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Are ballet companies different when led by a female artistic director?
Before becoming its artistic director, Karen Kain danced for every director in National Ballet of Canada's history, then staged ballets, did fundraising and observed the administrative offices under her predecessor James Kudelka. But she wasn't ambitious for the top job. Although she had a strong female role model in founder and first director Celia Franca, Kain says she didn't have huge confidence in her own management abilities. “I may have been naïve, but back then I was happy to be learning and to support James," says Kain. “I didn't necessarily think he was grooming me."
While ballet has always put a premium on female dancers, until recently few companies looked to women for the leading job. But there are some exciting changes today, from major appointments like Julie Kent at The Washington Ballet, to international ones like Aurélie Dupont at Paris Opéra Ballet and regional ones like Hope Muir at Charlotte Ballet. Will having more female directors have an impact on the field? Of course, leadership qualities vary from woman to woman. But many female directors share a history of creative perseverance, which can give them a desire to listen and learn from the limits placed on them. Besides acting as role models, these women often bring a more open-minded management style to an industry infamous for its stiff hierarchical history.
A Wealth of Experience
Lourdes Lopez at Miami City Ballet. Daniel Azoulay, Courtesy MCB
For decades, former ballerinas watched as principal men transitioned straight into artistic directorships, often without any outside job experience in-between, while the few exceptional women who made it usually did so with dazzling and varied resumés. The result is that most women who helm companies right now arrived with finely tuned visions. For example, when Lourdes Lopez took the reins of Miami City Ballet in 2012, she'd spent time reporting on the arts for television, managing The George Balanchine Foundation as its executive director and co-founding the contemporary ballet company Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon. Virginia Johnson founded Pointe magazine (Dance Magazine's sister publication) before relaunching Dance Theatre of Harlem's company. Dorothy Gunther Pugh of Ballet Memphis earned a degree from Vanderbilt University and a fellowship from the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
Victoria Morgan at Cincinatti Ballet. Matthew William, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet
“At one time, the few women running ballet companies of some size in America—Victoria Morgan, Stoner Winslett and myself—we all had college degrees, which was sort of unusual for artistic directors anywhere," says Pugh. “Did we have a different inclination from men that made us want a different toolset to enter that world? I don't know, but I was interested in so many things and knew I needed to be a leader."
Emily Molnar at Ballet BC. Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC
Likewise, Emily Molnar felt the pull of leadership early on, but spent 10 years exploring various artistic management opportunities first: She ran a youth company, and worked as a solo artist and freelance choreographer. She feels these outside experiences influence the way she directs her dancers at Ballet BC today. “I am not interested in a top-down or fear-based structure," she says. After organizing a retreat for her dancers recently, Molnar has begun to ask them more about what they need and how they can contribute to the company. “Who wants to teach? Who wants to choreograph? Who wants to lead? We sat together, not producing work but discussing the vision they have for themselves and for the company," says Molnar. “Innovation comes not only from the stage but also the culture in which we make the work."
An Eye for Diversity
Virginia Johnson at DTH. Quinn Wharton for Pointe
Because they know the so-called glass ceiling so intimately, many female directors are serious about fostering diversity in ballet. For instance, Johnson is reinvigorating DTH with “Women Who Move Us," an initiative aimed at fostering new work by female choreographers of diverse backgrounds. At English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo recently presented a triple bill by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Aszure Barton and Yabin Wang, provocatively titled “She Said."
Since arriving at Grand Rapids in 2010, Patricia Barker has brought 50 works into the repertoire, more than half of them by women, including Ochoa's first full-length ballet. “The previous director was a choreographer and he took all of his work with him, which left nothing in the repertoire," she explains. Barker has embraced the agility of being a small company not bogged down by tradition. “The dancers have flourished by doing so many different works, and as a regional company, I want to provide the audience with a wide spectrum."
For Pugh, programming begins by considering the Memphis community. “We don't just say, 'Oh my gosh, we need a woman on the bill.' The program is set up around ideas we want to have a conversation about," she says. “Next fall we will chew on the ideas behind romantic and classical ballet, exploring the characteristics of these ballets while looking at both gender and racial imbalances."
A Nurturing Leadership Style
Whether or not they become mothers, women are often brought up to have more nurturing qualities. Yet, ballet remains a demanding field filled with tough choices and direct conversations. Stereotype or not, dancers often find women use greater empathy in their language and approach.
For Molnar, solving any difficult personnel puzzle is about having a deeper conversation surrounding artistic fulfillment. “Is someone happy? Are they inspired? Do they want to be in the studio?" asks Molnar. She resists referring to company members as girls or boys, believing it is important to treat her dancers as accountable, self-directed women and men.
Dorothy Gunther Pugh at Ballet Memphis. Carla McDonald, Courtesy Ballet Memphis
“I always get a variety of opinions when I am giving feedback," says Kain. “I try to be sensitive to my relationship to the person—how much trust we have and how much they can accept what I am saying." Pugh agrees: “Never mind HR rules, you have to understand that young artists are vulnerable and be kind first. They might not be able to see what you see."
This type of compassion can help to maintain the health of organizations in trouble or transition. “A lot of times, directors come in and they really want to change a company," says Jeanette Delgado, principal dancer with MCB who spent much of her career under the direction of Edward Villella. “But Lourdes was so thoughtful about how the transition would affect everyone and so it has been a gradual shift instead of a storm." In the studio, the company has adjusted to a new way of working. “Lourdes is more thought-oriented—she takes her time to break phrases apart, she really asks us to think," says Delgado. “Edward was more about the energy and the attack, but Lourdes invites us into a more pensive process."
Patricia Barker at Grand Rapids Ballet. Courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet
The effects these women have had are promising. While Barker has grown both the size of Grand Rapids Ballet and its stature (with more than 400 dancers showing up to this year's open audition), both Ballet Memphis and Miami City Ballet have recently toured to New York City to much acclaim. Kain recently celebrated her tenth year with a healthy company of 76 dancers. And a new generation is growing up under the influence of these powerful women.
“It makes me excited that, for the younger generation of dancers starting with Lourdes, the gender issue isn't even a thing," says Delgado. “They don't realize it wasn't always the way it is now. I always thought ballet mistress was the next step, but now there is this spark of possibility."
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.