The ballet world is still male-dominated, research shows
By Elizabeth “Liza” Yntema
This article originally appeared on the Women’s Media Center website.
The great choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet is woman.” But an overwhelming majority of top jobs in classical dance on both the artistic and executive side are held by men, and the artistic vision presented — to a female-dominated audience — is similarly male, including re-treads of sexist stereotypes and an alarming number of ballets that include scenes of sexual violence and degradation.
I founded Dance Data Project four years ago to document and raise awareness about the lack of opportunities for female choreographers as well as the gender imbalance in artistic and administrative leadership in dance organizations. Our research has found that women hold only three of the artistic director jobs in the largest 10 companies in the U.S. (their combined revenue of $435 million exceeds the next 40 combined by approximately $125 million). Despite the fact that girls outnumber boys 20 to one and pay most of the fees in ballet schools, and despite the audience and donor base being 70% women, female artistic directors are paid 68 percent of what their male counterparts earn. The imbalance is even more pronounced when it comes to what you see on stage. For the 2018–2019 and 2019–2020 seasons of work in the top 50 ballet companies in the U.S., a stunning 81% and 79% (respectively) of work is choreographed by men.
In 2018–2019, 70% of entire evening programs are exclusively male, and in the upcoming season 62% are — in other words, an exact inverse proportion of audience and donor base to works seen on stage. Eighty-three percent of the most prestigious pieces, full evening ballets, will be by men.
I started DDP because as an audience member and a donor, I couldn’t fathom why all the works I saw were male, why the leadership and commissions and even the panels of experts at company pre- and post-show discussions I have attended featured men only. I sat at a dinner not too long ago, and every single choreographer in a long list mentioned as important, a worthy inspiration for the men on stage, was another man.
Why should we care? Well, ballet globally is a multibillion-dollar industry. In the U.S., tens of thousands of girls and women go off to class, perhaps only a few times, many on an almost daily basis. They are being trained in a culture that enforces compliance, silence, and unquestioning submission to authority. And ballet is just one art form that perpetuates an “impresario” system with little accountability or transparency, and almost no recourse for victims of discrimination or violence. Opera, symphonies, and theater have also been plagued by lack of opportunities for women (especially women and girls of color) and violence against the vulnerable.
Ironically, it was women who originally were the powers in ballet in the United States. As Sharon Basco noted in her 2015 article “Where Are the Women in Ballet?” of the eight ballet companies launched in 1963 with a $7.7 million Ford Foundation grant, most were helmed by women who were ballet school directors. As the budgets grew, however, the women have been pushed out. That is now true even at ballet schools as salaries have risen. When I asked Alexei Moskalenko, assistant artistic director of the Youth America Grand Prix, why the overwhelming majority of the judges at the prestigious international scholarship competition are male, he said, “Well, that is because all the big ballet schools are run by men.”
Figures indicate declining and aging audiences for classical dance (a study by the Wallace Foundation found that only 3% of millennials had seen a classical ballet performance in the previous 12 months) and a real audience appetite for works by and the vision of women. Yet, the system is self-referential, with the hiring for plum commissions doled out on a who-knows-whom basis that reinforces an old boys’ network unchecked by outside rigor or opinions.
In giving the keynote address at Positioning Ballet 2019, the second Ballet Working Conference, an international symposium in the Netherlands, Theresa Ruth Howard, the founder and curator of MoBBallet (Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet), recommended a “12-step recovery program” for ballet, noting toxic ballet culture in which multiple reports of violence against women and lack of opportunities for leadership have been ignored. Howard, as so many critiques have detailed, cited a hierarchal system that enforces unquestioning obedience, particularly from women.
That certainly resonates with my experience. It is commonplace to hear artistic directors of the largest, most influential companies freely opine publicly that women cannot be choreographers, for the most risible, blatantly illogical reasons, including “Women don’t want to choreograph, they just want to have babies and dance” (told to me at a company fundraiser) or this gem from a recent gala, reported by a woman well known for her advocacy for women in finance: “Women cannot choreograph because they are used to being lifted on stage, so they cannot see what’s going on behind them.” Nope, not making it up. Alexei Ratmansky, who as the in-house choreographer for American Ballet Theatre has immense influence, stated on Facebook in 2017 that there is no equality in ballet, and he is fine with that, it is simply part of the tradition and the way things are.
