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Battle of the Sexes #2

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#1 Alexandra


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Posted 06 March 1999 - 10:36 AM

This is a response to Paul's last post, which is the last one on the first Battle thread.

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 06 March 1999 - 10:52 AM

One reason there always seemed to be less female choreographers than male was that women are generally socialized not to take authority in situations (very broad generalization, but often true in ballet). An ability to get someone else to do what you tell them is essential to a choreographer, and it's often bred out of a dancer. Many men come to ballet late and for that and other reasons, are more comfortable with either seeking or taking authority (I'm not saying better at it. Just more apt to try it.)

#3 Alexandra


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Posted 06 March 1999 - 10:53 AM

I started writing this post after mistakenly posting my earlier one before I'd finished wrting it, but Leigh beat me to it -- and I'd like to second his answer.

Anyway. To answer Paul, I'm sorry. I wasn't clear. Let me try again.

First, it's not that I think that choreographers "just happen." I think they can be spotted, trained, developed, etc. I meant I think that ballet companies thought that. Yes, the greats were all dancers; I don't think you can be a choreographer unless you have been a dancer. But, except for Fokine, they were not star dancers; injury or a too-late start, or some other impediment sidetracked their careers. Whether they would have become great choreographers if that hadn't happened would make for interesting speculation, but cannot be known.

Ashton's comment about it's better to be a dancer than a choreographer was NOT intended to dissuade people from choreographing, but was directed at himself. He reportedly said this frequently and he meant that he would have much rather been a dancer. I've known other dancers (men) who did not choreograph who felt the same way. Their careers were very absorbing and fulfilling and it never occurred to them, they said, to try to choreograph. I was suggesting that may have been what was going on with Balanchine's muses. If you have the opportunity to work with someone like that, you take it.

Whether women are actively discouraged today is hard to say. This is one of the cases where it's muddy -- as opposed to law or medicine where it was pretty blatant. It may be as much a case of assumptions on the part of both female dancers and management. Another Danish example, if you can stand it. There's an "exam" at the end of every school year, where each group at the school does a class in front of a table of "judges" (the director, teachers, etc.) Anyone connected with the company can come and watch - wardrobe, pianists, teachers in the academic school and dancers. The years I watched it, nearly every man in the company, from the 16-year-old aspirants to the 60-year-old character dancer to the company's current 20-something stars showed up as though it were his duty. One woman came, a retired ballerina starting to choreograph -- and who is a bit bitter that no one encouraged her sooner, by the way, although, when asked, she said she hadn't ever told anyone she was interested.

I'm sure each company's story is different. English ballet, dominated by DeValois and Rambert, where Karsavina coached and Nijinska found a second home for her ballets, haven't produced a major, or even minor, choreographer since Andree Howard.

Back to Ms. Bull (I saw her dance, so I'm not very sympathetic. I don't think dancing female-created roles would have helped; I know that's catty.) I don't think it's very easy to make a case that Ashton, Balanchine and Tudor, at least, created roles for women that are in some way inferior, or that their roles misunderstand women. MacMillan and Forsythe is a different matter. But that's about individual psychology, not gender stereotypes.


[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited 03-06-99).]

#4 Ann



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Posted 07 March 1999 - 04:01 PM

Alexandra - to go back to one of your postings in the earlier thread, you said something about the 'contempt' with which some 20th century male choreographers treated women. I'm glad you said that because there's something I have been dying to get off my chest but have never dared to before.

It is just that I have a problem with both Balanchine and Macmillan. In Balanchine's case, I have never understood how he got away with some of the blatantly sexual positions he gave his ballerinas - mid-air full frontal leg splits, deep 'in-your-face'plies and, in Agon, a ballerina in the briefest of costumes has to lie on her back and split her legs wide apart, albeit when her partner has his back to her. It may be that this does not imply 'contempt' of women but it something worth considering. (It doesn't diminish my admiration for Balancine's genius - I'll be travelling from London to NY in July just the see the Kirov dance four of his ballets).

In Macmillan's case the problem is more complex. I have always found a worrying thread of misogyny running through his work (and I'm no feminist). It is blatantly obvious in his final full-length work 'The Judas Tree', but it is also obvious in his anti-war ballet 'Gloria' where a woman is casually and contemptuously thrown off-stage by two men. Even in his lovely 'Manon' there are hints of it where the heroine is needlessly sexually humiliated by the jailer (it wasn't in the book). I could go on about 'Triad' but I don't think very many people have seen that ballet. As in the Balanchine case, this does not stop me being a huge admirer of Macmillan, in particular for his courage in trying to tell real, human stories - as in 'Las Harmanas' and the brilliant 'Different Drummer'. But I don't think a ballet such as 'The Judas Tree' will be performed much, and I certainly don't think it would ever be acceptable to a US company, which is a pity as it has some brilliant choreography for the men.

