When Ballet BC announced that its first European tour this spring would feature an all-female program of choreographers, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to examine an industry problem. Dance is a field heavily populated by women, and yet, in 2016, the ratio of male-to-female choreographers at big companies is so imbalanced that, in terms of creative input, ballet looks a bit like mining or neurosurgery – a boy's club with the odd, unexpected guest.
So I thought: Here's a chance to pick the brains of three renowned women who have excelled despite what seems like bad industry odds. But there was a hitch in my plan. All three choreographers – Emily Molnar, Sharon Eyal and Crystal Pite – thought I'd gotten the story wrong.
I'd been writing about the issue already, as have many critics in the dance world. A few months ago, as dance companies started to announce their 2016-17 seasons, I began keeping track of the gender ratio of each program. The Paris Opera Ballet is featuring the work of 24 choreographers; only one of them is a woman (Crystal Pite). London's Royal Ballet has two women for 16 choreographers (again, one of those is Pite). The National Ballet of Canada's upcoming season features 10 male choreographers and no women. At the New York City Ballet's 2015 Fall Gala, four emerging choreographers were invited to make pieces for the company. They were all young men. And at the 2015 International Erik Bruhn Competition, hosted by the National Ballet in Toronto, all five competing companies showcased choreography by a rising male star.
But Ballet BC doesn't fit inside the same category as these big, traditional companies. It has a smaller, more democratic model that places special emphasis on new creations, risk, experimentation and collective collaboration. The result is that they're producing some of the most exciting new work in the country – something Ballet BC is consistently recognized for at prestigious international dance festivals, such as Jacob's Pillow and White Bird.
The tour, which goes to Britain's International Dance Festival Birmingham, New York's Joyce Theater and Ottawa's National Arts Centre, is testament to this high calibre. It features three unique voices in contemporary dance: Eyal's Bill, Pite's Solo Echoes and artistic director Emily Molnar's 16 + a room. (Ballet BC's Program 3, which runs May 12-14 in Vancouver, features the same program save for Pite's piece, which is replaced with a world premiere by Finnish-born choreographer Jorma Elo, I and I am You.)
Molnar's approach to leadership and dance-making seems bold and intelligent, and she applies her methodology as much within the company as without. "Something that's become a signature for Ballet BC is putting as much focus on the process as the performance," she says. "We're cultivating an audience invested in contemporary dance, offering progressive ways of looking at society and craft." From an internal perspective, this means eschewing the traditional ballet hierarchy; the company consists of 14 dancers (seven men, seven women) and three apprentices, all without rank. "It's not a top-down approach," Molnar says. "The work we do is so collaborative and exploratory, always questioning the why and how about art."
Molnar is thrilled to be presenting Sharon Eyal's Bill, which was originally made for Israel's Batsheva Dance Company in 2010. Watching online footage of the piece, I can see why she's excited: Picture dancers in creaturely unitards, moving aggressively to house music under shadowy lights. For the past few years, Eyal has been garnering an international reputation for sensory-rich, conceptual work. She founded her own company, L-E-V, in 2013, which she runs with her long-time creative (and life) partner, Gai Behar. They create alongside musician Ori Lichtik, whose percussive and electronic improvisations play a key role in choreographic development. When I attempt to describe the effect as theatrical, her chief repetiteur, Osnat Kelner (who is in Vancouver to set the piece on the company) corrects me. "I'd say it's more behavioural. It's about learning to respond in a certain way, being open to physical impulse."
But when I ask Eyal what she thinks about the gender imbalance in choreographic programming, she has zero interest in the question: "I don't know. I'm not so much connected to these issues of women and men."
She goes on to suggest that she's not invested in thinking about art along gendered lines. "The most important thing as a person, an artist, a human being, is to give feelings to each other, to share love, to express – not in terms of women or men, but in spirit."
I probe her a bit further, but she resists engaging with the politics of the issue. When I speak to Pite, who danced with Ballet BC at the very beginning of her career and made her choreographic debut with the company in 1990, I'm surprised to get a similar response.
"I've spoken to countless journalists about this question, because, of course, it comes up over and over again," she says. "My own personal experience is that I've never encountered any of that. I've never felt as though I was being looked over or ignored because of my gender."
Pite suggests that the gender imbalance in choreography is a classical ballet world problem that doesn't exist the same way in contemporary dance. "Companies like Ballet BC and Netherland Dance Theatre, as they become more and more hybrid – with the dancers able to jump between styles so effortlessly – I think it's in these environments that the discussion becomes moot," she says. "I think it's in the ballet world that we see this divide and I wonder if ballet, itself, is having a hard time changing."
Ballet BC rehearsal director Sylvain Senez echoes the idea that aesthetic fluidity and progress are related. "Dance is undergoing an evolution – the guidelines for making art have shifted. If you embrace dance as an art form, the lines must blur a little bit," he says. "We're dealing with a different way of encompassing the whole body, the whole notion of movement."
Pite thinks there are a dozen reasons why directors of major companies may have a hard time finding women working within the aesthetic values of classical ballet. Not least of these are the story lines of the major ballets themselves. "What happens to the women in these stories? Well, they end up dead."
Ballet BC rarely produces long narrative ballets, but when Venezuelan-born choreographer Jose Navas reimagined Giselle on the company in 2013, he tackled its backwardness head-on, with some gender-blind casting and the addition of a homosexual romance between Albrecht and Hilarion.
For Molnar, the all-female programming was in most ways a coincidence, a result of her investment in Canadian choreography and then a fluke of timing. "Of course, it's never a coincidence that I want to support female voices. But I want to be really careful. I'm sensitive to the fact that there are perhaps more male choreographers in the world, but I don't actually think it's a dire situation like we might be discussing in the rest of the world." She reminds me that all of the major Canadian ballet companies were founded by women. "And we have enormously talented female voices in this country. We have a lot to be proud of. But I think the thing to focus on is that everyone who wants to choreograph, be they male or female, is given the opportunity."
It makes sense that artists don't want to dwell on the politics of gender because gender, itself, might be exterior, or irrelevant, to the work they produce. I wonder, then, if it's better to approach the issue from the other way, from the angle of the work itself. If companies like Ballet BC are producing some of the freshest genre-defying material precisely because they've usurped old ways of running companies and making dance, then maybe the ballet world should look to them for other reasons – not to redress gender imbalances, but to put ballet in better conversation with the 21st century. The result, of course, will see both.
Program 3 runs in Vancouver from May 12-14. Ballet BC's spring tour runs May 20-21 in Birmingham, England; June 1-5 at the Joyce Theater, New York; June 8 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (balletbc.com).