The Royal Ballet's Women

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Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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Classical ballet companies have never been known for their willingness to allow women into the upper echelons of the creative process and The Royal Ballet, in London, is no exception.

Even by their standards however the recently premiered production of 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012', created in collaboration with the National Gallery, has raised more eyebrows than usual. Of the 15 lead artists involved with the project not one of them is female.

The artists commissioned by Monica Mason, AD of the Royal Ballet, and Dr Minna Moore Ede from the National Gallery are;

Wayne McGregor, Liam Scarlett, Christopher Wheeldon, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Kim Brandstrup, Conrad Shawcross, Nico Muhly, Will Tuckett, Jonathan Watkins, Chris Ofili, Jonathan Dove, Alasdair Middleton, Alastair Marriott and Mark Wallinger

Stumble

When we asked the Royal Ballet's press office to explain the paucity of oestrogen in the creative mix for 'Titian' they actually thanked us for raising the subject of commissioning female artists because apparently the company has "been talking about [the issue] for a while."

Great, we responded, so what have you done about it then?

"...at the Royal Ballet we've got Wayne McGregor who's our resident choreographer, [he] has a kind of a programme whereby he encourages dancers in the company to become, to choreograph new work every season. We have a programme in our Lindbury Studio Theatre where the dancers create new work and people can buy tickets to see it and of those, I would say, two thirds are women within the company creating new work."

The problem with that response though is that we are not talking about the studio theatre shows, we're talking about the Royal Ballet's main stage at the Royal Opera House. Also, this programme does not appear to have made it possible for women to progress from the Lindbury Theatre to the main stage.

When asked why this was the case to Royal Ballet press office had no answer.

Article19 asked how many female dance makers had produced work for the Royal Ballet, on the main stage, in the last 12 months. The press officer claimed to be unable to recall the exact number off the "top of [their] head." A curious response given that the number the press officer was trying to recall was zero.

Additionally, the press office tried to claim that any suggestion that sexism or discrimination was at play was somewhat ridiculous because the two people in charge of commissioning all the artists are women themselves.

In the history of mankind, just as men have never been prejudiced against men, women have never been prejudiced against other women. Right?

Schoolyard rationales not withstanding the company eventually issued a comment from Ms Mason herself;

"I have not commissioned any female choreographers to make work for The Royal Ballet during my tenure as Director because, quite simply, I have not come across one that I felt was suitable. Choreography is not a gender issue - it is an issue of talent."

So there you have it dear readers. Despite some 54 years experience in the wide world of classical ballet Ms Mason has been unable find one single female choreographer anywhere on planet earth who can rise above or even match the creative skill-set of McGregor, Tuckett, Wheeldon and Co.

It is perhaps a remarkable coincidence that given the ratio of women to men working in dance that the vast majority of the "talented" ones when it comes to actually creating work are, according to Ms Mason, all men.

Wayne McGregor, the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer, declined to comment on the commissioning practices and history of the Royal Ballet and Ms Mason.

A Long Hard Winter

The last female choreographer to present a commissioned work on the main stage at the Royal Opera House for the company was Siobhan Davies in December 1999 with 'Stranger's Taste'. Ms Davies work was last performed in January 2000.

One female dance maker did manage to make it onto the main stage in the intervening years, choreographically speaking of course. Bronislava Nijinska's piece 'Les Noces' created in 1923 for the Ballets Russes, had a reasonable run in 2004. Ms Nijinska herself died in 1972.

Ms Davies was unavailable to comment for this piece.

As for the Royal Ballet press office and their claim that many female company members are making work for the Lindbury stage?

Using the available records, we could find only three choreographers from the last 10 years, namely Vanessa Fenton, Cathy Marston and Kristen McNally. If that's "two thirds" then we would suggest that the Royal Ballet expands its' programme.

For comparison, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the second largest ballet company in the UK, does have a slightly better record when it comes to female dance makers.

Over the last two years three works by women have made it to the main stage from Twyla Tharpe, Ninette de Valois and a brand new commission in 2012 from Jessica Lang.

Contemporary dance maker Rosie Kay, also commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet in the past, commented that;

"I was disappointed to learn that there have been no female artists commissioned by Royal Ballet since 1999.
The lack of female representation in politics, the media, BBC sports personality of the year and theatre has recently come to the fore, and it seems dance is no exception.
Why are female voices not being recognised, listened to or respected? Not only are we missing out on a whole generation of important female artists voices, we are not giving young women any inspirational female role models to aspire to and belief in themselves that they too have an important part to play in choreography, dance and the arts.
But we need to to ask- where are the women choreographers? Out major arts institutions should endeavour to equally represent the audiences who pay to see work and the world we live in. "

David Bintley, the current AD of Birmingham Royal Ballet, was unavailable for comment.

The ACE problem

Despite what their own PR might have you believe the Royal Ballet is, to use Article19 parlance, a JADaC. Which means they are just another dance company, funded by Arts Council England's NPO funding programme and as such bound by the terms and conditions of that funding.

One section of those terms and conditions clearly states that the company should;

"[act] at all times without distinction and in compliance of all relevant legislation and best practice as to age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation; In particular, the Organisation will develop and put in place appropriate policies and procedures to comply with relevant equality legislation."

