How One Dance Company Is Helping Women Get a Leg Up in Ballet

Avant Chamber Ballet’s upcoming performance features works staged entirely by female choreographers.
Choreographer Janie Richards. (Photo: Courtesy Avant Chamber Ballet)
Apr 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Thanks to its association with fluffy tutus and pointe shoes—and a wide-ranging use of the color pink—ballet is often thought of as a woman’s art and profession. While prima ballerinas are a must-have for high-profile productions across the globe, behind the scenes, it’s typically men running the show.

“I had to start my own company to make opportunities for myself to choreograph on the caliber of dancers I wanted to work with,” Katie Cooper, artistic director of the Dallas-based Avant Chamber Ballet, wrote in an email to TakePart. “There are very strong female choreographers waiting to break into working with professional companies. All we need are more opportunities.”

Critics and female dancers alike have long lamented classical companies’ preference for male choreographers over their female peers. Women hit a glass ceiling—with a few notable exceptions—after their performing days are done. They often turn to teaching, while men move into higher-paying positions as choreographers and artistic directors.

That’s why Cooper started the Women’s Choreography Project, which features works arranged solely by women. Set to take the stage next month, Cooper and guest choreographers Shauna Davis and Janie Richards will debut a total of four performances for the second year of the project. Currently, the company is seeking $6,000 in funding on Kickstarter to help compensate dancers and musicians.

As a classical ballerina, Cooper felt she could achieve anything if she worked hard enough—except become a choreographer. “It was just not something that ballerinas did,” she explained. “I know many male dancers that have been offered choreography jobs when they have no prior experience as choreographers. That is unheard of for a woman.”

Evidence of Cooper’s complaint is found by skimming the upcoming seasons of performances from prominent companies. Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet all list just one or two female choreographers among dozens of men. In the 2012–13 season, America’s top ballet companies with a budget of more than $5 million put on a total of 290 ballets, only 25 of which were choreographed by women, according to a tally conducted by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Cooper points to early dance training, where female dancers often outweigh their male peers 20 to one, as the origin of ballet’s sexism.

“Because there are fewer classical male dancers than females from the beginning of dance training, male dancers have a sense of value that female dancers rarely achieve,” Cooper wrote. Female dancers are well aware that they’re replaceable and strive to fit in, while male dancers, with less competition, are able to experiment more and hone their own styles. But systemic sexism that’s kept women out of high-level positions across many industries plays a role as well.

“We all know women have a high hill to climb whatever they do, and the world of arts is very chauvinistic,” Twyla Tharp, one of the few female choreographers able to break into the boys’ club, told NPR in 2015 about ballet’s missing women choreographers.

Along with curtailing opportunities for women, putting men in charge also limits the types of stories and how they’re told to classical dance audiences. Cooper wrote that last year’s Women’s Choreography Project was one of the best of Avant Chamber Ballet’s season because it presented more varied perspectives.

“What if we only had male painters, playwrights, or musicians?” she wrote. “While it might not always be easy to tell if a work of art is made by a man or woman, we are losing out on a wealth of talent and innovation by not expanding our search for a choreographer.”