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For our first Women’s Issue, we chose to profile women who have strong voices as dance artists. That could mean anything from presenting a bold style onstage to engaging with issues of gender in choreography, to working for improved childcare offstage. In the following interviews, you’ll hear from women who have, in one way or another, broken with convention to forge their own paths.
• Artistic Director of Imagery, choreographer in residence at Smuin Ballet, and resident artist at ODC Theater
• Organized “SKETCH 2: The Women Choreographers” at ODC
• San Francisco
Amy Seiwert: “Being in front of the room while creating work is an incredible process. What you learn makes you grow as an artist.” (Photo: Tom Hauck, Courtesy Seiwert)
Interviewed by Stav Ziv
My goal with “SKETCH” is to create a series in San Francisco that happens every summer as a platform to work on risk, specifically with ballet. It’s to encourage choreographers who aren’t sure if their vision will work to take a chance—and we show the results in a small theater. If you try something really far out of your comfort zone and fail, only 500 people see it. But you get to take the value with you. It creates a lab where dance artists can bring intellectual and physical ideas to the table. For the second annual “SKETCH” program, it seemed like a good idea to have a focus and generate conversations about why there are so few women choreographers.
Julia Adam and Gina Patterson were the first two women I called. Julia was my mentor in 2007 in the CHIME program for choreographers and mentorship exchange. Gina was in a piece I did for Ballet Austin that same year, and choreographed on a shared program with me last year at Atlanta Ballet.
As a young boy in ballet, you’re encouraged and you’re going to get a scholarship. But as a female dancer, you have to subjugate your own voice so much—you have to be exactly like the other girls in the corps and match everyone around you. There’s a lack of empowerment that can happen early in developmental years, and it can really hit on your self-esteem. In 19 years as a professional, I danced only one work onstage by a woman.
Advice: There’s a theory that because the competition is so great among women in ballet, we are singly focused on our careers as dancers, as performers. Therefore, when chances to choreograph come up, women often forgo the opportunities. But being in front of the room while creating work is an incredible process. What you learn makes you grow as an artist, and you can carry those lessons with you for the rest of your performing career and beyond.
• Artistic director, Vincent Dance Theatre
• Makes powerful dance theater works with a feminist slant
• Sheffield, England
Left: Aurora Lubos. Right: Charlotte Vincent. (Photo: Left: Hugo Glendinning, Courtesy VDT. Right: Matthew Simpson, Courtesy VDT)
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
I think the more responsibility a company gets, the less women seem to be in charge. It begs the question, Why are women not being supported, or not stepping up to those roles? A lot of it comes down to having children and child care. It’s quite difficult in your mid-30s to make that choice between continuing to grow a company or grow a family.
This is one of the topics that infuses my new work, Motherland. In my own company we take children on tour with us. There are actually two children in the show. We have policies to make it easier for women to come back to work in mid-30s, late ’30s, early ’40s.
I put it in as a budget line to draw attention to it. We bring families over with us from Poland and Costa Rica. But since they are artists I’ve worked with for a long time I am willing to bring them, and invest financial support to allow that to happen. It’s as much a kind of standpoint as anything else.
Aurora Lubos, who has worked with me for 11 or 12 years now, has two children. We will put up her entire family, both when she’s over here in England and on tour.
My business plan for the next three years doesn’t only talk about making work. It talks about mentoring younger, emerging practitioners. It talks about female leadership. We’re going to do a big piece of industry research on that next year. I’m slightly nervous about that because I want to be known as an artist primarily. But as a feminist I’m saying, We need to draw attention to these issues.
To me that image of Aurora [above] is about fertility and how you can be fertile creatively and fertile as a woman. As women it’s too difficult to do both. It’s also about vulnerability, fecundity, and fertility in the broader sense. That image to me is a brighter hope, the hope of having a child that grows up in a different way. It’s also a nod to ecological issues and how we need to start taking responsibility for what we’re doing to our planet—one of which is overpopulating it. That image mashes up all of those contradictions.
Current project: I’m touring the U.K. with Motherland.
• Blends kathak, modern, and West African dance. Her dance/theater solo Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife) explores/deplores the cultural shackles on women of the Indian diaspora.
