Breaking the Glass Slipper: Where Are the Female Choreographers?

The choreographer Ninette de Valois, right, at a ballet school in London in 1931.
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“Ballet,” as the choreographer George Balanchine once said, “is Woman.”

But if women are still the symbols of ballet in the popular imagination, chances are it is as ballerinas performing dazzling, demanding steps that were devised for them by men. When it comes to choreography, at least at most major companies, ballet remains overwhelmingly a man’s world.

New York City Ballet performed 58 ballets this season, including seven world premieres — and not one was by a woman. London’s Royal Ballet also did no ballets by women this season on its main stage at Covent Garden and has yet to commission a new work by a woman for the main stage this century. In Moscow, the Bolshoi danced more than two dozen ballets this season, but only one was by a woman, and only partially: “Short Time Together,” by the team of Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. And American Ballet Theater presented just one ballet by a woman this season in New York, “The Brahms-Haydn Variations” by Twyla Tharp.

Women continue to be underrepresented in many positions of power in the arts, whether as directors in Hollywood, orchestra conductors, opera composers or even late-night television hosts. But the dearth of female choreographers at major ballet companies is perhaps more startling, given the prominence of women in the rest of the ballet and dance fields — and the way pioneering female choreographers helped shape ballet during the 20th century.

[ Dance luminaries weigh in on the conspicuous absence of female choreographers ]

Think of the influential neoclassical works that Bronislava Nijinska created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the 1920s. Or the role that Ninette de Valois — the dancer, choreographer and teacher — played in establishing ballet in Britain when, in 1931, she founded the company that eventually became the Royal Ballet. Or the way Agnes de Mille imbued her ballets with American colloquialism and became a charter member of Ballet Theater in 1940.

In this century, though, it has become something of a rarity for ballet companies to present new works by women, as the English National Ballet made a point of doing this spring when it mounted “She Said,” a triple bill of new ballets by female choreographers.


“I realized that, being a professional dancer for 20 years, I had never performed in a ballet choreographed by a woman,” said Tamara Rojo, the company’s artistic director, who commissioned the new works from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang and Aszure Barton. “And I thought, That’s kind of strange.”

Much of the ballet canon dates back to imperial Russia or 19th-century France, but that alone doesn’t account for the paucity of works by female choreographers at major companies. In recent years, there has been an explosion of new work — but at the big companies, most has been by men.

Alexei Ratmansky is celebrated around the world for his new ballets and reimaginings of old ones. Christopher Wheeldon has had successes with top ballet companies and on Broadway, where he directed and choreographed “An American in Paris.” They are part of a new generation of highly sought-after dance makers, a group that includes Wayne McGregor, Benjamin Millepied, Justin Peck, Liam Scarlett and others. Many have taken up residencies or other official positions with major ballet companies.

But while the Royal Ballet has presented works by a number of female choreographers in recent years, they have tended to be done at its smaller Linbury Studio Theater, not on the main stage. The lack of women having their work performed has become a topic of conversation in London. Kevin O’Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet, said in an email that “commissions are about the right fit for the company, whether by male or female choreographers.”

The issue of gender disparities in dance is hardly new. Four decades ago, in 1976, The Village Voice explored discrimination in the dance world in an article headlined “When a Woman Dances, Nobody Cares,” which found, among other things, that “male choreographers are getting grants way out of proportion to their numbers.”

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More than two decades later, in 1998, a consortium called the Gender Project was formed by the choreographer and teacher JoAnna Mendl Shaw and other New York dance figures to study the issue. One finding was that even in modern dance — which was largely invented by pioneering female choreographers, including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham — men were more likely to get their works performed than women, and to have their works written about.

Such findings stand out all the more because dance, and especially ballet, can seem dominated by women in so many other areas. At ballet schools, girls typically outnumber boys, who are sometimes coaxed to attend with reduced or even free tuition. Women are often the teachers at those schools, and at many ballet companies, women play crucial roles as coaches and ballet mistresses and répétiteurs, grooming and passing on steps to new generations. Many of the most prominent dance critics are women.

And women have continued to make inroads when it comes to running companies: Aurélie Dupont was recently appointed to succeed Mr. Millepied as the director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet; Ms. Rojo is the artistic director at English National Ballet; Lourdes Lopez is the artistic director of Miami City Ballet; and Julie Kent was recently named the artistic director of the Washington Ballet.

Yet at many major companies it is still rare to see works by women. There are exceptions — especially at companies that present more contemporary dance, a field where female choreographers are much more prominent. The Paris Opera Ballet, which has made contemporary dance a staple of its repertoire, included works this season by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Pina Bausch and Maguy Marin. This month, the Pennsylvania Ballet danced Trisha Brown’s “O zlozony / O composite,” which had its premiere in 2004 in Paris.

One of the most widely performed female choreographers in ballet is Ms. Tharp, who has had success in many genres — modern dance and dance for Broadway, films, and ballet, beginning with her 1973 crossover work “Deuce Coupe.” In 1988, toward the tail end of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s tenure as artistic director of Ballet Theater, he made Ms. Tharp the company’s artistic associate and resident choreographer, and while that position did not last, her relationship with the company has: It has given the premieres of more than a dozen of her works.

Credit...Librado Romero/The New York Times

New York City Ballet has commissioned more works by women since 1983, when Peter Martins became ballet master in chief there, than it did in previous decades. But its drought in recent years — its last premiere by a woman was in 2011 — has drawn criticism. Next season, the company plans to present new ballets by Ms. Lopez Ochoa and Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer in the company, and Mr. Martins said he had been speaking to the choreographer Crystal Pite about doing something for City Ballet.

A question for the future is whether there are enough opportunities for women to become ballet choreographers — a position for which there is no one career path. Some companies are looking at training programs. At City Ballet’s New York Choreographic Institute, founded in 2000 to nurture new talent, only about a fifth of the participants who have come through its main program have been women. But the student choreography workshop program at the School of American Ballet, the school associated with City Ballet, has seen a steady increase in participation by female students in recent years: They made 11 of its 16 new ballets last fall, a development that Mr. Martins called “very encouraging.”

Mr. O’Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet, said that he had named Charlotte Edmonds the first participant in his company’s new Young Choreographer Programme in 2015 and that he had been so impressed by her that he had recently extended her contract.

Doing the three new dances by women in “She Said” was valuable, Ms. Rojo said, not just because the choreographers brought subtly different perspectives to the fore with their works, but also for the experience it gave the members of her company.

“I wanted the emerging choreographers in my company to have a different point of view, to have another way of working, maybe, and to have some role models that they could follow if they wanted to pursue a career as a choreographer,” she said. “So that they didn’t think that it was exclusively for men.”

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