#5 Alexandra


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Posted 07 March 1999 - 05:32 PM

Thank you for a very interesting post, Ann. I'd never seen Balanchine that way -- although, as I read your examples, I could see each one. Nothing I've ever read or heard about him makes me think he had even subliminal contempt for women, and I might timidly (this will offend everybody; anti-Balanchineans who think he is a sexist, and pro-Balanchineans who think the way NYCB dances him is the only way, so I'll apologize in advance) but I think that this might partly be the way they're danced. There's a plie' on point in "Tarantella," for instance, that can look absolutely lewd, as though a washerwoman is dancing. But I've also seen it look quite elegant, and I've also seen it done just as a step, nothing you would even notice. I might be being very naive, but we see a baby sucking his thumb and we think something sexual is going on there; Balanchine, born in 1904, came from a different world. My instinct said that when he wanted something to be sexual, you knew it, and it was a glance or a touch that took place between partners.

But this is a fascinating idea, and I'd love to hear other people's comments on it.

Re MacMillan, first, FYI, "Triad" is on one of the ABT videos. (Two brothers are never the same after a woman enters their lives.)

I agree with all your examples completely. I haven't seen "Judas Tree," but Deborah Jowitt, the most mild-mannered of New York critics, wrote after seeing it, shortly after MacMillan's death, that she thought no one "would want to face God with that ballet on his conscience." I know several men who liked the ballet, however (very nice men who certainly hold women in no visible contempt), so it may be a gender difference.

I would say that much of what I've seen of MacMillan does indicate a wish (whether conscious or not to humiliate women, at least in his choreography. Not forgetting "Isadora," are we?

(I'm not a MacMillan admirer, but it's not for this reason.)

Thanks again for a most interesting post.


#6 Estelle


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Posted 08 March 1999 - 12:07 PM

Leigh, you wrote: "One reason there always seemed to be less female choreographers than
male was that women are generally socialized not to take authority in
situations (very broad generalization, but often true in ballet)."
I agree with you, but wonder why there is such a difference between
ballet and contemporary dance... In France, about half of the big
contemporary dance companies are lead by women choreographers (Odile Duboc, Maguy Marin,
Regine Chopinot, Maryse Delente, etc.) while women are much rarer in the classical field (there are a few female
directors, such as Nanette Glushak in Toulouse and Pietragalla in Marseille,
but they're not choreographers).
Anyway, it seems to be a complicated phenomenon (I've heard many discussions about a similar problem in mathematics, and people seldom agreed on any conclusion...)

#7 Alexandra


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Posted 08 March 1999 - 07:41 PM

It's the same thing here, Estelle. I really think, when it comes to directors (who are often, though not aways, choreographers) it's money. The big institutions are where the money is, and men are better (for a variety of reasons) and, one could argue, more often favored by institutions. The small companies, outside the mainstream, are easier to start.

In collegiate sports in America, a government law was passed awhile ago requiring that women's sports were given equal support by colleges. (Before this, very few women athletes were given scholarships.) More money has gone into women's sports since then, and a lot of fine female athletes have benefitted from it. But the institutions, well, that's another story. A study done last year revealed the single statistically significant change is that 20 years ago, the coaches of women's sports almost exclusively were (very poorly paid) females. Today, the coaches of women's sports at universities (and almost exclusively at the top, big money universities) are very highly paid men.

Whatever forces are at work there -- and they are complex, from habit to perception to networking to the confidence or lack of confidence of individuals, and probably a half-dozen more -- are at work in dance, too, I think.

As for mathematics, this is as off-topic as it is unscientfic, but I'll offer you an anecdote. My grade school gave a prize to the student who had the best grades in each subject (in each grade). I had the highest grade in arithmetic and got the arithmetic prize. After two years of this, I also had the highest grades in arithmetic and a few other subjects but was given a single award for General Excellence. Now, I had enjoyed marching up to the front of the classroom and collecting those little prizes one by one (hell, I was 8) and was most annoyed at getting only one prize, even though it was bigger and bright red. My mother explained, and my mother doesn't know how to lie, that the mothers of the boys had complained to the school that a girl had won the arithmetic prize, and that this "wasn't right." And so they fixed it. A small pebble in the muddy, rippling stream that is sexual politics, mathematics tributary, but that's how it starts.


