We like to believe that we are way past the stage where men and women are treated differently in the workforce and that this doesn’t exclude the ballet industry. However, misogyny, sexism, and gender inequality in the ballet world still consistently exist today.
With the extremely strict gender portrayal that we examined in episode 11, ballet creates an inflexible split that often doesn’t include people who identify other than the traditional cisgender roles that ballet was built upon. There are also disparities of opportunities, pay, and power in the ballet industry between men and women. This inequality and lack of voice of women in the ballet industry has been deemed a glass ceiling for female dancers and choreographers.
The stories being told in the choreography is often one of the most critical things in ballet and the arts in general. However, the dearth of female choreographers and artistic directors at major ballet companies is striking, especially given the prominence of women in ballet and dance fields. According to the Dance Data Project––a nonprofit that tracks data related to gender equity in the dance industry––only 30% of ballet companies in the United States have female directors. There is only one female artistic director among the 10 most prominent ballet companies in the United States: Lourdes Lopez of Miami City Ballet. In the season 2020–2021, 69% of ballet works performed by the 50 larges ballet companies were choreographed by men. The percentage was 72% for 2019–2020, and 81% for 2018–2019.
The abundance of women dancers on the ballet stage can often mask what is really going on behind the curtains. A lot of the time, women’s voices are suppressed or subdued, while men make big decisions related to the company. Although women are seen plentiful, whether that is on ballet stages, performance, company websites, social media, etc, and there are typically more women than men in a company of dancers it is still men who are seen as experts when holding the microphone and those who are in positions of power.
These famous words from Geroge Balanchine are widely known: “Ballet is women.” Marked as a father of American ballet who revolutionized dance, Balanchine nevertheless had a narrow vision of what a ballet body should be and treated female dancers as muses.
Wendy Oliver, a professor of dance and women and gender studies at Providence College says, “I think it’s problematic in that he saw the female dancers as the instrument of his work. The body of the female dancers was the material that he worked with, and he could shape it however he liked.”
These positions of power that men hold in the ballet industry are evidently reflected in the choreography of traditional classical ballet. Dance critic Alastair Macaulay questions if the male behind the female dancer is “serving her or controlling her?”
Elizabeth Yntema is the founder of the Dance Data Project, and the lack of women’s voice on ballet stages was one of the topics she wanted to delve into further. She says, “I looked at the stage, and I realized that I had not seen a woman’s voice, a woman-told story all season.”
Ballet is traditional, and this is evident from the continued 19th century of classical ballet such as “Swan Lake”, “Giselle” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Because there is a conception that the audience will come to see the classical ballet or those known by famous choreographers, companies are not willing to try new things and risk telling new stories.
Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director of Ballet Hispánico, says, “ “Dance fits into this hierarchical supremacy,” he said, “because it was born out of it,” linking the lack of racial and gender equity in ballet to the art form’s earliest roots in the court of Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 to 1715.
Furthermore, there are disparities in pay as well in the ballet industry between men and women. Female dancers are often paid less than their male counterparts, and women choreographers aren’t paid as much as male choreographers.
Nevertheless, women are starting to break through the glass ceiling slowly in both ballet and contemporary. Examples include Tamaram Rojo who is an artistic director of English National Ballet, Pina Bausch, who was a German dancer and choreographer and a significant contributor to a neo-expressionist dance, Trisha Brown, who was an American dancer and choreographer whose avant-garde and postmodernist work explores and experiments in pure movement, Martha Graham who was an influential American dancer, teacher, and choreographer of modern dance, and, more recently, Aszure Barton who is a choreographer who has been creating dances for over 25 years and has collaborated with celebrated dance artists and companies.
Even now, with things slowly but surely changing, there needs to be more balance between the power dynamics between women and men in the ballet world. And this starts from increasing the number of female choreographers and closing the pay disparity in ballet.
Ken Scicluna via Getty Images