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?