Women Leading the Dance?

It’s been a major year for diversity in dance.  Misty Copeland’s well-earned professional success and her utter grace as a spokeswoman have helped advanced dialogue across media and demographics. The conversation has focused, importantly, on race. However, gender diversity is being highlighted as well, particularly the relative rarity of female choreographers.

New York City Ballet recently announced that its 2016-2017 season will feature eight world premieres. These include three new pieces by resident choreographer Justin Peck, two pieces by NYCB dancers Lauren Lovette and Peter Walker, and three new works by choreographers Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Pontus Lidberg, and Alexei Ratmansky. While City Ballet frequently showcases dance by contemporary and new choreographic talent, this is the first season since 2011 to feature premieres by women. While a 25% representation of women choreographers might not seem like an enormous percentage, it’s actually much higher than normal for a ballet company--0% is not uncommon.

Caitlyn Swett, co-producer of Women’s Showcase in North Carolina, thinks the asymmetry between dancers and choreographers (over representation of female dancers in the industry versus underrepresentation of female choreographers, relative to male) has roots in the psychology of competitive pressures during training. "In the early stages of dance and training, young boys are pushed toward individualism and creativity, while girls very soon find out how easily replaceable they are," Swett says. "That they're disposable in a sense, because while women dominate the dance field in numbers men dominate in power."

In an interesting Guardian article on this subject by Luke Jennings, choreographer Susan Crow ascribes the imbalance to self-reinforcing cultural patterns.

“’Have decades of work from a male perspective internalized particular choreographic conventions, and conditioned tastes to a certain type of physicality?’ UK ballet-goers will be in little doubt that this is so. The problem is not that the work of McGregor, Scarlett, Wheeldon and their confrères isn't good and at times brilliant; the problem is that it's the only game in town.”

Awareness and discussion around the issue are helping to improve it. This month, Dance Theater of Harlem premieres two works by female choreographers, Dianne McIntyre and Elena Kunikova.

She Said, the latest commission by English National Ballet Artistic Director Tamara Rojo, is a program of one-act ballets choreographed entirely by women, Aszure Barton, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Yabin Wang.

“I’ve been dancing professionally since I was 16 years old and as a dancer have actually never performed a ballet created by a woman, says Rojo in this video. “So I decided to commission a program with three female choreographers. We decided to call is She Said as part of our idea that, as artists, we have something to say.”

“[Rojo] is fearless,” says Lopez Ochoa in this Guardian interview, “and other companies are becoming very interested in what she’s doing. I’m proud of being part of this. I don’t really feel I have to make a political statement about my own career, I like the way it has gone. But I have seen so many opportunities go to men who are younger and less experienced than me. And I know a lot of women suffer from the feeling that they aren’t good enough. If I can open things up for younger female choreographers, if I can inspire a dancer to believe she can start choreographing, then I’m really glad to take on that role.”