Ballet Is Woman

Classic Arts Features   Ballet Is Woman
 
The Houston Ballet stages a program of ballets by female choreographers.

"Ballet is woman," George Balanchine famously said, and historically it would be difficult to argue with that sentiment. Ever since Marie Taglioni went up on her toes in La Sylphide in 1832, ballerinas have been idolized and idealized, while men have often been relegated to afterthoughts.

But that's onstage. In the rehearsal studio, where choreographers ply their trade, men rule. Until the latter part of the 20th century, you could count on one hand the number of female choreographers who'd made significant contributions to the classical dance repertoire: Bronislava Nijinska, Ninette de Valois, Agnes de Mille, Birgit Cullberg, Ruthanna Boris. The ballet boom of the 1970s and '80s brought more and more female choreographers to ballet, most prominently Twyla Tharp. But by and large choreography remained - and remains‹the provenance of men.

Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch is very much aware that women are under-represented as choreographers in classical dance. And he chose to inaugurate the company's thirty-fifth anniversary season‹the first season for which he is solely responsible for the programming‹with a mixed bill featuring works by three gifted women: Julia Adam, Natalie Weir and Lila York. The works by Adam and Weir are world premieres; York's exhilarating Celts is a company premiere. To the best of anyone's knowledge, this marks the first time that an American classical dance company the size of Houston Ballet is presenting a repertory evening devoted exclusively to three different female choreographers.

"I always thought that if I ever became a director, I'd like to do a program featuring women choreographers," says Welch. "I thought it would be exciting, and I chose these three women because they had all worked with Houston Ballet, and they're good. But I've also thought about whether there is discrimination within the choreographic art form. I was a classical ballet dancer, and I did many ballets where the men stood with poles, and you really felt as a dancer that men were quite secondary. And yet most choreographers are men. Isn't it interesting to think that an environment that I perceive as female dominated, can be perceived as male dominated?"

No one is quite sure why ballet has produced so few female choreographers. "It's so different in modern dance," says York, who was for many years a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. "Our 'mother' is Martha Graham. And there was Doris Humphrey and Ruth St. Denis, and so many others. There's a long history of women choreographers in modern dance."

"In modern dance they're trained to choreograph," says Adam. "They look at composition, they do a lot of improvisation. Ballerinas aren't asked to choreograph. And dancing is so competitive, especially among women, that I think most women put everything into becoming a better dancer. It's different with men, who face less competition."

Weir concurs. "This is an enormous generalization, but perhaps because the classical dance world is so difficult for women, and the competition so great, that women do not really get a chance to change their focus from dance to choreography," she says. "And when they come to the end of their careers, they are possibly more interested in starting a family while there is still time."

In assembling the program, Women@Art, Welch carefully considered the different creative processes and different styles of the three women. Although he was determined to put female choreographers front and center, he was equally resolute about challenging his dancers creatively and providing audiences with a rich artistic experience.

"These women are remarkably different in their approach to choreography," says Welch. "Lila works out everything beforehand. She comes into the studio with her own vocabulary, completely prepared. Julia is a remarkably unconstrained person. She'll have a plan, but the movement is worked out in the studio. It's a fast and spontaneous creation process. Natalie leaves th

"Ballet is woman," George Balanchine famously said, and historically it would be difficult to argue with that sentiment. Ever since Marie Taglioni went up on her toes in La Sylphide in 1832, ballerinas have been idolized and idealized, while men have often been relegated to afterthoughts.

But that's onstage. In the rehearsal studio, where choreographers ply their trade, men rule. Until the latter part of the 20th century, you could count on one hand the number of female choreographers who'd made significant contributions to the classical dance repertoire: Bronislava Nijinska, Ninette de Valois, Agnes de Mille, Birgit Cullberg, Ruthanna Boris. The ballet boom of the 1970s and '80s brought more and more female choreographers to ballet, most prominently Twyla Tharp. But by and large choreography remained - and remains‹the provenance of men.

Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch is very much aware that women are under-represented as choreographers in classical dance. And he chose to inaugurate the company's thirty-fifth anniversary season‹the first season for which he is solely responsible for the programming‹with a mixed bill featuring works by three gifted women: Julia Adam, Natalie Weir and Lila York. The works by Adam and Weir are world premieres; York's exhilarating Celts is a company premiere. To the best of anyone's knowledge, this marks the first time that an American classical dance company the size of Houston Ballet is presenting a repertory evening devoted exclusively to three different female choreographers.

"I always thought that if I ever became a director, I'd like to do a program featuring women choreographers," says Welch. "I thought it would be exciting, and I chose these three women because they had all worked with Houston Ballet, and they're good. But I've also thought about whether there is discrimination within the choreographic art form. I was a classical ballet dancer, and I did many ballets where the men stood with poles, and you really felt as a dancer that men were quite secondary. And yet most choreographers are men. Isn't it interesting to think that an environment that I perceive as female dominated, can be perceived as male dominated?"

No one is quite sure why ballet has produced so few female choreographers. "It's so different in modern dance," says York, who was for many years a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. "Our 'mother' is Martha Graham. And there was Doris Humphrey and Ruth St. Denis, and so many others. There's a long history of women choreographers in modern dance."

"In modern dance they're trained to choreograph," says Adam. "They look at composition, they do a lot of improvisation. Ballerinas aren't asked to choreograph. And dancing is so competitive, especially among women, that I think most women put everything into becoming a better dancer. It's different with men, who face less competition."

Weir concurs. "This is an enormous generalization, but perhaps because the classical dance world is so difficult for women, and the competition so great, that women do not really get a chance to change their focus from dance to choreography," she says. "And when they come to the end of their careers, they are possibly more interested in starting a family while there is still time."

In assembling the program, Women@Art, Welch carefully considered the different creative processes and different styles of the three women. Although he was determined to put female choreographers front and center, he was equally resolute about challenging his dancers creatively and providing audiences with a rich artistic experience.

"These women are remarkably different in their approach to choreography," says Welch. "Lila works out everything beforehand. She comes into the studio with her own vocabulary, completely prepared. Julia is a remarkably unconstrained person. She'll have a plan, but the movement is worked out in the studio. It's a fast and spontaneous creation process. Natalie leaves things entirely within the dancers' realm of improvisation. She structures and sculpts the improv, but the material comes from the dancers. I really like the fact that in one evening the dancers will experience such different approaches. Hopefully it teaches them that there is no right way to choreograph, that it's really an individual thing."

Each woman's style is as individual as her process. "Natalie's work is always very dramatic," says Welch. "She often takes inspiration from a painting or a story or a poem that moves her in some way. And the work, because it comes so much from the dancers' involvement, is really a signature piece for that specific cast. Julia is a storyteller, and she has such humor. Her choreography is quirky and bizarre, and very much her own voice. Lila's work‹Celts in particular‹is very dynamic. I wanted to be sure I finished the evening with something that had everybody dancing. There couldn't be more contrast."

Sheryl Flatow, based in San Francisco, writes about dance and theater.


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