At the end of March, American Ballet Theater’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, announced the launch of a new multi-year program that will invite female choreographers – one per year for the next three years – to create works for ABT II, a pre-professional company of dancers no older than 20. Funded by Altria Group, Inc, the commissioned works will be performed in NYC and when ABT II goes on tour. In addition, the program will provide training and mentoring workshops to all female members of ABT and ABT II interested in learning about the choreographic process, and will allow them to choreograph works on students in the ABT-affiliated Onassis School and the ABT Summer Intensives.
I applaud ABT for addressing a very valid concern in the ballet world today: the lack of female choreographers. Think of the major “hot” choreographers that ballet companies are eager to have on hand: Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Trey McIntyre, Jormal Elo, to name a few. Not one female name comes to mind (Maybe Twyla Tharp is the exception). Furthermore, the major US ballet companies are all directed by men: Peter Martins at NYCB, Kevin McKenzie at ABT, Peter Boal at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet, and Edward Villella at Miami City Ballet. Although Balanchine declared that “ballet is woman”, men seem to be the ones in charge, artistically and choreographically. Why are there so few women choreographing and directing ballet companies? Are they more focused on their careers as dancers than on creating works? Are there obstacles for aspiring female choreographers similar to the challenges that women face in the non-dance working world? Could it be that women prefer to have men making the artistic decisions? In a Times article published last August, entitled “Often on Point but Rarely in Charge”, Nina Ananiashvili, an ABT principal and director of State Ballet of Georgia, said that it was “more natural” for men to lead, suggesting that they are more assertive, while women are better suited for the stage and becoming the company stars.
I’m not certain about the answers to these questions. Mentoring programs such as this new one at ABT are a step in the right direction, but they certainly won’t get to the root of the problem (and yes, this is not only a concern, as I mentioned above, but also a problem). With regard to publicity, it will be interesting to see how much attention the ABT initiative receives from the media. Perhaps the female choreographers that emerge from this program (and their choreography) will gain attention because the ballet world isn’t used to seeing women’s work on stage. Or, perhaps they’ll receive very little attention because the ballet world is used to, and more accepting of, male choreographers.