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Long the domain of men, choreography gets a female boost at Ballet West’s National Choreographic Fest

SHARE Long the domain of men, choreography gets a female boost at Ballet West’s National Choreographic Fest

SALT LAKE CITY — “Ballet is woman,” the famous 20th-century choreographer George Balanchine once said. Yet while ballet is sometimes identified as the woman’s realm, it seems that directing ballet companies and creating ballets is decisively a man’s.

“It is ironic that, for an art form that celebrates and focuses so much on women, they are not as well represented as directors, choreographers and leaders in the field," said Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute.

Ballet West's National Choreographic Festival runs from May 17-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival runs from May 17-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Beau Pearson

Anxious to take part in the growing conversation about the dearth of women in both choreography and the upper echelons of ballet, the company’s second annual National Choreographic Festival — which takes place over two weekends, May 17-26 — is decidedly female-focused.

“I felt strongly that there was a need to promote the strength of female leadership in the ballet world,” Sklute said. “For this year’s festival, all the companies we have invited are directed by women and all the works on both programs have been choreographed by women.”

For this contemporary works festival, Ballet West invited The Washington Ballet and Richmond Ballet during the first weekend (May 17-19), and Cincinnati Ballet and Charlotte Ballet during the second (May 24-26). The triple-bill programs will take place at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Artists of Ballet West rehearsing Natalie Weir's "Jabula," which will be featured in Ballet West's National Choreographic Festival. The festival runs from May 17-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Artists of Ballet West rehearsing Natalie Weir’s “Jabula,” which will be featured in Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival. The festival runs from May 17-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Beau Pearson

While there’s the added irony of a male artistic director voicing concerns, many at the forefront of the movement to promote change welcome any director, male or female, who are willing to go beyond mere lip-service.

“I wouldn’t even think of pointing fingers,” said Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Victoria Morgan, who’s been outspoken on the subject long before the #MeToo movement. “We know that grooming men for leadership was the accepted ‘normal’ for many years in our history, but the point is we’re evolving. It’s people like Adam (Sklute) who are saying ‘Wait a minute, it doesn’t have to be like this anymore,’ that are helping accelerate things.”

A Utah native, Morgan is a former principal dancer of both Ballet West and San Francisco Ballet. She is one of the few female artistic directors to lead a big-budget ballet company in the U.S.

Morgan celebrates her 20th anniversary as artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, a position that involves creative responsibilities including rehearsing, choreographing and setting productions, as well as command over organizational and financial matters.

For Morgan to have achieved such a post — as well as for the other invited artistic directors Stoner Winslett (Richmond), Julie Kent (Washington) and Hope Muir (Charlotte) — is the exception rather than the rule for women in the industry.

Plenty of theories have cropped up in an attempt to answer why, even with women's prominence in ballet, female leadership remains so sparse. Morgan cited one possible answer, pointing out that female dancers often postpone childbearing until after retirement, and are therefore less eager to take on a second demanding career while starting a family.

Former Dance Magazine Editor Wendy Perron said in a 2016 article by The Story Exchange that in her experience, ballet boards are not always eager to chose female candidates for leadership positions.

“When a board of directors is doing a search, I think they are going to feel more comfortable with a male artistic director,” Perron told The Story Exchange. “They have to deal with the money and deal with who is going to be fundraising. A lot of people feel that they can trust a male more.”

Researcher Christine L. Williams coined the phrase "glass escalator" in a 1992 Social Problems journal article, which stated that there is a trend in predominately female occupations like nursing, social work and kindergarten teaching for men to occupy the few leadership positions. Juxtaposing the “glass ceiling” concept women can experience in professional situations, the glass escalator idea claims that men in female-heavy professions like ballet are encouraged in their creativity and elevated at a faster rate than are women.

This appears to be the case not only in ballet's leadership positions, but also in the creative roles, as in the past, companies have been less likely to commission female choreographers' work.

A 2017 Columbia University research study found that men comprise 85 percent of the choreographers who create original work for the nine largest AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists) signatory companies.

Looking at Utah’s own major ballet company, of the 52 new commissions during Sklute’s tenure with Ballet West, 16 were created by women — 11 of which were created in-house by female members of the company or its artistic staff. While Sklute recognizes this as “off balance,” it is markedly higher than many.

When the Royal Ballet commissioned “Flight Pattern” by Crystal Pite in 2017, it was the first female commission for the main stage at the Royal Ballet in 18 years.

“I felt strongly that there was a need to promote the strength of female leadership in the ballet world,” Sklute said. “I think the biggest thing I can do is to continue to push women to choreograph and take on leadership roles. I work to help them to feel confident in these positions, which most of the company women are not inclined to take on.”

Morgan believes that reluctance may in part stem from a “corps de ballet mentality” distinctive in the ballet world, referring to the large body of dancers who serve as the backdrop to the handful of soloists in most productions.

Soloist Katlyn Addison in Africa Guzmán's "Sweet and Bitter," which will be featured in Ballet West's National Choreographic Festival. The festival runs from May 17-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Soloist Katlyn Addison in Africa Guzmán’s “Sweet and Bitter,” which will be featured in Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival. The festival runs from May 17-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

Beau Pearson

“The discipline in the corps is about teamwork and cohesion, everything should be the same: your arms, your heads, even your breathing is unified. Not standing out or making waves becomes important — a very contrary mindset to leading or creating,” said Morgan, who added that men in ballet are more likely to be assigned roles that set them apart rather than blend in. “It’s an environment that creates a deep sense of camaraderie for women but I also worry that there is something almost too protective and cocoon-like that maybe shuts out their individual voice.”

Morgan said finding her voice was perhaps the greatest obstacle she faced after she retired from the stage. However, she remains optimistic that it is getting easier for women to find theirs.

“I believe we are in the midst of a shift. We get better and better, we become more enlightened, we become more informed and I see more women coming forward powerfully to create and take the lead,” she said. “It’s not easy to find your voice in this business, but forums like Ballet West’s upcoming festival are key in helping that happen.”

If you go …

What: Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival

When: May 17-26

Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 Broadway

How much: $49.50

Phone: 801-869-6900

Web: balletwest.org