Tiler Peck working with choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti, photo by Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet’s spring season, a festival entitled Architecture of Dance, includes an astounding seven new ballets. In fact, the company’s recent print brochures, website, and festival mini-site boasts: “7 new ballets. 4 commissioned scores. 1 renowned architect.” That’s a total of twelve creative voices throughout the eight-week season, not to mention repertory favorites by Balanchine and Robbins. After a winter season of mostly story-length ballets, it’s exciting just thinking about all of the new works that audiences will get to see. But of those twelve creative voices, guess how many are women? Just one. Melissa Barak, a former NYCB dancer, will be choreographing her second work for the company.
Balanchine said “ballet is woman”, and while there are plenty of women on stage at NYCB (they make up 53% of the dancers), the gender imbalance among choreographers, composers, set designers, and artistic directors needs some serious even-ing out. Perhaps the company needs to be more proactive in its search for female artists, but the lack of women is not entirely NYCB’s fault. In fact, it seems to be a widespread problem, with more young women focusing on their careers as ballet dancers rather than anything else.
Christopher Wheeldon rehearsing NYCB dancers, photo by Paul Kolnik
About two years ago I wrote about this issue after learning of a choreography initiative for women at American Ballet Theatre – an admirable effort. In my post I referred to a New York Times article by Claudia La Rocco, “Often on Point but Rarely in Charge”, which investigated the lack of women not only choreographing ballets but also directing ballet companies. While the article factors in the scarcity of men in ballet (making it easier for them to rise through the ranks and explore other interests, such as choreographing), male-female inequalities in executive positions across other industries, and different standards that a board tends to have when judging men and women for artistic leadership positions, it was dismaying to read that even some women prefer to have men do the directing. Barak, however, pointed out, “A lot of girls, especially in ballet, are very shy, very sheltered in a way. I think it has to do with that personality type.”
If choreography were a mandatory class – along with ballet, pointe, partnering, character, etc. – at the School of American Ballet and other schools affiliated with large ballet companies, perhaps it would send a message to young dancers that in addition to being future performers, they can also express themselves and have a voice by creating dance. So many young ballet dancers – and young women, in particular – seem to think that if they can’t make it as a professional dancer, they have no future in the ballet world. Not true. There are other options, like choreographing and directing, that need to be presented as valid careers for both women and men.
Melissa Barak rehearsing NYCB dancers in 2009, photo by Paul Kolnik
Several years ago Dance Magazine started compiling a list of active women choreographers, which continues to grow. While it doesn’t indicate the numbers by genre, I’d guess that the total number working in modern outweighs the number of women who identify as ballet choreographers. Likewise, this graphic shows that in 2002, there were more women than men in artistic or executive director positions at major modern and contemporary dance companies.
No matter how many incredible female dancers are at the top of New York City Ballet and other major ballet companies, it’s still frustrating to see the fields of choreography, composing, and artistic leadership so lacking in women. This is not to say that men in these positions should be criticized, and hopefully this post doesn’t come across as an attack on male choreographers or directors. Rather, my hope is to raise awareness of the gender imbalance. More than fifty years ago, “ballet is woman” probably referred to women performing on stage. In 2010, women’s roles in ballet should be spread evenly across the field, and not be limited to what audiences see on stage.