CN D Magazine

#6 june 24

There Are Still Too Few Female Choreographers in Ballet. Why?

Laura Cappelle

Une Porte, Marion Gautier de Charnacé with Loup Marcault-Derouard for a "Dancer-choreographer" evening at the Paris Opera © Yonathan_Kellerman / Opéra National de Paris

In almost all ballet companies, women are center stage – the legacy of longstanding ballerina worship in the field. Yet when it comes to crafting the works they perform, female choreographers remain few and far between. Sociologist and dance critic Laura Cappelle, whose new book, Créer des ballets au XXIe siècle (Creating Ballets in the 21st Century), has just been published by CNRS Editions, delves into the obstacles to change.

One woman, 14 men: At the Paris Opera Ballet, the 2024-2025 season widens the gender gap instead of closing it. After years of warnings about the need to achieve parity in artistic programming, France’s biggest and most venerable dance company appears to be backtracking, with women making up under 7% of featured choreographers. The numbers are even worse for the Paris Opera as a whole: As pointed out in an open letter signed by 258 professionals from the culture sector in the French newspaper Libération, the opera lineup doesn’t feature a single female director, composer or librettist. 

In France’s ballet world, the Paris Opera Ballet is also far from an isolated case. Next season, the Ballet du Capitole in Toulouse will show one work by a woman, Morgann Runacre-Temple, compared to eight pieces choreographed by men (11% of the programme). At the Ballet of the Opéra national du Rhin in Mulhouse, Hélène Blackburn’s scheduled reinvention of Les Noces brings the proportion of women to 14%. Of the seasons that have been announced, only the Lyon Opera Ballet, whose style leans more contemporary, has included more than one female choreographer: Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, and Nacera Belaza form a third of next year’s programme.

Recent research has shown that this persistent imbalance has deep roots. While the proportion of women is higher among choreographers than for many other creative professions, the dance world is hardly immune to exclusionary dynamics, as researcher Reine Prat pointed out in a June 2023 article for CN D Magazine. Ballet is a significant case in point with regards to female erasure. Though pioneering choreographers including Mariquita and Louise Stichel achieved a certain prominence in the early 20th century French ballet world, women remain largely in the minority in the repertoire of national ballet companies, and their artistic legacies fade more rapidly than those of their male peers.

In La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern (Oxford University Press, 2022), American historian Lynn Garafola analyzed the life story of Bronislava Nijinska – a brilliant choreographer who repeatedly faced constraints that impeded the development of her art, despite being a much more prolific creator than her brother Vaslav Nijinsky. Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg founded the Cullberg Ballet in the late 1960s and authored important works including Miss Julie (revived at the Paris Opera Ballet in 2014, though not seen since), yet she is best known today as the mother of Mats Ek. In the UK, the repertoire of Ninette de Valois has faded behind her roles as a teacher and founder of the Royal Ballet. In France, no serious effort has been made to preserve the ballets of Janine Charrat, who died in 2017. Her works were favorably compared in her early days to those of a (male) choreographer from the same generation: Roland Petit.

At a time when other artistic fields are patiently working to uncover the lost legacies of women, ballet is still grappling with the systemic issues behind these gender disparities. In Créer des ballets au XXIe siècle (Creating Ballets in the 21st Century), my investigation behind the scenes of four international ballet companies, the field work and interviews drawn from my PhD in sociology paint an unequivocal picture: that of a professional milieu shaped by a Pygmalion complex, which positions men as creators and women as their muses.

Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa during rehearsal, an image from Créer des ballets au XXIe siècle by Laura Cappelle © Altin Kaftira

For classically trained female dancers, picturing a career as a choreographer is no easy jump. The vast majority of ballet choreographers get their start during a professional dancing career, making the latter practically a prerequisite; yet the competition for company spots is much more intense for women, who vastly outnumber their male counterparts. As a result, the bar is higher for them, with greater emphasis placed on physical criteria. Creativity is more highly valued in boys – a trend also present in other artistic fields, but accentuated by ballet’s training system. Girls are also more likely to lack self-confidence and less likely to be perceived as charismatic authority figures, the default setting for choreographers. Women thus have to work harder to be seen as leaders in the studio, as several female choreographers confirmed.

The gendered demands of work in ballet companies is another recurring obstacle. Many artists agree that female roles are generally more demanding than male roles in the classical ballet repertoire, and therefore more tiring and time-consuming. Workshop evenings for would-be creators – an essential stepping stone from dancing to choreography in the setting of ballet companies – often fail to take this historical difference into account. This April, the Paris Opera Ballet presented two such workshop programs in the middle of a series of performances of Don Quixote, immediately followed by a revival of Giselle. Unsurprisingly, only two out of the ten pieces featured in the program were choreographed by women.

Along with other gender imbalances I detail in the book, drawing on the work of scholars including Hélène Marquié, these differences have a snowball effect that explains ballet’s enduring glass ceiling. They also make it clear why ballet companies so often turn to women from the world of postmodern or contemporary dance – such as Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Sharon Eyal – instead of nurturing in-house talent.

Understanding this situation doesn’t mean it is easily solved: working towards gender equality requires constant efforts on the part of institutions. But it can be done, as Éric Ruf, the director of the Comédie-Française theater ensemble, has demonstrated over the past decade. Despite the imbalances ingrained in its centuries-old repertoire, the Comédie-Française worked step by step to achieve parity among the directors hired to stage its productions. What needs to be done is pretty clear; the ballet world only has to be willing to take the necessary steps.

Laura Cappelle is a Paris-based journalist and scholar. In 2023, she was appointed associate professor at Sorbonne Nouvelle University. She edited a French-language introduction to dance history, Nouvelle Histoire de la danse en Occident (Seuil, 2020), and her new book, Créer des ballets au XXIe siècle, was published with CNRS Éditions in May 2024. She has been the Financial Times’ Paris-based dance critic since 2010, and the New York Times’ French theater critic since 2017. She is also an editorial consultant for CN D Magazine.

Créer des ballets au XXe siècle
Laura Cappelle
CNRS Editions, collection: « Culture et société »
Published in May 2024
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