19 October 2020
By Emmaly Wiederholt
An Interview with Elizabeth Yntema and Isabelle Vail at the Dance Data Project®
Dance Data Project® is a nonprofit that promotes gender equity in classical ballet through data analysis, advocacy, and programming. It was founded in 2015 by Elizabeth Yntema as an independent project to address the gender disparity she witnessed at the most lucrative level of the dance world – top ballet companies. Isabelle Vail joined Dance Data Project® in 2017 and now serves as its director of research and development. Here, Elizabeth and Isabelle discuss why assessing ballet companies’ gender inequity through data analysis is key to addressing the issue and changing the field.
How did Dance Data Project® begin?
Elizabeth: I had been involved in a lot of different charity and philanthropy work in Chicago and was successful in raising money for different causes. I eventually joined the board of Hubbard Street Dance and ran their gala before moving over to the board at Joffrey Ballet and running their gala. I began to question raising money for all-male productions. It wasn’t just male choreographers and artistic directors; I wouldn’t see any set, lighting or costume designers who were female. I started to ask questions about why there aren’t more women choreographers. I wasn’t getting any good reasons, but I was hearing inconsistent rationales like, “This isn’t really a problem because the company was started by a woman,” even though that woman departed this earth 30 or 40 years ago. I started doing research and found some reporting on the problem at the NY Times and NPR, but nothing consistent. Amy Seiwert, who until recently was the artistic director of Sacramento Ballet, looked at one season’s worth of data, but the work hadn’t been repeated. I realized that if I was going to make the case that there weren’t enough women in leadership positions, I was going to have to start gathering data.
Isabelle: This was back in 2015 when Liza was operating the project from her kitchen table. She and another woman, Susan West, started building a database, looking at mostly prominent ballet companies around the world on a platform called Airtable, which is an interactive database. They were taking down the names of works being programmed and linking them to different companies and choreographers.
I came on to Dance Data Project (DDP) as an intern to help clean up that database. We realized we needed to condense the data into reports. Simultaneously, Liza was getting DDP incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit. When we became a nonprofit in 2019, we realized we needed to zoom into the data and start producing reports on different aspects of the data. We published our first leadership report in 2019.
Elizabeth: As Isabelle was saying, DDP started out simple but what we have been attempting to do is to look at the economy of ballet through different lenses. It’s a very big business. One of the things that impedes critical analysis of this art form is the lack of hard data.
Isabelle, what drew you to this work?
Isabelle: I grew up in very small regional dance schools, so my training was rooted in seeing women in the front of the room and admiring them. I wanted to emulate not only their technique, but also their leadership. When I would go away and train in the summer, the people in charge of the programs were men. I didn’t think much about it when I was young; that’s just how things were.
When I went to college, I started exploring more feministic approaches to ballet and realized there’s a disparity in the industry. When I met Liza, she completely blew my mind. Looking at a database full of male names clarified for me how women were at the front of the room in small regional companies that didn’t have much sway in the dance world, but at huge multi-million dollar ballet institutions, there were few women leaders. As I was realizing this, Liza was simultaneously establishing DDP as a nonprofit, so it became less a research hypothesis and more of a legitimate question that could change the dance world. My awareness grew with the organization until it became something I could no longer ignore.
Can you give an overview of what Dance Data Project® does?
Isabelle: DDP started out by looking at companies and their programming and leadership, and that remains the core part of our research. We publish our annual leadership report, which looks at artistic and executive director pay, as well as our annual programming reports, which take the form of a first-look report based on season announcements, and then we take a look at the whole season in our season overview. That’s produced after the season has happened and more data is available. For example, a company might announce an all-female program at the start of the season but don’t have the choreographers or pieces lined up, so that data is preliminary.
We recently branched out into our first global study, which looks at resident choreographers. We also study dance venues, where we look at the programming at various venues like The Joyce Theater in New York City or The Fox Theatre in Atlanta. We also have reports that look at dance festival leadership and programming as well as ballet company boards of directors and trustees. It’s a very comprehensive look at the industry at this point.
How do you see Dance Data Project® evolving or expanding in the future?
Elizabeth: The sky is the limit; I never thought we’d get as far as we have. That being said, I’d like some funding. External validation is great, but I’m going to continue with or without it. What we’ve found most fruitful are academic partnerships, so we’re going to continue to pursue those.
We’d like to broaden into more global surveys and studies if possible. But there’s so much more to be done just in teasing out how big this industry really is. One thing we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on is providing resources, something we didn’t foresee when we first started. We’re constantly producing new resources in response to the pandemic and economic dislocation. We’d like to be able to do more of that.
I’d also like to see more long-term study and engagement on how girls are taught ballet, perhaps with an academic element looking at the messaging girls are receiving and how the pedagogy and culture in ballet can be changed.
Isabelle: Liza always said that if we produced the numbers, we’d start to see a huge shift in ballet. We’ve seen some incremental shift, but we now realize how change revolves around deliberate tangible engagement. Since our launch, we’ve gone around to companies and advocated face to face. I think that’s going to drive the change going forward, like producing resources that choreographers and others in the field can use to make it more equitable.
Right now, our priority is really publishing more research, using that research to advocate, and making the change happen ourselves.
Read the full article on Stance on Dance.