"Where is the Next Voice?" A New Gender Equity Initiative in a Storied Arts Niche

 photo:  bezikus /shutterstock

photo: bezikus/shutterstock

Strange as it may sound, despite the large number of women in the dance field, relatively few contemporary ballet troupes present works by female choreographers.

A new initiative courtesy of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) hopes to change that.

This spring, ABT announced a multi-year initiative called Women's Movement to support the creation and the staging of new works by at least three female choreographers. Each choreographer will work with her respective group of dancers for a two- to five-week period, receiving guidance and feedback from ABT’s artistic staff. 

The announcement comes at a time in which arts funders have been giving more to boost gender parity in fields like classical composition and the cinematic arts. And as far as the field of ballet choreography is concerned, data suggests there is much work to be done.

In 2016, the New York City Ballet performed 58 ballets—and not one was choreographed by a woman. That same year, the ABT presented just one ballet by a woman in New York. And more recently, the San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Festival presented 12 new ballets by 12 choreographers in. Two were by women.

What explains the lack of female choreographers in the dance space? And more importantly, what can be done about it?

A piece in the New York Times addressed the first point a couple of years ago.

Unlike modern dance, there is a relative lack of structured choreographic training in the ballet field. It’s simply not "baked in" to the typical training regimen. (It’s probably no coincidence that there are many successful female choreographers in modern dance.)

Women also tend to be far busier than their male counterparts. Then there’s the somewhat ironic fact that since men are so outnumbered in the dance world, they get a disproportionate amount of attention and funding to enable them to create original work.

The bottom line here is that female choreographers "need to be cultivated," according to Pam Tanowitz, a contemporary choreographer who has worked with the New York Theater Ballet and Ballet Austin.

Which brings us back to the second question—how can troupes and donors cultivate female ballet choreographers? One approach involves providing female dancers with choreography training in the formative stages of their careers.

For example, the student choreography workshop program at the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center saw an encouraging rise in participation by female students in 2015. Of its 16 new ballets, 11 were choreographed by women. Donors to the school include financiers Henry Helmut Arnold, Timothy Barakett and his wife Michele, and James Dinan. 

As for the American Ballet Theater, its new Women's Movement program grew out of its Women’s Choreographers Initiative. Launched in 2016, the program supported the world premiere of Jessica Lang’s The Gift, as well as the return of another piece, Her Notes, plus dances by Lauren Lovette and Dana Genshaft.

Women's Movement, meanwhile, looks to hire one woman to create a new ballet for the main company, one to create work on the Studio Company, and one to workshop with dancers from either group for a choreographic residency without the expectation of a final product.

ABT enjoys support from patrons such as financiers Ann Kaplan and Robert Fippinger, Hamilton and Amabel James, and Martin and Toni Sosnoff, who gave a $5 million grant in 2009 to fund new works. ABT's institutional and corporate partners include Bloomberg Philanthropies, American Airlines, and Wells Fargo.

Commenting on Women's Movement, Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, said, "It’s important to level the playing field, if you will, but what’s paramount above and beyond that is, Where is the next voice? I'm looking for somebody who can ignite the excitement of where we are in time. I just care about the work.

"And it turns out that the work that is catching my eye seems to be a higher percentage of women."