The Burning Question

October 31, 2013

Each month we will be asking key people in the dance field a question that shapes—or plagues—our time. First up: Does gender dictate too much in current choreography? The responses, as you can see, range from moderate to extreme.

Jonathan Fredrickson

Dancer/choreographer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

There once was a wall in dance, dictating movements as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” to each gender—a wall that needed to be torn down. As far as I’m concerned, it’s rubble now.

When watching dance, the audience notices bodies first. How many dancers are present? What do they look like? Who are they? This “who” includes gender. Males and females are different anatomically, they move differently—this can’t be helped. In dance, how a dancer moves dictates what the audience experiences.

As a choreographer, one of the first things I ask myself is, How many men and how many women do I want in this work? What type of community will I build to represent it? Choosing a group of dancers in which men outnumber women, or vice versa, communicates specific things. I don’t give women and men different movement material. I ask them both to work with the same pool of vocabulary, and I do believe that my movement is gender-neutral. I am fully conscious, however, that a phrase I create will look different on women’s and men’s bodies. This can push or pull subsequent decisions, depending on intentions and goals I have for the piece.


Right: Ana Lopez and Johnny McMillan in Fredrickson’s
For the Wandered. Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC

At Hubbard Street, as a dancer, I’m known for learning all of the women’s roles and am occasionally made fun of for this…habit, I guess, although “interest” might be the better word. I have covered a woman’s role before and performed it onstage. Truth be told, sometimes women get better material to dance—I’ve been jealous of women for the roles they’re given to interpret. Of course, any of these could be danced by a man instead, but that exchange would alter the viewer’s experience completely.

Drew Jacoby

Dancer, Nederlands Dans Theater

I’m not your typical swan princess, and some of my physical attributes lean toward androgyny. Typically, I find choreographers not necessarily focusing on the gender of a dancer, but definitely their physicality.

In my experience dancing with Rubinald Pronk from 2007 to 2012, we each possessed qualities prevalent in the opposite gender. Rubi is lithe, lean, cat-like and has a super flexibility most men don’t. I have a strong build, am much taller than the average girl, and tend to excel at powerhouse-type movement more typical in male dancers.

Choreographers like Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Alonzo King took advantage of my more obvious physical traits like strength, edge, legs, and feet. There was never much emphasis on gender, even in a pas de deux. Many times, the man and woman are both supporting each other, and there is rarely a romantic feeling between them.

Choreographers like Leo Mujic and Christopher Wheeldon make abstract work, yet tend to still build a real difference between the male and female dancer. I think that Wheeldon, especially in his duets, develops a tangible relationship between the couple, evoking a romantic relationship. When I started working with Leo Mujic, he would always be on my case about being too much in control and not having soft and vulnerable feminine qualities. This was a real challenge for me…and still is. Both choreographers wanted me in pointe shoes and beautiful dresses.


Right: Lightfoot León’s
Swan Song, with Drew Jacoby and Brett Conway. Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Jacoby


Since joining Nederlands Dans Theater last year and being immersed in Paul Lightfoot and Sol León’s work as well as Jirí Kylián’s, there is a definite separation of male and female roles.

In working with Lightfoot and León, I always feel very much a woman. Sol León really wants you to imagine a character for yourself, even in abstract pieces. She is adamant about seeing my femininity in her work. She always fashions more of a story for the woman, while Paul focuses more on the men.

In some of Kylián’s older work especially, for instance Sweet Dreams and Sarabande, you can see how he uses sexuality and erotica and masculinity/femininity. He highlights the beauty of femininity more than any choreographer I can think of.



Benjamin Millepied

Founding director, L.A. Dance Project; and company director designate, Paris Opéra Ballet

In the work of Petipa and even to some extent Balanchine, the man is there to support the woman. This is the old-fashioned way in ballet. Balanchine idolized women and created a lot with that putting-her-on-a-pedestal quality, but he presented women in strong ways in the more modernist pieces.

For men it’s the same—the godlike look in ballet. Balanchine presents bodies of a certain perfection, but it limits how you can represent people on the stage. With Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, or Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, you see women of all ages, shapes, and sizes. There’s something really wonderful about seeing that diversity.

Alexei Ratmansky choreographs beautifully for men and women, and his dancers feel very free and expressive. Some of his most beautiful parts are for women. He has the ability to capture that with a grace that’s uncanny for a man. He has that in his own dancing, too: He’s a big guy, grounded in Russian male dancing, and at the same time he moves with a kind of grace which is very feminine.


Above: L.A. Dance Project in Millepied’s
Moving Parts. Eric Politzer, Courtesy L.A. Music Center.

All the Israeli choreographers—Emanuel Gat, Hofesh Shechter, Ohad Naharin—they represent the people of that country. The women are so strong, physically.

There’s nothing wrong with depicting something violent or tender, but I don’t like to see choreography that is forced or superficial or sentimental. I sometimes let the women take charge. I don’t want to ever feel like they’re being manipulated and the man is making all the decisions.


Elizabeth Streb

Artistic director of STREB, based in Brooklyn, NY; and author of STREB: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero (Feminist Press)

Whenever I see a pas de deux, I want to yell, “Put her down! She doesn’t need your help.”

As long as people are speaking about gender in just the boy/girl way, you’re not telling my story, meaning my physical story of what it’s like to be alive in the world. In the larger heterosexual context, designating “This is male and this is female” seems to provoke some kind of romantic story, which I find silly. And it doesn’t serve women well; I always feel that the guy wins in the end, one way or another.

It’s probably true that men are stronger in the upper body and women are more flexible in the pelvis. But not for everyone and not at all times. And if it is true that’s because the training system has overloaded someone with what their advantages are to begin with. To expand their range, men have to get stronger and more articulate from the waist down and women have to get just plain stronger from the waist up.


Above: John Kasten and Jackie Carlson of STREB. Antoine Douaihy, Tom Caravaglia Studios, Courtesy STREB.

Because I’m sort of boy-girl, I don’t worry about “Oh am I getting short shrift as a girl in the dance world?” But I do feel that the number of female choreographers and the number of women who run things are very small, and even when they are in charge, they mostly defer to the men.

What do you think?

Send your response to this question—and these points of view—to [email protected].


Headshots, from top: Roel Seeber, Courtesy HSDC; Joris-Jan Bos, courtesy Jacoby; Danielle Oexmann, Courtesy LADP; Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy STREB