When advertising a specific job no company, in the arts or otherwise, is allowed to specify they want a man or a woman for the available position unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

Choreography commissions are rarely filled using an open application process however by the Royal Ballet, or by any other dance company for that matter, except on very rare occasions.

As such the decision to hire specific dance makers is not subject to any notable oversight from either curious journalists or the funding monolith that provides them with the money to operate.

We asked ACE, given the Royal Ballet's evidently poor record on hiring women to creative positions just how they monitored and enforced their own terms and conditions for funding the company.

Article19 also highlighted to ACE comments made by Monica Mason to the New York Times in 2007 when, talking about why so few women are in charge of ballet companies, she said that "[men are] more assertive and more competitive" and "It's more natural to them [men], and women very often view themselves in an assisting situation."

"Women very often view themselves in an assisting situation." Much like when female dancers "assist" male dance makers in making work, but don't actually get to make the work?

Arts Council England told us, in typically benign language;

"It is not the Arts Council's role to take artistic decisions for a funded company - such as selecting a choreographer - but to our knowledge, there has been no breach of equality legislation in the way Royal Ballet has made these choices or carried out its business.
We have discussed, and continue to discuss, with Royal Ballet how they can help us meet our goals and priorities around a diverse work force and artistic talent, and this includes discussing how they might help to develop a more diverse group of choreographers."

So far, so predictable. We also asked Janet Archer, the National Director of Dance Strategy to comment on the thirteen year absence of a single commission for a woman at the Royal Ballet;

"While is not the Arts Council's job to make artistic decisions, such as the choice of choreographer, we do of course discuss with our funded companies how they are helping us meet our goals and priorities around a diverse work force and the development of artistic talent.
We have great respect for the role Monica Mason has played during her time as Director of the Royal Ballet which has been transformative in many ways.
The Royal Ballet has been taking a proactive approach to nurturing a more diverse group of up-and-coming choreographers in recent years."

You will note that the first paragraph of Ms Archer's response is exactly the same as the previous response from ACE just slightly re-written.

Ms Archer also mentioned in her reply the choreographer Cathy Marston the current director of Bern Ballet and no stranger to commissioning women herself. Ironically, Ms Marston is set to leave her position at Bern Ballet next year. Too late to be hired as the new AD of The Royal Ballet however.

You may also note that neither ACE nor Ms Archer consider the lack of main stage commissions at the Royal Ballet for thirteen years to be a cause for concern or detailed investigation.

Relics

In many ways this particular farce brings to mind our piece "The United States of Nobody Gives a Sh*t" which covered the debacle of English National Opera and their treatment of professional dancers.

Clearly there is a significant problem, but everybody in a position to do something about it stares at the sky and starts whistling.

Leaving aside subjective opinions about "talent" does it really seem believable, given the number of women working in dance compared to men, that all of the most talented ones, the most worthy ones, would all be male?

Two of the male dance makers commissioned for 'Titian' are just 23 and 24 years old. According to Ms Mason there is not one single female dance maker in the whole world with more skill and experience than those two.

Again, does that really strike you as being believable? Or is Ms Mason just not looking hard enough? Or perhaps she just doesn't care to look.

Any suggestion that creating work for the Royal Ballet is somehow more difficult, challenging or demanding than it is for any other company is, to be blunt, wrong.

Once the house lights go out The Royal Opera House is just another illuminated stage at the front of a dark room. 200 or 2,000 in the audience makes no difference to the choreographer.

Here in TheLab™ all we can surmise is that Ms Mason is little more than a relic of a bygone era of entrenched patriarchy at the UK's biggest and most well funded dance company. An artistic director living in the shadow of too many dead dance makers, all of whom were male.

Far from "..nurturing a more diverse group of up-and-coming choreographers.." as claimed by Janet Archer, what Ms Mason is doing is simply a continuation of everything that has gone before.

It's all men all the time.

Ms Mason is set to leave the Royal Ballet soon to spend more time with her fossil brush. She will be replaced by Kevin O'Hare another Royal Ballet insider.

The forecast for change at Covent Garden is gloomy with a chance of persistent repetition.

  • Choreokino

    Cue sound of hollow laughter.
    Female choreographers very seldom choreograph classically and the reason why most great female world choreographers specialise in angry conceptually oriented contemporary dance pieces - often somewjat noisome variations on a theme of the castration of their fathers, is because the classical ballet world is almost universally run by androcentric, gynophobes, with passive aggressive mysoginistic tendencies - and that's the ones who LIKE women.

    and anyway, the Groves of Academe, The Royal Ballet and sundry other VIP watering holes for bankers and Their Ladies Who Lunch are incredibly unlikely to find Crystal Pyte or Pina Bausch or Jasmin Vardemon particularly comfortable viewing and that's what Clessical Bellet is ALL about - its Entertainment 'fraid.......

