Sexism in the dance world
Women have long been pioneers in dance, establishing companies and breaking new ground. But the leading choreographers today are men. Where have all the women gone? The FT’s Griselda Murray Brown reports.
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Filmed & edited by Richard Topping.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Women have played crucial roles in the history of dance, from the founder of the Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois, to the pioneering contemporary choreographers Martha Graham, Mary [INAUDIBLE], and Pina Bausch. And after them came the generation that included Siobhan Davies and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. But the most prominent choreographers today are men, names like Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor.
So where have all the women gone? It's a difficult, urgent questions for the dance world and one that has no easy answers. Some say that female choreographers tend not to make the kind of bold physical work that reads well on large stages and attracts international funding.
Many more women than men train to become dancers. But the men are encouraged to develop muscular techniques and to stand out as soloists. This early teaching arguably translates into more athletic, exuberant work when these dancers go on to become choreographers.
It's said that female dancers, on the other hand, are often more encouraged to fit in than to push the boundaries. The English National Ballet is addressing the problem head on with She Said, a triple bill of new pieces by female choreographers which opens in April.
ASZURE BARTON: My work for English National Ballet is a large ensemble work with 18 dancers, which is very exciting. I'm really looking at the individual and the power of the group. I hope that an audience member would come into the theatre with an open mind and allow their imaginations to fly.
I think that's the beauty of dance is that we're not necessarily told what to feel. But it's an energetic experience. And it can be very powerful.
Could we determine without knowing who the point is if the work is female or male? I don't think so. I think there are feminine and masculine qualities that we all have access to. But to say that there is a female style of work or type of work, no.
Well, I think in the ballet world traditionally, it's been led by men. There are less opportunities for women. So it is harder for the work to be seen. Opportunities like this will bring more eyes to the work, and it's critical right now.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: One of the most exciting female choreographers working today is the Canadian Crystal Pite. She's known for work that's ambitious, imaginative, and grand, but full of detail and allusion, too. Her work, Betroffenheit, is coming here to Sadler's Wells in London in May.
So what is it about Crystal Pite's work that you find so interesting?
ASZURE BARTON: She's a fantastic choreographer. She's got the craft. She's able to create wonderful imagery through movement in the abstract sense, but she's also able to tell stories. So she has this wonderful mix of going from a sort of narrative base through to abstraction.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So how would you describe Betroffenheit?
ALISTAIR SPALDING: Betroffenheit is the most recent work of Crystal's. And it's really based on a collaboration with someone called Jonathan Young, who's a writer but also a performer and is in the piece. And the piece is actually based on a personal incident that happened to him. And Betroffenheit is a kind of German expression which talks about how people respond to a very traumatic incident, and the piece is about that.
It's very abstract, so he doesn't go into the detail of what the incident was. It just really kind of recreates this situation where a man is going through his torment.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: So on this question of female choreographers having less prominence than men, what do you say about this issue?
ALISTAIR SPALDING: What we've recognised recently, and is really you can see that in the list of our associate artists, that there is a predominance of men. Parenting and childcare is absolutely one of the issues. I think it's very difficult for a woman in every era to deal with career and child care. And I think that's true in dance and all of the creative arts, because there's very intense periods of creation, and you have to almost give your whole life over to it. Well, one of the other areas that we've heard from women choreographers is actually the training that they've gone through and how even at the very beginning, the boys are more assertive in the rehearsal room.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Do you believe in this idea of sort of male and female choreography?
ALISTAIR SPALDING: People who have different backgrounds and different gender make different kinds of work. So what I think is very important in this is that the women's voice is also represented when you come to see work at our theatre. And the same that ethnic minorities' work is also seen in the same way so that there are different voices, and they are represented on our stage.
YABIN WANG: This time I was invited by the English National Ballet to create a new piece. And piece's name is M-Dao. It's about Medea because I'm inspired from Medea's story. For me, I think Medea is a very important female character.
Maybe we can listen to more voice from female choreographers to see what female choreographers are thinking from different angles. I think what I want to show isn't just about female or male because I want to show the theme about the human being.
GRISELDA MURRAY BROWN: Female choreographers face similar pressures to other professional women, as well as pressures specific to the dance world. The problem here is not a lack of women, but a lack of exposure. Whether or not there is a kind of ingrained sexism, it's clear that programmers need to put more work by women on stage.