Victoria Sibson as Bertha Mason and Javier Torres as Edward Rochester in Cathy Marston's Jane Eyre.

Founded in

1969

Artistic Director

David Nixon

Since 2001

Northern Ballet logo

Profile

Northern Ballet is a powerhouse of inventive dance. Bold and confident in our approach, we engage, involve and move our audiences. We reach a diverse range of people through passionate story-telling, a mastery of classical dance technique and an absolute commitment to our leading role as an international ambassador for world-class dance.

We tour more widely than any other UK ballet company and have become renowned for bringing famous stories such as The Great Gatsby and 1984 to life through ballet, as well as putting our own unique twist on classics such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

The Academy of Northern Ballet provides world-class, non-residential dance training to all ages and abilities. The Academy is the only recognised Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) specialising in Classical Ballet in the UK.

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We tour work and perform in our own building

Company Type

Touring

We tour work and perform in our own building. Our studio theatre holds up to 195 people.

Northern Ballet - Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

Public Funding

£3,477,788

Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

Leeds, England

Location

Leeds

Productions

12

Staged in the 2015/16 financial year

Staff

Staff - Northern Ballet

Our Question

Why do we see fewer female choreographers of classical ballet than men and how can we ensure that the girls and young women who dance with us are aware that choreography is an option for them and have the opportunity to engage with it?

We were concerned at the lack of women coming forward to choreograph classical and narrative led ballet. We wanted to do something concrete to investigate the situation and look at what action could be taken to effect change.

What We Did

Tonic spoke to practising choreographers, women and men, about why fewer women are working in the field.

Through focus groups, Tonic gathered observations from our trainee dancers and ballet company members as well as company members of The Royal Ballet. Through workshops and one to one interviews, they met with a wide range of staff at Northern Ballet, including those who lead our Academy training programmes. Tonic also discussed our question with staff at The Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet School and Sadler’s Wells.

“The work with Tonic has been thorough in exposing the extent of gender inequality in general as well as its surprising and persistent prevalence in the Arts Sector. I have come to appreciate the fact that the sector carries responsibility to lead by example and inspire change. After taking part in the discussions I can honestly say this consideration will be at the forefront of my mind from now on.”
Daniel de Andrade, Artistic Associate, Northern Ballet

What We Learned

We thought the lack of women coming forward might be driven by a simple lack of interest, but learned that a complexity of factors contribute to fewer women than men moving into the choreography of classical ballet.

We understand that the route to choreography is somewhat different for women and men, though both progress through ballet school together and are offered the same opportunities to engage with choreography.

The majority of young dancers are female. Because there are fewer boys, they tend to be encouraged through the system, whereas the girls function in an extremely competitive environment – only a few of them can make it. In this environment, girls and then women focus on becoming the very best dancer they can be, applying themselves wholly and conscientiously to the training, with little of no time for thinking about or developing a choreographic voice. Boys and then men have a degree more slack available to them and perhaps because of this are more willing to take the risk of throwing themselves into choreographic opportunities when they arise.

Also, historically, and it is still the case today, for a girl to take up ballet is commonplace. For a boy to do the same is to break with convention. He may grow tough through encounters with bullying outside his training; he may grow confident through proactive and consistent encouragement within training. These circumstances may mean that boys and then men move more easily towards choreography, a practice in which the individual must assert their ideas and take a lead.

We learned that in Ballet, across art forms and in society there is evidence that girls become more self-conscious and less outwardly expressive than boys in their teenage years. Self consciousness combined with anxiety about succeeding as a dancer may contribute to a lack of desire amongst girls to ‘put themselves out there’ or ‘have a go’ when it comes to choreography.

Focus groups struggled to name female choreographers of classical ballet. This underlined for us the lack of available role models for girls and young women. We also heard that in some cases, young women find it difficult to imagine themselves as the manipulator, belonging to a tradition described by George Balanchine in the following way.

Ballet is a female thing. It is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers and the man is the gardener.

However, interviews and focus groups revealed that there is a strong interest amongst girls and women in choreographing classical ballet and a belief that engagement with choreography, if managed well, provides creative stimulation, refreshment and an experience which stretches and improves a dancer’s ability. Some expressed interest in working with a more contemporary, abstract language and spoke of an inclination towards operating in a more experimental world where there is less emphasis on getting something ‘right’ or ‘correct’. However, there was as much interest in working within the classical tradition (often from the same interviewee or contributor) and excitement at the idea of working on a large scale, re-interpreting and creating new narrative ballet. The Advance process made us much more aware at Northern Ballet of the interests, experiences and needs of the girls and women that train and work with us and got us thinking about new approaches we might adopt to encourage women towards choreography.