• Los Angeles
Sheetal Gandhi: “Don’t hide your light to make people happy.” (Photo: Chris Emerick, Courtesy Segerstrom Center)
Interviewed by Komal Thakkar
A lot of women in my family felt they could open up to me, and through those conversations I started to understand the struggles that women in India face, especially newly married women. It broke my heart, and from a very young age, I wanted to do something.
I try to blend the best of the East and the best of the West in my work. Sometimes it’s a struggle determining which part of me is Indian or American and which side I’m expressing. I value the directness of being an American and the fact that it’s acceptable to talk about how you feel. I appreciate the freedom that we as women have in the Western world to choose our mates, and that tradition doesn’t dictate that a woman must make sacrifices in order for her family to thrive. I feel compassion for women who want the same things in India and all over the world but can’t articulate that.
My parents thought I was dancing as a hobby. In their generation back in India, you did art only if you didn’t have the grades to get into more academic fields. They were concerned with how this would look to their community of Indian families. To the adults I had grown up calling aunty and uncle, I had fallen.
I’ve always been interested in many artistic disciplines. I love percussion, dance, vocals, and acting. I wasn’t able to find just one platform where I could convey everything that I wanted, so a combined approach seemed like a natural choice. By delving into each specific character, I’m able to connect to universal themes across cultures.
Current project: I’ll be going to Amsterdam, where I’m presenting Bahu-Beti-Biwi in an intercultural residency, working with women of Indian origin who are dealing with issues of identity. I will also be taking my work to a dance festival in New Delhi.
Advice: Don’t hide your light to make people happy. In general, I feel that women have this instinct to blend in or to harmonize. Sometimes, it prevents their voices from being heard. Stay true to your center.
• Choreographer and filmmaker; founder, Ad Hoc Ballet; dancer with Doug Elkins & Friends
•Known for her comedic ability, is active in the queer community
• New York City
Deborah Lohse at Jacob’s Pillow. (Photo: Rose Eichenbaum)
Interviewed by Amy Brandt
Comedy and tragedy are not as separate as one would think. You can’t have one without the other. In performance, I don’t approach them differently—each is a genuine experience and it is only in each audience member’s perspective if the scale tips towards comedy or tragedy. Also, my dad is a goofball, so I learned from a pro that when you are 5' 10" at age 12, it’s alright to laugh at yourself. Ballet was my saving grace, although there are times when I still move like a baby giraffe.
After I came out, my work became more intimate. It was more about love, generosity—it suddenly had this lightness to it. As I became less concerned with the critics and what I thought I should be making, I reached my truth point, and so my work as a performer, choreographer, teacher, and filmmaker is more honest now, because I’ve become more honest in the way I live my own life. I’ve been told that when I teach, I get students turned on to the potential of being themselves. It is a really beautiful and fulfilling place to live and create from.
When determining if a work is heading in the right direction or if a character is coming from a place of truth, you have to check in with your heart, your gut, and your instincts. Usually the answer is simple, but we tend to confuse those messages with outside commentary—what the audience may say, what the artist next to you might be doing, and the context in which the performance will be shared.
The same is true when questioning one’s sexuality. You have to still the outside thoughts of, What will my family say, or What will my friends do? The fear of no longer being loved shuts down so many, but the reality is that if they aren’t supporting your truth then they aren’t supporting you at all.
Advice: Society is quick to wrap people up in labels and boxes, but know there is a spectrum on which sexuality is expressed, and it is valid to live your love without boundaries. I identify with the queer community, where it is not just about who I love but how I feel and present myself within society, including ideas that challenge heterosexual, hetero-normative, or gender-binary notions. Live your truth beyond labels.
• Dancer/teacher/dancemaker/healer •Developed task dance and ritual, influencing Judson artists Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Trisha Brown. Pioneered nudity in performance in Parades and Changes. At 92, still teaches workshops and leads community rituals at her Mountain Home Studio.
• Kentfield, California
Anna Halprin: “Being in nature helps dancers reconnect to their sensorial abilities.” (Photo: Rose Eichenbaum)
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
It can be a reaffirming experience to work in nature. To appreciate that no matter whether you’re skinny or fat or have a breast missing, like nature, you don’t judge. I’m a cancer survivor. My body is all marked up. I don’t have a normal body. But nature doesn’t judge itself.
Nature is inspiring because it gives you unique ideas that you would never find in the rectangular box of a studio. Right now I’m looking through a window and I see how beautiful the light is, the movement of the leaves on a tree, there’s a nice breeze.
