Ballet Training
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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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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Ballet Stars
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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Adams and Adrian Fry in Afternoon of a Faun. Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

For the last two years, Ballet West's Emily Adams choreographed for the company's Innovations program. Now, she's standing on the other side of the studio, preparing to dance in Jessica Lang's Lyric Pieces. Adams spoke with Pointe about working with an established female voice and how it's inspired her as a choreographer.

What is Lyric Pieces about?
Jessica didn't give us a lot of back story, but I get the sense that it's about community. Each vignette shows the different characters. There are some lighthearted sections and some romantic ones, but I think the props are what make it really unique.
How so?
There are these huge paper props that create the landscape of the piece. Some span the whole length of the stage. At one part, I curve this long paper to form a brook or steam and then another time it's vertical and looks like a fan. It's hard, because you want it to look like it's part of the dance and an extension of yourself--not just a foreign object that you're carrying around and manipulating.
How does Lang inspire you as a dancemaker?
I really like her demeanor. As a choreographer, you create the environment for something to be made and to grow. She was encouraging but a little bit mysterious, too. I like that vibe. She gave us direction but also freedom.


How do you stay connected to dancemaking throughout the season?

Every once in a while, Adrian Fry—another choreographer/dancer in the company—and I will go into a studio and start collaborating, even if it's not for a performance. It's just to get the creative juices flowing. I choreographed for Innovations the last two years, but this season I wanted to dance. I think if choreography is something you like to do, it's not going to suddenly stop. I plan to continue pursuing it.

Ballet West's Innovations program of new works runs May 20-28 in Salt Lake City.
Ballet Stars
Gemma Bond, an ABT corps member, prefers choreographic opportunities over starring roles. Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe.

If you've been keeping up on developments in the ballet world, you've probably had cause to ask: Where are the female choreographers?

“I get asked to do interviews a lot because of that question," says Emery LeCrone, a freelance choreographer and dancer based in New York City, “instead of just to talk about my work."

The skewed ratio of male to female ballet choreographers has long been established, inspiring countless distraught—and necessary—conversations and articles (including in this magazine). The reasons for this imbalance—why more men than women are making work at top companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre—run deep, rooted in an ethos of conformity that follows female dancers from their first ballet class to the white acts of Swan Lake. Men, being a rarer breed in ballet, tend to get more specialized treatment from a young age. And at the professional level, women often rehearse longer hours (think of all the story ballets with multiple scenes for the female corps), giving them less time, energy and mental space to make their own work.

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