We also learned that if a young woman is considering becoming a professional choreographer, that moment of transition, from dancer to choreographer can be delicate and needs support. The transition is often made in a dancer’s 20s or 30s when pressures such as finance and family begin to have influence and these pressures continue to feature as a choreographer builds a career, for example we heard about how many women, due to caring responsibilities, need to work part-time, or for a portion of the year, and struggle with the perception that this somehow makes their practice less professional. So, considerations around how to support and develop creative voice, alongside how to offer structured opportunities and finance, which help build and sustain careers, need to be kept in view.

Swan Lake, Northern Ballet. Photo: Emma Kauldhar.

Swan Lake, Northern Ballet. Photo: Emma Kauldhar.

What We’re Doing in Response to What We Learned

We have devised an Action Plan which takes steps towards addressing what we learned. It feeds into our Equal Opportunities Policy and forms a part of our work on Creative Diversity. A working group has been established to monitor progress.

We plan a proactive and shared approach across the Company and Academy to encourage girls and young women towards choreography of classical ballet, with commitment to:

  • Being alert to interest, talent and ability; nurturing this through offering increased development opportunities, scheduled for when dancers can afford the time to participate and with a focus on creating non-pressured and playful environments.
  • Providing mentoring to support and establish aspiration, as well as inviting women choreographers as guests (e.g. speakers, workshop leaders) to Northern Ballet and ensuring that when a woman choreographer is commissioned by the Company, the Academy has the opportunity to engage with her work.
  • Creating resources for use within the Academy, designed to encourage interest in and access to choreographic practice.
  • Increasing the number of women choreographers we engage with and commission, as well as increasing the participation of women across our creative teams, in roles such as design, lighting, composition and conducting, beginning with our Autumn 2016 commissions. This involves, seeking out talent at all stages of career, keeping a database of women professionals and continued use of Tonic’s Gender Tracker to keep on top of our creative landscape.

In the first years of my post as Artistic Director at Northern Ballet more women than men were commissioned as choreographers, but finding this has changed over recent years, and that we have not paid enough attention to the gender and diversity of our creative teams as a whole, means that we commit to challenging ourselves with the question of whether we have considered all the options available to us in an unbiased manner before we confirm creative roles.

Is This Work a Step Towards a Bigger Goal?

We want this work to create an organisational shift in awareness of who we work with and how we support women across all of our creative activity so that in the future we achieve a balance of women and men in creative roles and provide exemplary work by exemplary artists to inspire new generations.

David Nixon, Artistic Director, Northern Ballet

“I think back to the moment when it was first suggested we participate in Advance. My initial response was, why would we need to participate, what would we gain? We are a ballet company where most often there is a balance of gender and sometimes more women than men. However, I was very wrong about what I could learn, what I would end up reflecting upon and appreciating.

It was energising and often enlightening to go through the process as part of a cohort – a wonderful group of different thinking individuals who brought a range of thoughts, experiences and entry points to discussions.

I am not used to attending the kinds of Away Days Tonic organised for the group, but I found them simultaneously inspiring and challenging. I think my upbringing has produced some naivety in me regarding issues such as gender equality. I have always seen women as equals and have taken that to be the norm, but the Away Day conversations painted a different picture which disappointed and yet inspired me to be proactive, to wake up.

A discussion on unconscious bias had a big impact on me personally. Though I knew we all have prejudices it was not until after this session I understood unconscious bias, its consequences and the need for action to counter it with such clarity. It made me look at work relationships differently and think about my decision-making more. I am someone who needs time to reflect and consider, and the session on unconscious bias strengthened my inclination towards taking time and not acting too quickly just to tick a job as done.

Most beneficial was time spent speaking to and listening to Vicky from Tonic and Daniel my Artistic Associate who participated with me on this project. I learned a great deal and felt empowered to act. It was wonderful to see how many people from Northern Ballet were interested in and able to participate in discussions – the work crossed all departments and genders and was positively embraced.”

Northern Ballet creative team statistics
Photo courtesy Northern Ballet. Photo: Guy Farrow.

Photo courtesy Northern Ballet. Photo: Guy Farrow.

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