The sensorial aspect of being in nature helps dancers reconnect to their own sensorial abilities. I have students close their eyes and feel their skin change. I ask them, Do you feel the breeze? Do you hear the sounds? When you’re indoors, you don’t feel the sun and the mist. You’re lacking the whole realm of internal sensibility.
Even walking outdoors barefoot, with the feeling of the earth under your feet, your whole sense of balance, sense of texture, and the temperature changes. Those things don’t exist inside. Indoors you can get pure fantasy, but there’s sensorial deprivation.
I live right next to the ocean. Living near nature is normal for me. I’m close to the redwoods. For some dancers, the outdoors is abnormal. For me, the traditional studio is bizarre. What I have in my studio is lots of open windows so you’re constantly aware of nature. I always have the outdoors in my vision. When I perform on a stage, it’s almost traumatic.
Next project: I’m redoing Parades and Changes in February at the Berkeley Art Museum. The dressing and undressing section was an extension of nature.
• Independent choreographer; born in Zimbabwe
• Known for her fiercely political work and powerful rooted physique
• New York City
Nora Chipaumire in Miriam. (Photo: Antoine Tempe, Courtesy MAPP International)
Interviewed by Siobhan Burke
The work that I’m doing right now, Miriam, is partly looking at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the way Conrad shapes the images of women in his novel. I am trying to rebuke what has been a longstanding tradition, a very imperialistic, Victorian point of view of the body. If a white woman’s body was not important, then the African body was even less important—but a necessary body in that it was a place where you could project all of the things you couldn’t do in your proper, civilized, mannered Victorian self.
Africa becomes also a symbol for woman as the unknown. That idea—of woman being this unknown territory upon which all things can be projected, and how women can own that—intrigues me. I have this unknown body, this historical baggage: How can I use that as a weapon, then?
That imperialistic point of view has given me a powerful place to start. I feel like the possibilities are endless: Somebody has said that this is a vast darkness; nobody knows what’s going to emerge. There is an expectation of violence, of sex. How can the female body—my body—take those stereotypes and use them to reshape what femininity is, what woman is, what the African body is, what Africa is? I feel like I am doing a very small thing, using my body to chip away at big ideas that have been around for so long.
In my solo Dark Swan, my retake on The Dying Swan, I feel like I was able to turn a very recognizable idea on its head. Most theater-going people in the West know the Saint-Saëns music and have associations with it, from Pavlova to all the great ballerinas who have danced it. And then there I am, playing with this stereotype of the African woman, sort of buck naked, running around on a zebra or something. I have a tutu but I am bare-breasted, dancing to this classical music. I would say my body is not the dancerly type—I’m not tall, thin, wafer-like, whatever. I’m just a really regular body. So to impose my physicality and my aesthetic onto this very classical notion, along with a humility and humanity that I’m going for, I think often has been very jarring and subversive.
These things are interesting to me: the power of history, of ideas, how they are carried in the body, and how the female body can subvert a lot of these big ideas. Because historically there has been so little expected of the woman’s body other than beauty.
Current projects: Miriam is touring the U.S. and France through July 2013.
Haley Henderson Smith
• First soloist, Ballet West
• At 5’10”, she is the tallest woman in the company; has also performed Penny onstage in Dirty Dancing
• Salt Lake City
Haley Henderson Smith in Balanchine’s Emeralds. (Photo: Erik Ostling, Courtesy Ballet West ©Balanchine Trust.)
Interviewed by Cory Stieg
When I learned partnering at Pacific Northwest Ballet, I didn’t tower over my partners. But I’d grow an inch in a month and I’d trip just walking across the studio. I couldn’t even walk; it was crazy!
I think being tall makes you dance differently. You try to become smaller so you don’t look like the more dominant one in the pair. You don’t feel as feminine when you’re taller—at all!
I don’t think anything comes easier because you’re taller, it’s just more body to move around. I think the advantage is that it looks really beautiful with long lines.
As I’ve done more Balanchine, and come to Ballet West where it’s a taller company, absolutely it’s an advantage. I love that you get to do those roles like Choleric, Diamonds, and Emeralds, those parts that need the tall girls that look so beautiful.
