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.