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If “Ballet is Woman,“ where are the women choreographers?

The bALLet initiative is celebrating the choreographic work of women and drawing attention to the gender disparity in leadership

By Kristen Akey

“Ballet is Woman,” said the famous choreographer George Balanchine. This statement may have seemed – and perhaps still does seem – valid to many, as classical ballet is often associated with tutus, satin pointe shoes, and tightly pulled back manes of hair, as well as pink tights, light music, and graceful leaps. The large number of girls active in ballet and its stereotypically feminine associations have made it appear to be an art form mainly for and dominated by women.

While the numbers indicate ballet schools are made up overwhelmingly of girls, what Balanchine and many others today fail to consider are the important structural and power dynamics that restrict women in ballet from ever being fully autonomous, creative, and, most notably, visible leaders in their field.

Ballet leadership – which is made up of artistic directors and choreographers – in America remains primarily male. Among 15 of the largest companies – defined as those with the greatest operating budgets – only Miami City Ballet and Washington Ballet have a female artistic director. Not only do major ballet companies lack representation in artistic leadership, but the gender diversity of choreographic works also continues to suffer.

In the 2018-2019 season, 81% of ballet performances produced were choreographed by men, while only approximately 17% were created by women, according to the Dance Data Project. Even among companies doing the ‘best’ in featuring more female choreographed works, only three out of the 50 largest companies’ repertoire had a majority of female choreographed pieces. Therefore, despite the large number of women in ballet, this shows the lack of showcased female works and leaders.

“In the 2018-2019 season, 81% of ballet performances produced were choreographed by men, while only approximately 17% were created by women”

So why are ballet companies not performing choreographic pieces by women?

There are several reasons why there continues to be such a large gender gap in ballet choreography. One reason is that, historically, full-length ballets and works were primarily choreographed by only men. For example: George Balanchine, Marius Petipa, Fredrick Ashton, Gerald Arpino, Jerome Robbins, and William Forsythe have become icons in the ballet world. Any company that wishes to perform the traditional version of ​Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, ​or ​Romeo or Juliet​, will be performing the choreography of these men. Additionally, ballet companies know these works will draw in large crowds and please wealthy donors. The traditional works of ballet, which are all choreographed by men, are financially safe as well as reliably popular for ballet companies.

Another reason is the organizational structure of ballet restricts female dancers. As Joan Acker suggests, all institutions are gendered and structurally designed to create a hierarchy which often confines women into isolated, quiet, and submissive roles. Women also quickly recognize how competitive their positions are and how easily they can be replaced, causing them to do everything they can to ’fit in’". This requires girls to be obedient, silent, and conforming, and also affects how women manage their time – as many ballets are structured to have women performing more than men – spending more time in rehearsal and on stage, and ultimately giving women less time to explore dance creatively.

In comparison, men are often given greater freedom and are institutionally supported. They have more autonomy and time to develop their artistic voices early on in their training and careers, while the current structure of ballet restricts many women, inhibiting their creative growth and opportunity for experimentation.

Many of the reasons preventing women from becoming or being supported as choreographers in ballet are due to long-lasting, institutional problems. These, as well as economic barriers, have also caused a lack of racial diversity and accessibility in the industry, and a lot more work needs to be done.

“Many of the reasons preventing women from becoming or being supported as choreographers in ballet are due to long-lasting, institutional problems”

There is a dire need now more than ever to work towards ensuring more women choreographers are supported, their works are performed, and there is greater artistic representation by women and minorities in ballet. Ballet needs to begin addressing the institutional barriers it imposes and hire and promote a more diverse community of choreographers.

Without choreographed ballets by women, audiences are missing their perspective. Artists create from their personal experiences and sensibilities, and when women’s works are not represented, audiences are left with one (male) viewpoint. There is also a lack of artistic diversity when the work of women, gender minorities, and marginalised identities are left concealed, which has the potential to affect how individuals respond and relate to ballet.

Gender equality within and outside of the ballet world can not be reached without more women choreographic works being performed and supported. The blatant divide of creativity and leadership in ballet makes it impossible for women’s voices to be equally heard or respected, and ultimately, needs to change for the development of ballet and women’s representation in the industry. With the many institutional barriers keeping women from being successful choreographers in ballet, there is no better time than now to promote, support, and encourage women choreographers in ballet.

Follow the bALLet initiative, a platform that promotes the choreographic work of women and draws attention to the gender disparity in ballet choreography and leadership

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