The 20th century could—at least in the Western world—be called the Century of the Woman. It was a century of emancipation and universal suffrage, women’s rights, feminism, and, at least on paper, equal opportunity, if not equal wages. But despite any glass ceiling, it was a century of enormous progress for women. This progress was also evident in the arts, particularly dance, which during that very same century happened to be the emergent and rising art form. As Maurice Béjart put it, “In the theater, if the 19th century was the Century of Opera, then the 20th century was the Century of Dance.” During the entire 20th century it was women who were fundamentally the movers and shakers, the pioneers and leaders.
In modern dance—from Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Mary Wigman, and Ruth St. Denis through to Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm—women not only led the field, they actually planted it. One might point to the likes of Ted Shawn, Harald Kreutzberg, and Charles Weidman, and most certainly in the second generation, to Kurt Jooss, José Limón, and Alwin Nikolais. All had their place as modern dance leaders.
Nevertheless, when the dance community thought of modern dance, it thought of Isadora, Miss Ruth, Martha, Wigman (did anyone dare to call her Mary?) and Doris, with the men coming up as the second-violin section.
The picture in classical ballet, as far as pioneering went, was much the same. In Russia, Denmark, and France, where ballet was well established and publicly subsidized before the 20th century, men continued to dominate artistically and organizationally. Although even here, largely as a long-lasting afterglow of 19th-century Romanticism, the stage spotlight remained fixed on the ballerina, that almost fetishist figure of male adoration and female emulation, with her toe shoes and magic tutu.
In English-speaking nations, a remarkable race of women pioneers came along, the likes of Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois in Britain; Catherine Littlefield, Lucia Chase, and Dorothy Alexander in the United States; and later Dulcie Howes in South Africa; Gweneth Lloyd, Betty Farrally, and Celia Franca in Canada; and Peggy van Praagh in Australia. Yes, there were men involved as well! The names Lincoln Kirstein, the Christensen Brothers, even the short-reigned Ballet Theatre founder Richard Pleasant and a few others leap to mind. Yet for the most part women continued to rule the roost.
That was the 20th century. Fast forward to the 21st. The other day I got a press release from the dance department of Barnard College in New York City announcing a special initiative to assist women dancemakers, with the very clear implication that they were an endangered species. I could scarcely believe it. Why was such a thing necessary? Surely here was a gender battle that was long over, if it had ever even started. So what on earth were Barnard College and its estimable dance department complaining about? And then I thought a little more.
OK, Monica Mason and Brigitte Lefevre are doing fine. But had not two other women directors of classical companies, Maina Gielgud, late of both the Australian Ballet and The Royal Danish Ballet, and Anna-Marie Holmes, late of the Boston Ballet, encountered unusual difficulty with heavily male-oriented directorates? And while a woman, determined to test, develop, and ply her craft, can rent a studio and hire some dancers as easily as a man, how many women choreographers in modern dance have really hit the international big time over the past half century? Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown certainly, perhaps Sasha Waltz, and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker; the list is neither enormous nor even indisputable.
And after years—about 180 I would guess since Marie Taglioni—in which women have held the commanding balance on the dance stage itself, that balance is beginning to shift. Male dancers are possibly today a bigger performing attraction than women—largely because nowadays more men are attracted to dance as a profession. Moreover (and this is not male chauvinism asserting itself) the male physique, just as in sports, enables men to be quantitatively superior in sheer physical strength. Put simply, they can jump higher, spin faster, etc. Audiences find this exciting. So is there a new and developing gender gap in dance? I’m honestly not sure. But certainly that press release from Barnard gave me more pause for thought than I would have expected.
Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the
New York Post.