“In my ballets, woman is first. Men are consorts. God made men to sing the praises of women. They are not equal to men - they are better.” This famous Balanchine quote is often heard through the halls of many academies producing the next generations of dancers. Balanchine is known to have loved making women the stars of his ballets with men being the supporting characters, there to assist when needed. However, women have historically been underrepresented in higher ranking positions within the community, especially in choreographer and artistic director roles. In a female-dominated career, the gender gap and major lack of gender equality in higher ranking positions is surprising given the statistics, history, and current climate of the ballet world; however, some companies and new findings are attempting to fight just that.
Starting at a young age, girls outnumber boys 20-to-1 in ballet class, according to Forbes. It would be natural to think that those numbers carry on through the ranks of company life. However, pre-pandemic statistics note that 72 percent of ballet company artistic directors are male, and only one woman made the top ten highest earners for artistic directors in 2017. These statistics contribute to the notion that while ballet may seem to be a female dominated field, there is an almost unshatterable glass ceiling that few have penetrated in holding higher ranking positions.
Statistics also note that not only does the ballet world favor male leadership roles, like artistic directors, but also choreographer positions. The Dance Data Project (DDP) is an organization that promotes equity in classical ballet by examining salaries and leadership in the country’s top 50 ballet companies. Their findings demonstrate this male dominating trend. Men choreographed 81 percent of works performed by these top companies in the 2018-2019 season. Additionally, of the 467 works announced for the 2018-2019 season, 79 percent were choreographed by men.
While ballet may seem to be a female dominated field, there is an almost unshatterable glass ceiling that few have penetrated in holding higher ranking positions.
The most recent numbers, however, are beginning to show a bit of a different trend. Currently, more women than men hold artistic executive director positions, with 27 female and 23 male executive directors in the 50 largest ballet companies. Additionally, the data shows that women earned an average of $400,282, while male executive directors averaged $397,867. Even though males still earn more than their female counterparts in the larger scope of all ballet companies rather than focusing on just the largest 50, seeing more representation and higher pay checks sets the tone for smaller companies to hopefully follow suit.
One of these major companies, Boston Ballet, is jumping on the bandwagon by featuring 5 out of the 8 world premieres choreographed by females for their 2021-2022 season. A multi-year initiative was launched to nurture female choreographers, and that is now going to be showcased in their “ChoreograpHER” premiere. The program features world premieres by female powerhouses, Tiler Peck, Claudia Schreier, Lia Cirio, and Melissa Toogood. Showcasing work like this on the huge platform that Boston Ballet has can begin to set the standard for what the future holds for the artform.
Even though some women have been able to make their mark, a majority are still overlooked due to the process of being selected for these coveted positions. The artistic director selection process is done privately, similar to that of choreographer selections. This is the exact opposite of a transparent system that would then have to be based on a clear selection process and criteria, considering the public has access to that information. This secret process is also often based on word of mouth, which makes it difficult to eliminate bias. With all of these private negotiations, it’s no surprise that the same people continue to get hired by those with internal connections, rather than relying on a clear system to select qualified candidates.
This is not to say that the male choreographers and artistic directors who dominate the space now are unqualified or undeserving of their positions. These are the individuals who have effectively set the standard for what we love, appreciate, and expect on the stage. However, in the wake of 2021, it’s time that women make their voices more heard. These men have produced and created incredible works, but we’re due to welcome fresh and deserving female eyes.
Susan Jaffe, acclaimed ballerina from American Ballet Theatre, took the helm of artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in June 2020. The company recently announced their full 2021-2022 season back in the theater since she took over. Not only is she excited to return to the theater, but the company will be having a program dedicated to women’s work. “PBT’s ‘Here + Now’ program celebrates women who have contributed important work to our art form. A full program choreographed by women is still uncommon, and I’m thrilled to bring their talent, passion and artistry to Pittsburgh,” Jaffe said. This is major progress, not to mention another hopeful example, in the fight to have women fully represented in the choreographic and artistic director roles.
Susan Jaffe isn’t the first to go down this road. Lourdes Lopez took the reins of Miami City Ballet back in 2012. She brings with her a dazzling resume with loads of experience. After an impressive performance career with New York City Ballet as a soloist, she went on to report on the arts for television, manage The George Balanchine Foundation as its executive director, and co-founded the contemporary ballet company Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon. Her ample experience made her an ideal candidate for artistic director and added a fresh perspective to the company.
Strong, female performers keep the companies thriving, so why is there only a handful of representation in the higher ups?
Julie Kent is another powerhouse female who is the artistic director of The Washington Ballet and landed the position in July 2016. As the longest serving ballerina in American Ballet Theatre’s history, she has taken the starring role as director in a fresh direction. She has brought classical and contemporary works into the company’s repertoire, including her and Victor Barbee’s The Sleeping Beauty. She has a “steadfast commitment to the development of artists, rising choreographers, and the creation of arts education initiatives,” while also “propelling ballet into the 21st century.” Julie Kent had a stellar performance career, and is currently bringing The Washington Ballet into an era focused on showcasing new artists and choreographers.
Even in more contemporary companies, women are making waves. Francesca Harper was named artistic director of Alvin Ailey II in September 2021. During her professional performance career, which began at Dance Theatre of Harlem, she continued to return to the Ailey School to teach and choreograph. She knew Mr. Ailey and drew inspiration from Judith Jamison, the artistic director emerita for Alvin Ailey, a legendary female artist.
With names like these holding higher ranks, it’s clear that there is some change being instated. Women are seeing themselves in leadership roles, which undoubtedly inspires younger female generations to do the same. The hardships they faced to get to where they are drives companies in new directions and continues to elevate other deserving artists. Female stars are traditionally a huge draw to the theater to begin with. Names like Misty Copeland, Ashley Bouder, and Misa Kuranaga bring audiences in. Their faces are plastered on banners outside of theaters. These strong, female performers keep the companies thriving, so why is there only a handful of representation in the higher ups?
These women are doing astounding things in major companies and hopefully creating an easier path for other females to get there. A transparent selection system for these positions needs to be implemented. We cannot continue to operate under a barred process. We should know how people who are selected actually get chosen. What is the criteria and process that allows one individual to be showcased over another? A set of measures must not only be put in place and utilized, but be known to the public. This way, it is not only fair, but private negotiations and bias can no longer dictate who rises over another. Additionally, setting quotas for the year on how many male vs. female choreographers who are hired can help control the numbers so they can be more balanced. Any way that we can help women be more represented in the higher rankings is essential in 2021.
There must be hundreds of young Susan Jaffe’s, Lourdes Lopez’s, and Julie Kent’s waiting in the wings trying hard to reach their status in leadership roles. It’s time. It’s time to smash the glass ceiling, bridge the gender gap, and demand gender equality. Balanchine was on to something when he deeply admired the contributions women make to ballet. I look forward to the day more women from that 20-to-1 ballet class ratio find themselves on an even bigger stage: holding seats as artistic directors and choreographers in the country’s top ballet companies.