Can We All Please Acknowledge Ballet's Sexism Problem Already?
On Friday, The New York Times posted an article to its website titled "A Conversation With 3 Choreographers Who Reinvigorated Ballet," a joint interview with Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. It's a delightful conversation at first, veering from process to style to musical choices—delightful, that is, until a question about the dearth of female choreographers in classical ballet arose.
Screenshot via nytimes.com
These responses range from sort-of-passable (Peck at least acknowledges the need for systemic changes) to worrisome (Wheeldon's apparent bafflement) to troubling (Nijinska? Seriously?). In a word, problematic.
The issue Roslyn Sulcas raises here is not news. We know that there are far, far fewer women choreographers than men in the ballet world. We know that a small group of white men (who are, to be fair, fantastic choreographers) largely dominates the field in terms of consistent international impact.
Justin Peck. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.
In fact, it's slightly absurd that in 2017, we feel it's cause for celebration when Cincinnati Ballet programs a season equally split between works by men and women, or when New York City Ballet commissions two works by women choreographers for their fall gala for a second year in a row. Even allowing for the reality that the comments from Peck, Wheeldon and Ratmansky are from an excerpted, edited interview in which printing space is at a premium, even allowing that it was a relatively informal conversation, even allowing that it is an extremely complex issue—even then, these three men could, and should, have done better.
Earlier today, Luke Jennings, who writes on dance for The Guardian and The New Yorker, tweeted this response:
Screenshot via Twitter.
And with that, Twitter went mad. NYT chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay laid out a seven point rebuttal critiquing Jenning's response, then parlayed with Jennings on several of the points. Other NYT dance writers also chimed in, as did notable critics from other publications and a number of Dance Magazine contributors. The threads quickly became sprawling.
Christopher Wheeldon in rehearsal. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet
Meanwhile on Instagram, a flurry of heated comments resulted from NYT and DM contributor Siobhan Burke posting an image of the three responses in question. Choreographer Annie-B Parson simply chimed in with, "Haha. I can speak to this #erasure #beenthere."
Obviously, this is a far, far more complex problem than can be fully discussed in a 140 character tweet or a sharply worded comment on Instagram, or even in an interview like the one that launched this entire conversation. And that's just the thing: We need more conversation, we need more collaborative effort, and we need to stop shrugging and pointing to dance history as though one Bronislava Nijinska makes up for all of the other voices we might still be missing in the ballet world today without systemic change. It's happening—however slowly—and we'd much prefer it if the men who are currently dominating the field can take a step back, acknowledge the power they have and use it to move the conversation forward.
So a message for Peck, Wheeldon and Ratmansky: We love your work. Now do better.
UDPATE (Apr. 25): Alexei Ratmansky shared this post on Facebook, giving more context to the question. He also calls for deeper conversation on the topic.
Screenshot via Facebook.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you: