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Male/Female Balance

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I was at the ballet the other night. A trilogy titled "United!" because it was a combined performance by both the Australian Ballet and the West Australian ballet.

Anyway... idly browsing through the program... hmmm there's a lot of guys in the Oz ballet, thinks I... so I did a count:

Of nine principals: 6 male, 3 female

Overall: 35 male, 36 female

Now, my perception to date was that companies tended to be weighted in favour of women (you gotta have a lot of swans!) and the Australian Ballet was a little unusual and was known for it's strength in men. But I was struck by the preponderance of men in the senior positions and the nearly equal numbers of both genders and wondered whether this was true of other companies.

I asked "in another place" and found that Houston Ballet also had 9 principals with 6 male and 3 female. PNB had nearly equal numbers in all positions with slightly more men in the senior positions.

So, has my perception of companies weighting their numbers in favour of more women been a total nonsense? Or, is this a recent trend to have equal numbers of both genders as modern ballets dictate balance rather than stages full of swans?

Also, why the preponderance of men in senior positions in these companies? Is that true of other companies?

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I think it depends on the company and the rep.

In the principal ranking, it depends on how many women prinicipals you have, height differences, technique differences, overall chemistry.

There's a lot of factors. I think early on, there was much more choreography done on women, and the men were just there to show off the women. More and more is being done now on men. I think men are getting more attention now in the classroom too, it's not just partnering anymore and being able to get through a coda, the shift of responsibilty of pulling a production through is fairly even now.

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While it is true that there are more male students in ballet today than in, say, the early 60s, it's still a shortage specialty worldwide, but the numbers are largely precluding the promotion of male dancers to the levels of their incompetence. Some companies, ABT famously, presently have a surfeit of excellent male dancers, almost to the embarrassment of its female ranks. :)

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Welcome, photoguy :) It's good to have some input from Australia!

I think your point about the repertory is apt. As companies do more and more contemporary dance pieces, rather than classical ballet with its corps of swans, as you noted, the old formulas have changed. When I started going to ballet iin the mid-1970s, I read an article by Lucia Chase, then director of American Ballet Theatre, in which she said she needed 24 women ini the corps (for Swan Lake) and 10 men (for Billy the Kid). Those were the outside limits in the repertory then.

But, as others have noted, it depends on the company. At the same time, the Joffrey Ballet was equally divided. And the Royal Danish Ballet has always had equal, if not more, men at the soloist ranks.

I also think that Kate has a good point. Very good dancers often languish in the female corps, while moderately talented men get solo parts quickly. As for why there are more principals, in some companies some of the senior men would stay on to do mime roles -- that's going now.

(I'd also note that I don't think classical ballet MUST have more women than men, and be built on the 24 women one man model. It would be lovely to have new, classical ballets with different configurations.)

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Hi Old Fashioned!

That's where I got my HB data! But there weren't many replies on the other board and I wanted some more analytical responses - hence my move to this board... (psst... they have a lot of more mature and interesting discussions here... but don't tell anyone I said so...) ;)

Thanks for the responses everyone.

I guess it boils down to company culture and desired repertoire - as far as the male to female ratio goes. This strikes me as rather a chicken and egg scenario: We have these dancers so we can perform these ballets OR we want to perform these ballets so we need to have this set of dancers.

So my original perception of companies historically tending to hire more women than men is flawed; even though Lucia Chase's comment suggests otherwise, this was her choice in her company. As Alexandra points out, Joffrey and Royal Danish bucked the trend.

I'm still a little perplexed at the ratio of male to female principals. Calliope, your comment:

In the principal ranking, it depends on how many women prinicipals you have, height differences, technique differences, overall chemistry.

Why would that result in 2 male principals for each female? (In the case of Houston and Australian Ballets). And the male principals in these companies are not an aging group with some staying on as mimes... (my daughter tells me they are quite "hot" - whatever that means... ;) )

I suppose it boils down to: What does it mean to be a principal?

If it is based entirely on talent and experience, I would have thought that the larger numbers of women dancers vying for places in companies would mean that the cream of the crop make it into companies and therefore that principals would be those of very high talent indeed. Conversely, because of the shortage of male dancers, a much broader range of talent would be available and only a few would be able to make it to the top rank. So, why MORE male principals than female?


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Roy, I think your original perception that companies tended to hire more women than men is correct (the Danes were a male-dominated company for a variety of historical reasons; their early 19th century repertory survived, with good principal roles for men and the ballets weren't dependent on large female corps.) Then there's a winnowing out -- fair or unfair -- and by the time you get to the principal ranks, there is usually a balance.

