Where are all the female choreographers?

This piece explores the different aspects of the issue surrounding female choreographers within dance

Where are all the female choreographers?

Underappreciated, undermined and undervalued are just some of the words that come to mind regarding the representation of female choreographers in the dance world. Women today have long been pioneers in dance, establishing companies and breaking new ground, but why are so many female choreographers not reaching the top spots within dance? In this essay I aim to answer this question in order to conclude why this is the case.

Ninette de Valois, Mare Rambert and Martha Graham are leading choreographers within dance history and set the foundations for dance we know today. Many female choreographers paved the path for dance and have left a huge impact on the world of dance, which makes it hard to believe that they don't get the same level of recognition as the male choreographers do.We have all these influential female choreographers, yet many companies follow the old tradition of ballet, the man created and then the woman dances. This is especially relevant to the Royal Ballet, no women have been commissioned to choreograph a main-stage ballet since the 1990s. Particularly with Ballet, there is a large majority of female performers, a lot of them go on to teach or lead as company directors. They just don't seem to be breaking through that barrier to get to the top, 2 out of the 12 artistic directors at the Royal Ballet are women. Vanessa Fenton when with the Royal Ballet wanted to be one of the choreographers, however her superiors would question as to why. Her work never went beyond studio performances, whilst her male colleagues were having their worked performed on the main stage. "I'd get a pat on the head from the director- 'well done, clever girl'- and that would be it". I think this is a very big issue, it is patronising and it undervalues the work created by women, it shows a lack of respect for her, because if she were a male then that response would've been very different.

This issue is not only specific to dance in Britain, in this last season the New York City Ballet performed 58 ballets, and not one of them was by a woman. In Moscow, the Bolshoi danced more than two dozen ballets this season and only one was by a woman. Also the American Ballet Theatre presented just one ballet this season for New York. "I realised that, being a professional dancer for 20 years, I had never performed in a ballet choreographed by a woman," said Tamara Rojo- Artistic director at the English National Ballet.

There is also the issue of the way in which female choreographers works are written about, compared to men. There was an association in 1998 called the Gender Project, it was formed by the choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw and a selection of other New York dance figures to study the issue. One of their findings was that even in modern dance, which is something that is largely pioneered by women such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis, men were still more likely to have their works performed and written about than women. I feel that this is because a lot of male led companies are performed on the main stages, most male choreographers have traditional technique within their work which is something that most people recognised, and this is common with choreographers such as Matthew Bourne, Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham.

To find out further information about what women in the industry think about the female choreographers I spoke to Miss Thorpe, a dance teacher from Herne Bay High School. She spoke about how female choreographers have had to fight to get their work noticed, and they have created work that is much more different and out there compared to the mainstream pieces. How most male choreographers works are traditional, and because there are so many females in dance, they need to stand out which has allowed them to create such unique pieces. Popular choreographers such as Matthew Bourne, bring back traditional pieces in a different way, whilst the female choreographers are more prone to creating new work.I think she made some very valid points, I hadn't thought in great depth of how different the styles are male and female choreographers, which I think is a factor to consider. You can see what she said about how female choreographers have had to fight to get their work shown, with different cases like Vanessa Fenton.

I also asked multiple people around the dance department at my school to say the first choreographer that they think of. The majority answered with Matthew Bourne, which I think is more due to the fact that he is a big focus in our department, rather than the fact that he is a male. This research was ineffective because it was bias, however I do feel that dancers find it easier to name more male choreographers than female, I feel like this because there is a strong focus on male choreographers in the dance curriculum.

To conclude, there are female choreographers everywhere, creating incredible work that should be shared with the audience they deserve. I think that male domination at the top of the field is true to every industry and there still needs to be a fight to get women to the top as well. Although the imbalance is very prominent within Ballet, I think that over time this will start to change, dance is always changing and eventually those barriers will start to be broken down. I think that there should be more female choreographers who breaking tradition to be worked into the dance curriculum, I think it will definitely make a difference, not only just to know about them but to inspire young girls who want to go on to be choreographers. I also feel that female choreographers would be given more credit when its due if they were given the same opportunities, to put choreographers such as Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Jasmin Vardimon on the big stages, their unique work would give audiences such a different outlook on contemporary dance. It is so important that female choreographers are getting the same opportunities and recognition as the male choreographers, and I think over time this is something that will start to take place.

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Stella McAuley

Stella McAuley

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 6 June 2017, 11:00 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    This is a really important issue - you see so many women working in dance, yet they have barely any representation...

  • Jazmin Gramson

    On 6 June 2017, 11:46 Jazmin Gramson commented:

    I think this topic is very current and is something that needs to be spoken more about in the dance industry. There aren't a lot of 'big' female choreographers that people can name from the top of their heads and something needs to be done about it to get them more recognition.

  • Emma Del'Nero Williams

    On 6 June 2017, 11:47 Emma Del'Nero Williams commented:

    I agree Stella. There are some fantastic female choreographers producing truly inspirational and unique work and they do not always receive the recognition they deserve. Your article highlights some very important points and is an issue that should be discussed more in the dance industry. I also agree that the industry also follows others and sadly the most high powered positions are those held by men. This is why its so important that we continually strive for equality.

  • Grace McCabe

    On 6 June 2017, 17:02 Grace McCabe Contributor commented:

    So glad someone has pointed this out!!!

  • Kheira Bey

    On 7 June 2017, 10:34 Kheira Bey Contributor commented:

    Arlene Phillips, Abby Lee Miller, Katherine Dunham, TWYLA THARP!!! but yes Fosse is the one I would think of first off. I think a lot of the dance world is still very secretive, in the sense that you don't want to promote who your choreographer is, as it could mean competitors stealing ideas due to a lack of Intellectual Property Rights. So I doubt Rihanna would openly say 'this is the person who takes my work to the next level' (although I think Rihanna's choreographer is female). So I don't think it's necessary male dominating, but it's more about keeping ideas closed and together.

    'which I think is more due to the fact that he is a big focus in our department, rather than the fact that he is a male'- this point is interesting. I think in dance there is a big of a game where people share ideas, then race to put their names on it before anyone else has done it. So perhaps it was done by a woman first (maybe a colleague of Bourne?), but he was the one who actually made the show and labelled it his.

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