ARE THE 'BUZZIEST' CHOREOGRAPHERS MALE IN THE US AS WELL AS UK? AND DO CRITICS IN THE UK HAVE MORE POWER?

There’s currently a debate raging in London over Sadler’s Wells (the most important venue there for contemporary dance) and its new season lineup showcasing the work almost entirely of male choreographers. Thanks to Pinballpeople for pointing me to it!

See Guardian posts by dance and culture writers Judith Mackrell and Charlotte Higgins here, here, and here (and read the comments section in that last link; some are by choreographers and are very astute.)

Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, has apparently responded that he realizes there’s an imbalance but can’t do anything about it; he has to choose the works he thinks best. Spalding posits one reason for the lack of female choreographers as being that women are perhaps not as “assertive” as men, but it’s unclear to me what exactly he means.

Women are more timid about submitting their work to large venues? Or women are not as good at choreographing in the first place because they’re not aggressive enough in directing dancers, in getting what they want out of them?

The same debate crops up here as well from time to time. When the Ballet Boyz were here for Fall For Dance a couple of years ago they were asked on a panel discussion a similar question. They related an experience they’d had with a female choreographer and generalized that women are not as aggressive as men when it comes to directing. They felt very uncomfortable with this one woman choreographer because she kept second-guessing herself and asking them — the two men — what they thought.

I’m sure it does take a certain personality to be a choreographer — one likely similar to that of a film or stage director — but I don’t think gender is as much of an issue in this regard than it perhaps was in the past. I seem to know far more aggressive women than men.

Higgins posits that perhaps male choreographers get more big commissions because of the critics, most of whom are either straight women or gay men and both of whom tend to focus on male dance-makers, finding them sexier, more intelligent and clever, etc. than their female counterparts. I had to burst out laughing at this, mainly because I can’t believe serious arts writers have that kind of power over there! Wow! For better or for worse, critics over here certainly don’t have the power to change managerial policy or public taste. Alastair Macaulay basically said as much in a talk he gave at Barnard early on in his tenure as NYTimes chief dance critic.

That may point to a real difference between the British and American public though. I wonder if European audiences do read more, think more, and take criticism and more seriously. Here, I feel like it’s all about marketing. The public is more guided by big flashy pictures and flashy previews of good-looking artists than they are by serious arts discussion.

As for sexism: I do feel that most of the “buzziest” (to use Higgins’ term) names in choreography here are male — at least regarding the new and upcoming choreographers: Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Jorma Elo, Benjamin Millepied. (Twyla Tharp I’d say is still overall the most famous living choreographer). Three of the four new choreographers whose work NYCBallet has recently showcased are male. It seems most of the work commissioned by ABT is by men.

Here, I don’t really know every critic’s sexuality, but from what I do see, most of the straight female and gay male writers don’t even focus on the men — they all seem, interestingly, to focus on the women — at least as far as the dancers go. I’m probably the person who writes most about men, but that’s only the dancers. (And I don’t think that’s sexist or has anything to do with giving preference to male choreographers). I don’t really think critics or bloggers here play up male choreographers at the expense of female.  I definitely don’t see writers here empowering male choreographers by painting their work as sexier, more intelligent, more clever, etc. Does anyone else or am I just blind?

Also, some of the Guardian writers and commentators surmise that male choreographers are doing better because their work is sexier or more poppy. I thought about this, but here, I don’t think so. Is Benjamin Millepied’s work “sexy”? Christopher Wheeldon’s? Ratmansky’s?

I guess it depends on how you define “sexy” — lightly clothed dancers, sexually evocative movement, dance that pushes boundaries, dance that enables dancer charisma to shine through, etc. — but I feel that some of the female choreographers lately — Twyla Tharp’s endearingly wild male characters, Lauri Stallings’s corset-clad men — are creating “sexier” work than their male counterparts… And work that is more widely-accessible too: Tharp has always been a master of creating dances that speak to both art connoisseurs and mainstream audiences, and Melissa Barak’s recent new pretty, classical, Balanchine-esque ballet seemed to fare better both with audiences and critics than the darker, less familiar, more angular-lined works by Millepied, Bubenicek and Elo.

And yet, here, as in the UK, the men do seem to be getting significantly more media attention. Significantly (think of all the recent magazine layouts: Wheeldon, Millepied, Ratmansky… where are the women?)

And it can’t really be that old archaic dichotomy women = bodies, men = brains at play, since, as Mackrell points out, so many dance pioneers — Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, were women.

So what gives? Any thoughts?

