By Jen Peters
27 April 2020
An iconic yet tortured female painter. A mistress wrapped up in a witch hunt in an early American colony. A talented cellist whose life ended prematurely after her battle with multiple sclerosis. These women are a far cry from classical ballet’s standard fare of supernatural fairies, sylphs and swans. But some female choreographers are starting to bring stories like theirs to major ballet stages.
Although narrative ballets have existed almost as long as the form itself, those framed through the female gaze have been historically rare. As contemporary choreographer Pam Tanowitz unapologetically commented in a 2016 New York Times article, “There is the famous quote from Balanchine: ‘Ballet is Woman.’ Well, it’s a woman made by a man.”
Today, there is a thrilling, 21st-century wave of story-driven ballets choreographed by women. What are their perspectives, and the stories they choose to tell, adding to ballet’s canon?
Several women continued to push narrative ballets forward in the 20th century, including Bronislava Nijinska and Dame Ninette de Valois, and the boldly American choreographer Agnes de Mille. Through the rise of abstract ballets in the last 60 years, ballet companies filled choreographic gender gaps with iconic modern and contemporary works by Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp and, more recently, Aszure Barton, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jessica Lang, Crystal Pite and Pam Tanowitz.
But their contributions, by and large, were not story ballets, and it has only been in recent years that new narrative works have seen a resurgence in popularity—due in no small part to conventional box office wisdom that stories sell tickets.
This goes hand in hand with the push for the appearance of gender equity in commissions. In recent years, ballet companies have publicly committed to filling the need for female choreographers through incubator initiatives and programming. (Also not to be overlooked: More women are directing major companies than ever before.) While there are still fewer women than men commissioned to choreograph narrative ballets, the statistics are shifting as companies reevaluate the voices being offered opportunities.
Put together these two trends—the renewed popularity of narrative works and the need for companies to be seen commissioning more women—and you have the formula for female-choreographed story ballets.
Read the full article on Dance Magazine’s blog.