Cover Story
Dance Magazine's December 2018 cover girl: Adji Cissoko. Photographed by Jayme Thornton

Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.

"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."

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Karen Kain at National Ballet of Canada. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy NBoC.

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."

The Results

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."

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Despite calls for change, ballet’s obsession with extreme thinness persists.

During a recent performance of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a corps member at a prominent company complained that she was so hungry she thought she’d faint. The dancer next to her started to worry that she herself wasn’t hungry enough. “In shape for us is being hungry,” she said later on. “Eat nothing and see how far you can go.”

Although most professional ballet dancers are naturally slender, having been selected at a young age for advanced training partly for their physique, even those with genetics on their side can be made to feel their bodies aren’t good enough. Dancers interviewed on the condition of anonymity confide that weight gain can get them fired while thinness can help them advance. Even though the field has made progress, and has become more aware of the health risks of dieting, directors having “fat chats” to tell dancers to slim down remains routine.

Roots of the Trend

Ballet has long idealized a sylphlike physique. The fixation on thin became amplified in the 1960s when Balanchine’s preference for long and lean ballerinas promoted a thin aesthetic that influenced other companies worldwide. Often, those who perpetuate unrealistic body standards today are former dancers who came of age during his reign.

Calling Out The Problem

At ballet’s first-ever international conference on eating disorders, hosted by Dance UK in London in 2012, former Royal Ballet artistic director Monica Mason spoke out against ballet’s emphasis on thin dancers. “Any director of a company who said they have never had an anorexic dancer would have to have been lying,” she stated.

Since then, ballet companies around the world, admittedly some quicker than others, have begun to heed the call for change. Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo declared her determination to instill a healthy body image among her dancers when she took the reins of English National Ballet in 2012. The following year, The Royal Ballet created the Mason Healthcare Suite, where health and well-being programs ensure that no dancer feels a need to starve themselves to succeed.

The Consequences

Scientific evidence shows that emaciated dancers are unable to sustain the demands of today’s athletic choreography. “Extreme thinness often leads to individuals cannibalizing their protein stores, which results in losses in strength and power, and, in my experience, increases their chances of injury, particularly stress fractures,” says American Ballet Theatre physical therapist Peter Marshall.

One dancer fired for her curves says that while dieting, she lost focus, endurance and emotional stability. For many, slimming down means resorting to dangerous behaviors, including starvation, purging and addictions to appetite suppressants like tobacco or other substances. In 1997, Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, dealing with an eating disorder, died at age 22; in 2012, Italian dancer Mariafrancesca Garritano publicly accused La Scala and its academy of turning a blind eye to the culture of eating disorders causing infertility among her fellow dancers.

What’s Changed?

By some accounts, these efforts appear to be working. A 2014 study found that multifaceted wellness programs adopted by ballet companies in Britain and elsewhere actively support the physical and mental health of dancers.

Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that not all companies follow the guidelines the same way. One dancer reports that her company’s on-site nutritionist counsels her how to get thin by giving her recipes for meals with less than 300 calories. Although we’re giving dancers tools for so-called safe weight-loss, the emphasis is still on conforming to an unnaturally skinny ideal.

Directors’ Values

Fortunately, artistic directors are declaring themselves more open to different body types. Current Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare, for example, says his company values individuality and stage presence over any set shape. “Being a dancer is not about denial but about strength and vigor,” he says.

National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain refutes the suggestion that her company is skinny-obsessed. “I do not hire overly thin dancers or those with eating disorders,” she says. “The dancers of the NBoC are highly trained elite athletes who would never be able to perform every night after training and rehearsing during the day if they weren’t the most powerful and fit that they could be. These dancers have plenty of rippling muscles, which they would not have if they were overly thin.”

Emily Molnar of Ballet BC also emphasizes her dancers’ strength. “Don’t get me wrong. Ballet is a visual art form, so we’re not talking about anything goes here,” she says. “But exciting to me is to witness a woman onstage, as opposed to a girl, who is comfortable in her own skin and who has a confident voice, displaying the virtuosity of her training and the full expression of her artistry.”

Ballet still has a long way to go, but it’s encouraging that so many in the field are calling for change. “Dance should celebrate our humanity,” says Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, “and not be an artificial ideal imposed upon us by individuals frightened by what constitutes the natural shapes of the feminine physique.” 

Jenifer Ringer with Jared Angle in The Nutcracker. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

How Do We Move Forward?

Former New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer wrote about her battle with eating disorders in her 2014 book, Dancing Through It. We asked her why ballet continues to insist on an unnatural aesthetic for women, and she shared her thoughts:    

Unfortunately, our entire culture right now glorifies extreme thinness. As a mother, I dread the day when my children learn that people will judge them on their appearance. Art can be a critical commentary on culture, but it can also display a culture at its extreme, and I think in ballet we see the continuation of today’s radically low weight-standard of beauty for women. Look at any television pilot episode and if the series gets picked up, all of the actresses come back 10 pounds lighter. Look at almost every ad in magazines or on bus stops and you see impossible examples of skinniness as beauty.

Ballet is a visual, voiceless art form where the line of the body is crucial and under a great deal of constant scrutiny, not only from the audience and the artistic powers-that-be, but also from the dancers themselves. In order to change the unnatural thinness in ballet, the entire field would need to buy into the change. While I have heard many stories of directors demanding lower weights from their dancers, I have also heard countless dancers criticizing themselves and their colleagues for being “overweight.” Balletomanes in the audience can often, sadly, be just as damagingly critical. I used to have complete strangers approach me on the street to talk about my weight fluctuations, whether up or down, as if they thought what they said would not hurt me deeply. They saw me as an object, not a person.

There are dancers out there “breaking the mold,” but I can pretty much guarantee that they did not set out to challenge the ballet world on its weight standards; the daily struggle for these dancers to succeed and maintain positive self-confidence is a battle they probably would have preferred not to fight.

Yes, ballet is elite and often ethereal. Of course ballet dancers have to be fit, have to be lean and honed with the precision of training to be able execute athletically physical feats. The dancer’s body is her instrument and it needs to be kept in top condition not only for strength but also for appearance. And that appearance does require a certain thinness in the ballet world, a uniform of sorts. But thin for one body type is emaciated for another, and different body types should be equally appreciated as each dancer finds a level of fitness and leanness that is healthy for her. This can happen when dancers are seen as empowered individuals whose movement quality and artistry are given more value than their weight.

Ballet dancers are not collections of bones and muscles moving from one beautiful pose to the next. Dancers move because they need to, and they move to bring an audience out of themselves and to show people what music looks like. Ballet should display the best that any human body—no matter its type—can do: huge physical acts of strength and stamina linked together and combined with artistry to create a moment of art. This moment exists while that beautiful human body is dancing, then ends when both the music and the body are finally still.

And then the applause can begin. — Jenifer Ringer

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