7 Comments

  1. I have always felt naive about the status of men in dance. I hear that it is easier for us but it seems to me that there are fewer of us which makes us more of a curiosity. I know that there is sexism in dance just as in the rest of the world. However let me for the sake of argument make a few stereotypes based on what I have seen: male choreographers tend to infuse technology and current trends in their work while women tend to make work based on movement exploration and social issues. Assuming I am somewhat correct the latter is less sexy and because of the number of women making dance it gets seen more often and therefore is less interesting in general. I say this knowing that there are exceptions to everything and that my construct is simplistic but here is another one, women make things run well much more than men and therefore are less risky = men are stocks, women are bonds. Ok I can take it, bring it :)

  2. I have always felt naive about the status of men in dance. I hear that it is easier for us but it seems to me that there are fewer of us which makes us more of a curiosity. I know that there is sexism in dance just as in the rest of the world. However let me for the sake of argument make a few stereotypes based on what I have seen: male choreographers tend to infuse technology and current trends in their work while women tend to make work based on movement exploration and social issues. Assuming I am somewhat correct the latter is less sexy and because of the number of women making dance it gets seen more often and therefore is less interesting in general. I say this knowing that there are exceptions to everything and that my construct is simplistic but here is another one, women make things run well much more than men and therefore are less risky = men are stocks, women are bonds. Ok I can take it, bring it :)

  3. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thanks for commenting, Boris! (And sorry about Disqus taking so long :S ) I have to think more about what you said. I mean, I think of Trisha Brown right away as an exception to the use of technology (although I don't know if that is mainly a thing of the past with her, more so than with her current work) and Forsythe as an exception to the social issues (and a lot of male choreographers have made dances about war). It does seem like perhaps women are more into movement exploration. I do think movement exploration tends to be less interesting and engaging to audiences comprised primarily of non-dancers who can't understand why what's going on onstage is important or what they're supposed to get out of it.

    But what do you mean by “women make things run well much more than men”? I wonder if women are less risky. Maybe they are overall, but there are certainly female choreographers who do take risks, like Lauri Stallings, and Trisha Brown and Pina Bausch.

    But I don't know as much about dance as you! — especially about the modern and experimental choreographers. My knowledge is mostly of ballet…

  4. Tonya,
    This all seems very obvious: women have kids , they take time off, they cant travel around AS MUCH , plus dance requires marketing muscle and money the way it never did before and men still have more of the latter ON AVERAGE…
    But let me throw another idea out: what about social class/money?…if you look at young choreographers, like young gallery dealers and filmmakers-heck anyone in the arts–the wealthy have a disproportionate influence . I know 3 or 4 recent NYU and Juilliard grads for example who have completely or partially dropped out of choreographing because they cant hold down three jobs, fund raise and choreograph dances and market them properly all at once–while several of their classmates with trust funds or family money have started their own companies and are having the time of their lives…
    We've discussed this in terms of dance criticism as well: how difficult it is to go to performances, keep up on what is cutting edge etc, in both ballet and contemporary, be expected to hand things in that are not just well-written and errorless (because god knows WHAT editors are doing these days, assuming our publications have any anymore–Dance Magazine is an exception where Wendy and company are amazing!) and usually get paid nothing or a pittance for the work, it' s become something oe does “on top of/as well as rather than a profession with the exception of a few staff positions, there are like 5 in the whole city
    Anyway to get back to WOMEN-I would guess that they are affected by the same things: they have less access because in their case everything is built for more or less available upper class men-upper class or who have access to funds, i.e people who can just sit around in their privilege and create, not worry about bills, or the having kids etc and all the other things life throws at you, plus i'm sure there's a bit of good old misogyny at work there, lol..anyway not sure if this is entirely cogent…

  5. I was making the point that women tend to be more organized and practical. Certainly there are exceptions Bebe Miller explores social and uses a lot of technology, Bill T told me to my face that technology is never more interesting than dancers and yet a lot of the work his company does uses video and animation as they explore social issues.

    As for Chris' point about women having kids, I think there are a lot of choreographers who don't have kids or have them without interrupting their careers.

    I won't post this one twice :)

  6. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Oh, that makes sense, Boris. Women probably are more practical and organized :) I appreciate your input since I'm sure you know a lot more choreographers than I do and you know the process better.

    Thanks for commenting, Chris! Yeah, I agree with Boris that the biology issue doesn't really make sense today. If women can dance, doctor, lawyer, run companies, be heads of state etc., then they can choreograph. Of course you're definitely right about the financial issues. I'm assuming Europe is much more advanced in governmental funding of the arts than we are, so monetary discrepancies are probably much greater here. It's true that the trust fund babies have a lot more, in every realm — they surely get more of their books and articles published since they have the financial power to found their own publishing companies and magazines. I didn't know there were a lot of independently wealthy people in dance, but I'm sure there are, as everywhere. I just don't know what to do about that, other than push for greater public funding.

  7. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Oh, that makes sense, Boris. Women probably are more practical and organized :) I appreciate your input since I'm sure you know a lot more choreographers than I do and you know the process better.

    Thanks for commenting, Chris! Yeah, I agree with Boris that the biology issue doesn't really make sense today. If women can dance, doctor, lawyer, run companies, be heads of state etc., then they can choreograph. Of course you're definitely right about the financial issues. I'm assuming Europe is much more advanced in governmental funding of the arts than we are, so monetary discrepancies are probably much greater here. It's true that the trust fund babies have a lot more, in every realm — they surely get more of their books and articles published since they have the financial power to found their own publishing companies and magazines. I didn't know there were a lot of independently wealthy people in dance, but I'm sure there are, as everywhere. I just don't know what to do about that, other than push for greater public funding.

Comments are closed