Women’s Offstage Role in Ballet

Posted by on 07.14.2016

“Ballet is woman.”

– George Balanchine

George Balanchine is often quoted as saying, “Ballet is woman.” Though a simple statement, his ballets illustrate a deep love and appreciation of women. Even as his ballets age, audiences are drawn to the way he flawlessly highlighted the beauty of the females who interpret his steps. He is known to offer moments of such simplicity that all the audience can do is admire a ballerina’s beauty.

Looking back through the history of ballet, we find a similar influence: a large corps de ballet of female Willis, Swans, Flowers, etc. While male dancers offer irreplaceable influences in every ballet, their women counterparts often outnumber them.

Mariinsky corps de ballet in the Kingdom of the Shades Act from "La Bayadère." Photo (c) Gene Schiavone.

Mariinsky corps de ballet in the Kingdom of the Shades Act from “La Bayadère.” Photo (c) Gene Schiavone.

So why is it that women are much less likely to fill offstage roles in the ballet world? With a low percentage of women directors and female choreographers in the dance community, where are the women to influence the future of the art form?

Last year, New York City Ballet announced new works that would be coming to their stage via Facebook: a distinguished list of men. The comments that followed were that of outrage. The City Ballet audience was asking where the women were and explained their desire for diversity. This year the company responded by commissioning two new pieces by female choreographers. In this instance, the audience members were able to make a difference and influence a company that they love and respect.

This is a topic I tackle with fellow Miami City Ballet dancer, Michael Sean Breeden, in this week’s installment of our new podcast, “Conversations on Dance”: why are women are not as prominent in the world of choreography? The professional ballet world tends to be more competitive for women. With most repertoire requiring larger numbers of women, men often find themselves with spare time which some often use to dabble in choreography. Perhaps this explains the larger number of men interested in creating dance.

But it seems to me that the real truth is starting a career in choreography is extremely difficult. Finding the time and opportunity to put your talent to the test is almost impossible. In order to create, a choreographer needs good, willing dancers, studio space, and a venue to showcase the work. A lot of things need to fall into place just for a first big break. That’s why it is often up to teachers or school/company directors, to offer the opportunity. Hopefully in the future this is something the field will work to cultivate.

julie kent, american ballet theater, washington ballet, artistic director, ballet, ballerina, center stage, dancing, septime webre,

Julie Kent. Credit Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

Artistic Directors have a great many influences in the ballet world. Not only do they influence the communities they belong to, but they influence the country by commissioning works that can end up traveling the country or even the world.   They develop the dancers who often continue to contribute to the art form in many different ways. They have the opportunity to pass on knowledge and impart knowledge, in a world that relies mostly on word of mouth to keep traditions alive. It is safe to say that their work changes the field more than some may ever know. It is surprising how few women fill this role. Recently former American Ballet Theater Principal, Julie Kent, was appointed director of Washington Ballet. This will add her to the all too short list of women heading major ballet companies.

If “ballet is woman,” it seems natural that women should be making statements that have the potential to influence ballet as we know it.

1 Comment

  1. What’s alarming is that women’s offstage role in ballet may have diminished. Marie Rambert, Ninette de Valois, Lucia Chase and others founded ballet companies and showed imaginative, pioneering vision that changed ballet. Marie Sallé, Fanny Cerrito, Bronislava Nijinska, de Valois, Andrée Howard, Ruthanna Boris, Birgit Cullberg were all choreographers of note in ballet in eras when otherwise women had it worse than they do today. The 2016-17 season across America shows quite a number of women choreographers; English National Ballet had an all-women new triple bill this spring. Let’s hope some of these ballets by women are ones we’ll want to see again.

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