More Women in Ballet Must Go From Pointe to Power

ballet women
Women dressed in white flowing dresses are in ballet poses on a dance floor in front of black background.

In March, the Cincinnati Ballet announced plans for its 2017-2018 season. Artistic Director Victoria Morgan shared that of the 15 new works the company had commissioned, eight will be choreographed by women, including Kate Weare, Penny Saunders, Jennifer Archibald, Johanna Bernstein Wilt and Heather Britt. Dance Magazine called the decision “a statement about gender equality,” and Morgan told that the new season aligned with her strategic and programmatic goals.

At the same time, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder (yes, she who did that insane fouette combination while pregnant) staged her own show with her new, eponymous company, The Ashley Bouder Project. Her show will feature two new women-created works, danced by herself and members of the City Ballet in collaboration with the New York Jazzharmonic. “For me, to have my voice be relevant, and for people to listen, is really important. To say what I have to say, even if they don’t like it. I get to say it,” Bouder told Chloe Angyal in The Huffington Post.

Women are taken for granted.

Bouder says much of the reason for the comparative lack of female choreographers in ballet is logistical. Simply put, female ballerinas don’t have the time to create as much as their male counterparts. “In most ballet companies, because of how ballets are structured, women perform more than men,” Bouder said to Angyal. “Even if there are guys who are on every night, there are women who are on in three ballets every night. Which means more rehearsal time, too, during the day. Which means less creative time.” Details like makeup, hair and costumes — all of which Bouder believes take more time for women — ultimately also take away from female dancers having time to create.
Story continues below.

Throughout the last 50 years, the ballet world has frequently been seen as completely out of touch with the importance of diversity. The litany of men — geniuses, admittedly, in their own right — says nothing about the creative, choreographic power of women. This lack of equality not only reads as troubling but a bit safe. Why is it so difficult to see women taking the stage not just as fouetteing prima ballerinas, but as dance-makers as well?

In 1976, dancer-choreographer-teacher Wendy Perron, years before her editorial leadership of Dance Magazine, penned a scathing article theorizing that “when a woman dances, nobody cares” (Perron’s sentiments have softened over the last four decades). “No art is recognized as an art until men do it, from cooking to medicine to dance,” she wrote. “And then it becomes dignified, arduous, skilled.”

In that article, Perron goes on to list in ways that are similar, if not more abstract, to Bouder the various inequalities between men and women in the dance world, as well as why women are not offered the same level of opportunities as men: the rarity of male dancers and their physical attributes, even the ability for male dancers to be viewed as sex objects.

Story continues below.

Through reading Perron’s article (and her annotations from 2016) it seemed to me that the truth wasn’t that women weren’t cared about in the dance world; rather, they were taken for granted. Women are so normalized in the dance world as movers that more room isn’t always made for their voices to be heard in different ways. The dance world has made many exceptions to make men want to dance and keep dancing. Because women are expected in the studio, it doesn’t occur to anyone that more needs to be done to ensure they have a place at all seats at the table.

The idea of being a “good girl,” of being pristine character in the studio at all times, is not new; neither is the idea that women are to be shooed back to the corps if, unlike their male counterparts, they toe the line between dancer and choreographer too overtly. Bouder put it,

“You have to be perfect, not only in class but in attitude and decorum and you have to fit in and be quiet. And the boys in some cases are allowed to just get away with murder… And they’re allowed to be creative and they’re allowed to try things, and girls are not. They can just do whatever as long as they keep showing up.”

Rather than choreograph within the ranks of existing groups, it seems the ballerinas who are able to make the most noise as choreographers are those who seek out opportunities to form their own companies and collectives. Like Bouder, several of the choreographers on the Cincinnati Ballet’s roster this year have worked with their own groups, including Weare (The Kate Weare Dance Company), Britt (Heather Britt Dance Collective) and Archibald (Arch Dance Company). Forming a company and staging your own performances outside the gaze and approval of existing dance institutions may be a way for women to elbow their way to whatever seat at the table they want. But it still won’t absolve established companies of their responsibility to create equal amounts of space for them. Bouder says that not only should companies make room for some of their female dancers to create their own work, it should also happen when they are young and start to show an initial interest in choreography.

While women like Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, Judith Jamison, Trisha Brown, Fatima Robinson, Debbie Allen and others made avenues for themselves, there is still more to be done. Women must create, speak and ask questions to continue challenging the inequality that has for so long plagued the choreographic space. We should no longer be expected to just dance the choreography of others, but to be welcomed and appreciated for allowing others to embody our work.