    Sue Davis got the commission because London Contemporary Dance Theatre were in the process of having a historical review, everyone was a bit suss about the failure of Bob Cohan's Graham project in London and the commission was a token gesture - and when the Clessical Belletomanes failed to connect with what was really happening in the dance world they gave her a building instead - by the way, as the ONLY other ecentre of choreogrpahic excellence in london at the mo - any chance of anything remotely looking like new choreogrpahy coming out of the Siobhann Davis ivory tower anytime soon?

    Neil has a very good point as ever!

  • Ana

    I have just finished a PhD on this subject and I have to say the general outlook is not rosy for women in ballet and, more generally, in dance. I welcome this article, because when I first started to look into this issue, I had very blank faces staring at me.
    Let me point out something. Female choreographers have been repeatedly erased from history. Their repertoire has been consistently lost. A case in point during Mason's directorship was the revival of Andrée Howard's La Fete Étrange for the company. The last surviving work of this - who was once praised as "perhaps the most English choreographer" - received a poor revival in 2005 that prompted Clement Crisp to write that careful restaging was a priority for the company, on the grounds that it was the least that Howard's beautiful talent deserved. His petition went unheard.
    You mention Nijinska, who nobody hesitates to put at the top of ballet's choreographic tradition. However, lest we forget, had Sir Frederick Ashton failed to call her in the 60s to stage her works for his company, these masterpieces (Les Noces and Les Biches) would have been lost forever.
    Thus, we have no role models for future generations and it is assumed that men can do it better... wrong assumption, but ballet companies follow cultural values and, let's face it, our present days are not very kind to women.
    We are losing a point of view, a way of looking at things. The female gaze in dance has always disrupted the general trends and it does not sit comfortably in history books. As a historian, I often find it difficult to include them in the mainstream discourse.
    As a choreographer, I have seen less talented men overtake me without any problems. I am no Nijinska, but neither are many of the above mentioned choreographers.
    As a choreographer lecturer, I have seen talent flourish equally between my male and female students. As there are more female students, I have therefore seen more talent in female students. It's a matter of numbers.
    Thank you for the article! Thank you for putting this very complex and perplexing issue on the spot.

  • Rebecca

    As someone who has taught choreography at a major ballet company for 15 years, I can say it takes a while for the older student's to mentally adjust to the fact that they can be the ones who create. The younger ones, however, have the tendency naturally in their bones so if started early, and don't stop until they reach 18, they will have the courage and DO have the courage.

    Over the years, I discovered there were approx 20% of students in each class who were risk-takers and had the vision, imagination and interest to create; the rest were pretty much frightened to death. Today, the leaders in the field have a responsibility to do some serious research to find creative dance women and give them a chance. Always the males are given the opportunities, even after choreographing one time, to put a piece on main-stage and most of the time the pieces are horrible. That is plain irresponsible.

    It is up to the directors to find someone who has potential and to provide opportunities for them to be nurtured and grow, as the company did with me. I am forever grateful although I, too, am constantly hitting many sexist prejudices in the field now. Women artists need to speak up. They are out there. And, so what if they have a baby or their bodies change - as a choreographer it is about the art on stage isn't it, and not themselves?

    Unfortunately many directors judge the body of the choreographer, especially if she is a woman (how many fat males choreographers are out there...many!) which is completely not fair and sexist on another level. And pretty ridiculous when you think about it.

    If we can just focus on the art of dance in terms of the piece itself, and not the superficial stuff, then great art will be made by woman. Women need to speak up and the directors need to listen and give them a chance. The narcissism and egos need to be tossed out the door.

  • Kate

    Choreography takes confidence, there is boldness required in putting yourself forward to create something and be willing to be judged. Confidence is something a lot of dancers, particularly female ballet dancers, don't have.

    A female dancer's entire career is full of self doubt, issues with personal image and technical proficiency are almost encouraged. From the word go in a ballet school and throughout a career in a company, one is never encouraged to think too positively about one's own skills, rather one is all too aware about what you can't do.

    Although this same notion applies to males, there is arguably less focus on body image in the male world, with weight issues less common.

    There is less competition in the first place with far fewer males dancing, so males benefit from the security of knowing they are less 'replaceable' than female dancers.

    Monica Mason's comments on males being more competitive might be arguable, but I would suggest every professional female dancer out there has had to be extremely competitive every step of the way to get there, in a world where the ratio of girls to boys is far from 1:1.

    Let's be honest, males have less to worry about, they don't have the arduous decision of whether to end their career to have a child. For the few females who return to work after having a baby, getting back into a leotard in itself is a process where you put yourself out there for others to watch how quickly the baby fat disappears, and this all happens at a time when a male dancer might instead be thinking about how to further their career and enter the possible field of choreography.

    At the risk of generalising, although I feel it has to be said, being a female dancer is harder work than being a male dancer. It takes more of one's life, so it doesn't surprise me that there are less females out there creating new work, they're too worried about how much they ate for breakfast.

    Females need to be encouraged from the moment they enter a dance school to create. In doing so self confidence develops in a way that is never going to happen in a ballet class.

    Whilst they might think their feet are rubbish, their thighs are too chunky, or their bum wobbles too much in a leotard, the process of creation is not hindered or affected by these issues of self doubt, thus a certain sense of escapism if offered, through which, confidence and the boldness to be judged, necessary traits in all choreographers, develops.

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