#8 Jane Simpson

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Posted 09 March 1999 - 02:10 PM

Just a reminder that Lynn Seymour choreographed at one time - not to much critical/audience success, though there was a piece called 'Intimate Letters' which I - alone in the world, I think - thought was rather good. and what about Marcia Haydee - I've never seen any of her work - has anyone else?

I recently heard a senior dancer of the Royal Ballet say 'The future [choreographichally] belongs to women'. This may have been wishful thinking, but certainly Cathy Marston seems promising. And I also heard Vanessa Fenton, a very junior dancer in the RB but apparently a promising choreographer, sayt that she wished there could be a structure for beginner choreographers, 'like in a bank' (!), starting with anyone who likes getting a chance to do a 5 minute piece, and then the most promising being selected and helped to do gradually longer work. We hope that the new structure in the reopened Royal Opera House may allow something like this next year.

Also, I'd have thought that though there may have been some anti-woman feeling in the past, these days any company director would kill for danceable work from anyone.

#9 Alexandra


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Posted 09 March 1999 - 09:46 PM

Thanks for that information, Jane. I had completely forgotten about Seymour. The only Marcia Haydee I've seen is her production of "Sleeping Beauty," which I absolutely detested - Carabosse was the dominant character, scenes were added where we saw Aurora grow from 4 to 5 to 8 to 11 (different child trudging on, with Carabosse making faces at her), etc. The Maids of Honor's dance replaced with something for men; forget what. But then, I'm a strict constructionist on Sleeping Beauty.

I've heard of a lot of young women choreographing ballets here -- Miriam Mahdaviani (sp?) with NYCB (nothing very major), Julie Adam at San Francisco Ballet (all I've heard is "promising;" keep fingers crossed). Martine Van Hamel has choreographed a few pieces; she did one on Washington Ballet. I liked her dancing better. There are a lot of women choreographing for the relatively minor regional companies here (in San Diego, in Cincinatti; I'm sure there are more).

I'm sure you're right about the current climate. I wonder, though (back to the original question about Deborah Bull's complaint that the characters she dances are all made by men) if, after all that's happened in this century, a great female choreographer emerged, there was suddenly a great insight or change of viewpoint -- in the way that Martha Graham's view of the world was so revoutionary.

I was hoping Victoria would have time to answer this thread. As a teacher, she'd know more about the aspirations of young women. Dancing or choreography, or both, Victoria?


#10 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 10 March 1999 - 11:12 AM

Many excellent points have been made so far on this thread, and it is a most interesting one. I agree with Alexandra that choreographers don't "just happen", and that training and development are very important. Also opportunity. For reasons beyond my comprehension, it seems to me that opportunity seems to present itself to male dancers/potential choreographers more than it does to females. Or is it that females just do not seek out the opportunities? Is it, like Leigh said, that they are not socialized to take authority roles?

I find that choreography is just not encouraged nor developed in the training of a dancer, and, as in training for teaching, it should and could be. When Jim Franklin and I had our Academy in Florida, we did 3 or 4 in-studio concerts each year where the students choreographed their own pieces. We started them with improv solos, about a minute or two, at the II or III level, and increased the time and number of dancers over the years until by their senior year they were choreographing group pieces of about 10 minutes. We had a number of students who showed fine potential in this direction, and a couple of them (female!) are now doing choreography in professional situations. One is a Carbonell award winner in Florida. She choreographs for musicals and has also done a lot of cruise ship work. The other is a principal dancer with Houston who is right now choreographing a 25 minute work for the Houston Academy Level 8 spring concert. This is a first "major" work for her, but if successful, I would not be surprised if she someday gets to set a work on the main company. Another student I had in West Palm Beach showed major choreographic talent at a very young age, and is now majoring in dance and doing lots of choreography at U. of So. FL.

At Leigh-Franklin we also trained our top students as teachers. In order to do this they had to be on early release from school, and also they were hand-picked. Not everyone received this training, as it was given to them, and I would only do that with students who I felt had solid potential. In their junior year they took the teacher-training course with me, and in their senior year they were given a class of their own to teach, usually a ballet I or II level, twice a week. They were supervised and guided, but allowed to be on their own enough to develop their confidence in teaching. Not all will be brilliant teachers, but they will all know the vocabulary, the "why's and wherefore's", how to break it down, and when to present it. They will know how to align a student, and how to deal with structual differences. Hopefully, they will have learned a good deal more than that when combined with their own technical and artistic training!

I'm not sure why we don't have any major female ballet choreographers right now, but I do think that we will have in the future - hopefully the near future! I think that women are stronger as far as seeking out authority now than they used to be, and also that the "good old boy network", which existed in the dance world as much as anywhere else, and especially in the University world, will be a thing of the past. Is this just wishful thinking?

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