There are some notable and encouraging exceptions in the big companies. An extraordinary and unprecedented 100% of world premieres announced this summer to be featured in American Ballet Theatre’s 2019–2020 season will be work choreographed by women. ABT stands alone among the big companies by investing so heavily in new work. ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie has made a multiyear, multilevel commitment to bringing new voices to the stage by working with female choreographers from every level — black box short pieces to full evening main stage productions. This alleviates the anxiety I have heard from so many female choreographers that if they don’t hit it out of the park every single damn time, they will never work again.
However, the most innovative work, which will keep classical dance relevant and younger audiences excited, is being done outside of the big companies, by the second companies in big cities or by regional ballets staging more interesting “contemporary ballet” by women. Smaller companies led by women — BalletX in Philadelphia (Christine Cox), the Cincinnati Ballet (Victoria Morgan) and Dayton Ballet (Karen Russo Burke), the extraordinary Amy Seiwert at Sacramento Ballet, the 40-year veteran Stoner Winslett of Richmond Ballet, as well as newcomer Hope Muir in Charlotte — are producing great work to enthusiastic audiences.
Dance Data Project’s July report did find an encouraging trend: Women are obtaining more commissions to create for the shorter, mixed repertory programs in top 50 companies. Thirty-eight percent of single-act world premieres announced to date for the 2019–2020 season will be by women. In the past season, 2018–2019, 45% of the non–main-stage world premieres were choreographed by women. But both trends underline what dance scholar, Barnard Professor Lynn Garafola has noted: that companies are unwilling to trust women with big, expensive productions.
But to really address disparity in leadership in ballet, we need to change how girls in ballet are encouraged to think of themselves: not as fungible automatons, but as future artists. Eva Stone, who has been a teacher and choreographer for 30 years, persuaded Peter Boal, the artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet, to start an intensive in choreography for 14- to 16-year-old girls. Programs like these are critical because girls become serious about ballet at about the same time that they stop speaking in class: a double cultural whammy. And in a lovely gesture, completely upending typical ballet norms, Boal offered up his own choreography to the class for critique and feedback.
So what can we do?
Female audiences, donors, and students continue to support an art form that routinely marginalizes women in all respects. The best chance for real change is for audiences to insist on equity, and to invest their money in companies that are paying women fairly, hiring more women in leadership positions, and showcasing the work of women choreographers. Even female board members who are senior executives at banks and venture capital and accounting firms with active diversity programs often don’t push back. One exception is Alison Quirk, a member of the board of trustees of Boston Ballet. She and another female board member advocated for the establishment of ChoreograpHER at Boston Ballet, a program that showcases choreography by female company members.
Ballet is behind the times and tone deaf. It’s not going to change unless those of us sitting in the seats, board members, critics, and audiences force it to do so. If you want to make an affirmative effort to support female artists, here are some names, besides Twyla Tharp, to look for: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Jessica Lang, Crystal Pite, Helen Pickett, Pam Tanowitz, Melissa Barak, Amy Seiwert, Gemma Bond, Gianna Reisen, Lauren Lovette, Stephanie Martinez, Toni Pimble, Celia Fushille, Virginia Johnson, Penny Saunders.
Liza would like to note that Celia Fushille, Virginia Johnson, and Toni Pimble are three artists she would move up from the “names to look for” list at the end of this Op-Ed and relocate to the paragraph detailing female artistic directors. (See paragraph beginning with, “However, the most innovative work, which will keep classical dance relevant and younger audiences excited, is being done outside of the big companies, by the second companies in big cities or by regional ballets…”.
These women are leading extraordinary companies and initiatives. Celia Fushille leads Smuin Ballet, which was founded by a man but now heavily supports the addition of female work. A founding member and principal dancer-turned-artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Virginia Johnson is also a leading advocate for African-American girls (and boys) entering the ballet world. Toni Pimble leads Eugene Ballet with major inclusion of female work (much of it her own), setting a standard for companies of the same size in the U.S. to commission more women and level their ratio of male v. female work in every season.
See the Op-Ed online at Women’s Media Center.