I'm not familiar enough with either Houston or Australian Ballets to be able to tell why this isn't the case now. But in general, I can think of a lot of reasons. Some of it is generational -- all of a sudden, four women who, just yesterday, it seems, were 29 are now 34 (which has become old age for ballet companies). If you had four strong ballerinas, there may not have been as much of an opportunity for young female dancers to have a crack at principal roles. Some may have withered in the corps, some may have left for a company with more chances. If all four of the 34-year-olds retire within a year or two of each other AND, go for bad luck, the most promising soloist breaks her leg, a company could suddenly have no female principals, but six men (and of course, the genders could easily be switched). So that can happen. Some companies seem to produce dancers by the generation -- a clump of very promising graduates every six years or so.

Some directors also have ways of hiring that are unfathomable to outsiders. Hire every male medal winner on the market -- whoops. Now what do we do with them? Or a choreographer goes to another company and sets a ballet, and finds two or three dancers very sympathetic to his work and they follow him home.

If one looks at rosters over the years, the ratio can vary -- it's too early, I think, to see this as a trend.

I'm sure others can think of specific examples of different companies -- which is it? Repertory, chance, directorial whim?

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An after thought -- for Roy, and anyone else interested in comparing ballet companies, the quickest link I know is a site of links called www.balletcompanies.com It's organized by country (and, within the U.S.) by states. It has both ballet and modern dance companies (and other kinds, too). And so you're never more than a click or two away from the home page of any company about which you are curious :D

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Sorry Alexandra, I didn't mean to come across as negative about the other site. In fact I have a great deal of affection for the other site and its members and I'm still active there. For various reasons, some of the deeper topics don't get discussed there but this doesn't mean it's not a nice place to be - far from it! It's just different.

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I know no one meant any harm, and I thank you for being discrete and not naming names :) But on a message board, one thing often leads to another very quickly, and we try to avoid conflict among sites. I agree -- every site has its own personality and strengths.

Now back to gender balance in ballet companies!

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I'm glad you like it (www.balletcompanies.com). I though it a real find. It's a commercial site, so they can afford to keep it updated and I very seldom find bad links there.

It's wonderful to be able to tour the dance world like this -- seeing nearly every company in the world, at least through photos, without leaving home. You can learn a lot about the company's approach from reading its press releases, too.

To Roy, and any others who are just exploring this site, we have a section of forums on American companies, and another section of non-American companies. (I don't think there's an Australian Ballet company one yet, because we really need at least 3 or 4 active posters to make one go.) I'll be putting up the season's schedule in each forum, company by company, this week, so it will be easy to check up on what everyone's doing -- and read comments by people in that area.

I look forward to your Gender Balance Research Study :)

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i just accidentally stumbled across this thread, from an australian poster (i think), who i haven't noticed before. are you still around, photoguy? i had no idea that the AB had more ale principals than female...i wonder why. i think i'll pass this query on to a friend of mine, who might know more - although it is now a year ago, so the situation may not be the same, any more.

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Just wanted to make the point that if you look at the original choreography of the classics, they actually did call for a great many men in the corps! For example, the garland waltz was originally meant to be danced by couples, as was the waltz in Act I of Swan Lake, and (I think) the Waltz of the Flowers in the Nutcracker. Not to mention the galop at the end of Sleeping Beauty, the mazurka in Act III of Swan Lake (which is listed in the score as a "general" dance for the court, not a Polish divertissement), all of which makes me wonder if perhaps the ballets were changed because of the lack of men when they were done by western companies, not the other way round.

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The second act of Swan Lake had men, too -- one huntsman for every two swans.

In England, the lack of men definitely changed the choreography. There weren't many to begin with, and from 1939 to 1945 there were hardly any because of the war. (One touching story I read was when one young man did his last performance before being called up he got the typical front of the curtain calls usually reserved for stars -- after performing Wilfrid in Giselle.)

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In Beauty, the Valse Villageoise was taken down rather completely. It was danced by couples and children. The kids not only danced, they carried on the little step units for one sequence. Holy Vaudeville! Early accounts of Swan don't have much to say about the Act I Valse, except to say that it looked rather like the other. It was not notated. Waltz of the Flowers had no men in it, and the original photographs of the mazurka in Swan show "Felix Kschessinsky and daughter (!)" as the first couple, who end up in the down right corner. Perhaps the mazurka was intended as a general dance in the 1877 production, but by 1895, it was four couples.

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Re Felix Kschessinsky and daughter, I can't resist an aside. It's one of my favorite stories. He was a great character dancer (and his daughter, was, indeed, THE Kschessinska). He danced until he was 80, when a fall through the trap door during Sleeping Beauty made him think about a career change. I've always wondered if it was an accident.....

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I read something about a waltz in a Petipa ballet calling for 60 couples but am not sure which ballet it was in. Imagine having a corps containing more than 120 men and women!

Does anyone know if the waltz from the betrothal scene of Bayadere called for couples?

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