of displacement and loss.

In our December/January issue, Pite talked about her love of working with classical dancers. But what is it like on the other side of the creation process? In the video above, which was originally livestreamed back in February, Pite and some of the Royal Ballet dancers open up about their experience in the studio. You can also watch Pite coaching them through one section of the piece (this starts about 30 minutes in).

Flight Pattern runs through March 24 at the Royal Opera House.

 

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

The lack of female choreographers in the ballet world has come under recent scrutiny. Why are so few women given opportunities to create for major companies—especially when they're out there, steadily making work? How can companies, schools, patrons and mentors cultivate emerging choreographers? Many companies have addressed the dearth through deliberate programming, like the English National Ballet's "She Said" program, while institutions like New York University's Center for Ballet and the Arts has created a specific fellowship for women.

Oregon Ballet Theatre in George Balanchine's "Apollo" (photo by Blaine Truitt Covert)

Now, Oregon Ballet Theatre has a choreographic competition for female choreographers. Three winners of Choreography XX will have the chance to create a new ballet, which will premiere in the summer of 2017, for OBT.

The application details for the competition can be found here. Keep in mind that entrants must be at least 21 years old, and a citizen of either the U.S. or Canada. The deadline to submit is March 31. Good luck!

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

 

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