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Choreographer quits Les Grands Ballets’ male-dominated Femmes program

The poster for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens program Femmes, shows three men – James Lyttle, Matthew Clugg and Ruben Julliard – stuck in a block of ice. Critics say the poster is symbolic of how glacial the pace of change is in the ballet world as one of the program’s three male choreographers steps down, citing lack of female presence.

Sasha Onyshchenko

French choreographer Medhi Walerski has given up a commission from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (GBC) for next season after widespread criticism that the program for which he was hired, entitled Femmes, would feature new works by three men and no women. Mr. Walerski's replacement, however, will be another man, the company says.

In a statement on Facebook on Tuesday, Mr. Walerski, whose new version of Romeo and Juliet for Ballet BC opened in Vancouver last week, paid tribute to "the powerful female teachers and mentors" who aided his career. "I strongly support a more visible presence of my fellow female choreographers … and have taken the decision to step out from this program."

In an interview on Tuesday, GBC artistic director Ivan Cavallari seemed bewildered by the criticism his program had provoked on social media and especially by what he called the "atomic bomb" detonated by an online petition from Toronto choreographer Kathleen Rea that gathered nearly 3,000 signatures and sent as many automated protest letters to the company. "I made a mistake, okay, I apologize," said Mr. Cavallari, an Italian who took over artistic direction of GBC in June.

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He said that his idea was to have the three men respond to the concept of water as a symbol "of mother earth and the source of life, and woman as the source of life." The program's poster image shows three men stuck in a block of ice, which some on social media said was all too symbolic of how glacial the pace of change is in the ballet world. The company renamed the prograsm Parlami d'Amore, although Femmes is still on the GBC website. A company spokesperson said that a replacement for Mr. Walerski has not yet been determined, but that "the concept of three men stays."

Ms. Rea's petition, which she closed after the name change and Mr. Walerski's withdrawal, specifically asked that a female choreographer be added to the program. "I'm sad that Ivan hasn't taken this chance to hire a female choreographer," she told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday.

Women are prominent in the management of many ballet companies, but are notably scarce among choreographers asked to create new works. The National Ballet of Canada performed only one short piece by a woman this season (Crystal Pite's Emergence) and has an all-male choreographic roster for its 2018-19 season, revealed two weeks ago in Toronto.

The National was stung by criticism of its male-only season. Days after announcing the schedule, it took the unusual step of stating that it has commissioned a new piece for two years hence from Ms. Pite, a Canadian with a huge international reputation.

Mr. Cavallari also said that his as-yet undetailed plans for 2019-20 will feature a trio of female choreographers working in some kind of "dialogue" with the men of next year's Parlami d'Amore.

Mr. Cavallari's predecessor at GBC, Gradimir Pankov, programmed works by only one woman (Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman)  in his 18 years as artistic director, Ms. Rea said. When London's Royal Ballet presented a new piece from Ms. Pite last year, she became the first woman to choreograph for the company in 20 years. "The women's movement and #MeToo and #TimesUp are happening right now," Ms. Rea said. "If ballet companies want to stay relevant, the change has to happen faster."

Mr. Cavallari pointed out that his record since taking over GBC programming last year is much more progressive than recent criticism would suggest. His current season includes two ballets by women: next week's Firebird, by American Bridget Breiner; and Vendetta: Storie di Mafia, by Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, which opens in May. Next season begins in October with British choreographer Cathy Marston's full-length version of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

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