Rewriting the narrative to put women choreographers and dance leaders center stage

By on October 6, 2018

In a letter dated January 1, 2018, Peter Martins stepped down from his post as artistic director of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and head of the School of American Ballet amidst allegations of physical abuse from five dancers in the company. The accusations came at the height of #MeToo, a social media-turned activist movement in which women and some men began coming forward in great numbers to confront abuse and sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace. NYCB continues to feel the impact of #MeToo within its ranks, and as the movement has permeated the dance world, it’s become clear that no two allegations are the same. Martins had a history of alleged sexual misconduct toward dancers which spanned decades, including documented incidents at New York City Ballet. Shortly after the news about Martins broke, principal dancer Marcelo Gomes resigned from American Ballet Theatre (ABT) after one accusation by a person unaffiliated with ABT was uncovered from nearly a decade ago.

The two cases and their circumstances are so strikingly different, and yet their employers offered the same solution: a statement from the public relations team in support of gender equality in the workplace, and termination of the accused’s employment.

“If the standard for art is the decency of its creators, we’re going to have a lot of empty museums,” said New York Times reporter Bari Weiss as questions loomed about associating the art with the artist. Waves of allegations uncovering a pattern of systemic sexual abuse and misconduct in professional settings ripped off a Band-Aid in arts sectors, including the high-profile firings of Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein. For many, the answer was erasure – ceasing to give a platform to the art of terrible men, no matter how good it is.

#MeToo and current events such as the Kavanaugh hearings, in which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape in 1982, have forced a reckoning in the United States, giving many Americans pause to call out deep-seated, misguided comfortability with the misogyny embedded within our political and cultural norms.

Contemporary concert dance, in some ways, is a microcosm of this; in America, this is a field in which women outrageously outnumber men at the pre-professional level, yet most professional company rosters aim to fill their ranks with a 1:1 ratio of men and women.

The visibility of women’s work and labor in the concert dance world continues to be an issue. Despite an overabundance of women in the field, men control the narrative, assuming most of the leadership roles among companies with the biggest budgets and influence.

A recent shift in the dialog acknowledges a perceived dearth of women dancemakers in a field still dominated by white, male, heteronormative narratives. This has led to a number of targeted initiatives within companies and philanthropic organizations, including funding streams aimed at increasing the visibility of women choreographers and program choices celebrating women.

Some of these campaigns have been more effective than others.

Case in point: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens jumped on the train with a program called “Femmes,” scheduled for the company’s 2018/19 season. The collection of dances, billed as an “ode to women,” was originally planned as three works by male choreographers, the promotional materials consisting of three men in a dripping, translucent bubble against a Pepto Bismol pink background. (Aside: The program received immediate backlash, leading to one of the choreographers pulling out of the project. The company ultimately rebranded the program.)

The all-male lineup of choreographers for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ women-centered “Femmes” received immediate backlash.

Such efforts suggest a gap in the types of questions we are asking. Instead of “Where are the women choreographers?” perhaps we should be asking: “Why are we ignoring women choreographers?”

One might then be prompted to question if leading or choreographing for a large “mainstream” company is an adequate or appropriate measure of success for women dancemakers. Speaking on a 2016 panel conducted by See Chicago Dance on the topic of women in dance, choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw reflected on her four-decade career making dances.

“Has it changed?” said Mendl Shaw, when asked if the professional landscape has improved for female choreographers. “Not a whole lot, actually. But I think you’re looking at women who are going to do this no matter what… I want to empower women, but I’m going to do this anyhow.”

In an effort to highlight women who are “doing it anyhow,” the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron is showcasing more than 50 women+ choreographers throughout the month of October on social media platforms. Wanna get in on it? Post under the hashtag #womencenterstage this month, and visit www.nccakron.org/womencenterstage for more info.

Header photo: From left, Yanira Castro, Keesha Beckford, JoAnna Mendl Shaw and Nejla Yatkin speaking at a See Chicago Dance panel discussion titled “Women in the Director’s Chair”

Editor and founder Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer and critic based in Chicago, IL. She is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune, a culture critic at Chicago Magazine, and has credits with See Chicago Dance, the Windy City Times, Dance Magazine and Pointe, among others.

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