When I went to Ballet San Jose from Royal Danish, they hired Easton Smith to be my partner. He’s 6' 5". That’s how we met [and now he’s my husband]. I suddenly went from just being able to do solos to doing the big pas de deux because he was in the company. From there we’ve been able to go so many places together because we can partner so well because he’s so tall. I’m like 6' 3" on pointe, so I am shorter than him. It’s so nice because the first time he threw me—he’s really tall and really strong—I had never been thrown that high. It was amazing! So much fun! I had always been the one nobody wanted to dance with in partnering class.
At summer intensives, I remember not getting picked for things and wondering why. And then realizing my height was going to play a huge factor in who would hire me and what roles I would get. It’s a question of Do they have anyone who can work with you? when you dance with the other girls. It’s a huge factor in hiring a girl.
I love being able to dance with my husband and being the tallest people onstage. When he throws me and I feel like I’m 30 feet in the air, that’s empowering for sure.
Current roles: Henderson Smith will be performing in the world premiere of Val Caniparoli’s The Lottery this November (see “Quick Q&A,” page 16), as well as in Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero and Helen Pickett’s But Never Doubt I Love. Next April, Henderson Smith will dance the principal ballerina role in Balanchine’s Diamonds.
Advice: A lot of people discourage girls if they’re getting tall and say it’s impossible to get a job if you’re tall. That’s absolutely not true. You just have to work harder and be better than the shorter girls. You have to be the girl that people say, “I don’t care how tall she is, I want her in my company because—look at her.” In the end it pays off because you have the length and the beauty. It’s also about finding your right place in the ballet world.
• Artistic director, Jin Xing Dance Theatre Shanghai
• Transgendered contemporary dancer/choreographer, actress, talk-show host, and pop icon
• Shanghai, China
Jin Xing: “When I was a man, I had a woman’s thinking in my heart, but I was carrying a male’s body.” (Photo: Dirk Bleicker, Courtesy Jin Xing Dance Studio)
Compiled by Emily Macel Theys from various sources
When I’m doing my performance, I drop the gender issue. I’m just a person. When I was a man, I had a woman’s thinking in my heart, but I was carrying a male’s body. Now I’ve become a woman, but I always carry on the stories of men. I’m really privileged because I’ve experienced both worlds. As an artist, it really helps. This is a gift.
I would like to be the type of woman who carves out her own destiny and becomes a princess. I think we all choreograph our lives, in the end—improvising, adapting, trying out new characters and forms, striving to give the best performance we can, until the final curtain falls.
Current project: Premiering a new work titled Different Loneliness Dec. 1 and 2 at Shanghai Oriental Art Centre.
• Independent choreographer, associate director, Keigwin + Company
• Pioneered the “disco ball belly”
• New York City
Nicole Wolcott in her eighth month. (Photo: Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Keigwin + Company)
Interviewed by Wendy Perron
My first trimester I had my own evening at Joe’s Pub, and I wasn’t telling anyone. I was so tired. But I was inspired by women like Colleen Thomas and Rebecca Stenn, who has her own company and two kids. Jenn Nugent danced into her ninth month and then toured with the baby.
When I was pregnant, it was hard to do a double turn. The turns were fine but the stopping was not. I laughed through class; I just couldn’t go down to the floor and come up. It felt like someone was holding me down.
At eight months pregnant, I was in a fundraiser for Larry [Keigwin]—as comic relief. He had the idea of a disco ball belly, so we went into the bead district and found little square mirrors. We put them on my belly, individually with two-sided tape, going from the middle out. At the benefit, I was doing the Rich Man’s Frug. From the back you couldn’t tell, and when I turned around my whole belly was visible. People didn’t think it was real. It was really freakish.
You think you’ll have this little baby who’s sleeping like a little angel. The baby sleeps a lot, but you are never able to get very far into anything before you need to pay attention to that baby again. I take her with me to rehearsals and on tour. I have to find babysitters wherever we go, but the dancers are super supportive. Larry’s like family and he loves her.
Advice to new moms: Contact other dancer moms to build a network of support. Also, measure your ambition. As dancers we often work with “poverty mind,” meaning if we don’t take every offer we think we will fall behind. That thinking will make you crazy as a mom and you will lose the opportunity to enjoy your baby. This time flies and will never return. I know some dancers who can do it all, but I don’t know how. Affordable childcare?