Ballerina Ashley Bouder is crying. Shes standing alone in a rehearsal studio in front of 20 or so dance journalists and several funders of her small self-titled ballet company, and shes screaming. And Im pretty sure its my fault.
Shes just finished showing us a snippet of pas de deux that she choreographed, and that shell being carried out in only over a weeks time with her fellow New York City Ballet principal dancer Andrew Veyette. The entire evening of dancing is devoted to women choreographers and to girls composers. In over 15 years of dancing with City Ballet, Bouder tells the assembled crowd, shes danced runs by about 40 choreographers and can count only seven females among them. She cant name a single woman composer whose music shes danced to not a single one.
She takes a deep breath, and begins to answer, her voice violate before she can get more than a few words out. I think a lot of it is about telling little girls that they can. I have a daughter. As a kid, I was told that I cant, a lot. For me, to have my voice be relevant, and for people to listen, is extremely important. To say what I have to say, even if they dont like it. I get to say it. The room erupts into applause, and Bouder wipes her eyes and nods, her short brown ponytail bobbing.
Bouder joined the New York City Ballet at persons under the age of 16, after spending a year in its feeder school. As a member of the corps de ballet, she was soon assigned soloist roles, and quickly promoted to the top rank of principal. For nearly half her life, shes been dancing in one of the worlds best ballet companies, the keeper of the flame of founding choreographer George Balanchine, whose vocabulary of motion and once-avant garde style long ago became synonymous with American ballet.
Bouder describes herself as a Balanchine ballerina, and is admired for her mastery of quick footwork and speedy leaps. Where other ballerinas seem to drape themselves, long and languid, over choreography, Bouder appears to throw herself at it with staccato accuracy. After watching her attack turns and balances, you wouldnt be surprised to find that shed pierced a pit in the stage floor with her pointe shoe.
The lions share of choreography performed by City Ballet is by Balanchine, who died in 1983. In his absence, other choreographers have added to the repertory he built with help from Jerome Robbins. Current Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, and choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Justin Peck, including with regard to, have left their respective marks on the company. Youve likely noticed one thing those choreographers have in common: Theyre all men.
The dearth of women choreographers has confounded parts of the dance world for some time: every few years, the discussion about the overrepresentation of men in the ranks of top-tier choreographers, particularly in classical ballet, comes to a new simmer before simmering down again. Its not only choreography where women get short shrift. The ballerina may be the visual emblem of the art form, but behind the scenes, the levers of power and creative control are largely pulled by humen. The overwhelming majority of companies in the U.S. are helmed by male artistic directors, and the choreographers they tap are mostly making run set to music by male composers.
But a few years ago, the debate heated up again when City Ballet performed a program entitled 21 st Century Choreographers, featuring work by a handful of young modern ballet dance-makers, every single one of them a white man. The poster was jarring in its homogeneity, and people took notice. How can an art kind be alive, Dance magazine asked, when it omits so many?
Women bring a point of view that humen dont have, Bouder tells me subsequently in a phone interview. But it doesnt have to be anything particularly different to the table. Its about having an equal voice to express our opinions and our impressions, too. She says that because shes in a position of power a top-tier dancer at a top-tier company, with a sizeable fan base and following. She wants to use it to speak out about inequities in the ballet world. People will listen, and I believe choreography by girls just needs to be seen and heard.
Starting this week, shes also strolling the talk. The Ashley Bouder Project is teaming up with New York Jazzharmonic for an evening of women-created works: two new ballets, both choreographed by women and set to music by women, and the revival of a Susan Stroman ballet set to music by Duke Ellington. Theyll all be danced by Bouder and her friends from City Ballet, including several fellow principals.
The dancers of The Ashley Bouder Project rocking International Women’s Day in RED. Running to showcase girls choreographers and composers this March 17 and 18 at Symphony Space. Ticket link in profile. #internationalwomensday #wearred #theashleybouderproject #choreographer #ballerina #thefutureisfemale #changingtheconversation
Other, more established companies have begun to put one over similar programs. Pacific Northwest Ballet presented one last year, and the Cincinnati Ballet simply announced that in their upcoming season, eight out of 15 choreographers whose run will be performed are females, five of whom are presenting world premieres.
Bouder said that he hoped City Ballet will be more conscious as it crafts its programs and pickings choreographers, too. The pale male poster fail was a big turning point, Bouder said. Its not like any of those choreographers on that poster of five white humen didnt deserve to be there. Theyre all talented, they all have great voices, and theyre creative and their ballets are good. But its genuinely shocking when you go past the poster and you find five men who look almost identical in their black-and-white headshots!
Negative media coverage of the homogenous programming had an effect, she notes: the next fall season the company performed works by two women, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and principal dancer Lauren Lovette. That was wonderful, Bouder said. There was a response to that criticism and that public outcry of Where are the women? She hopes the small uptick in the inclusion of women isnt a flash in the pan or a short-lived tendency. Were such a big company, and people really follow the example of the New York City Ballet, so I hope they will continue to foster the contributions of women in the company. I hope that continues, and I think that it will.
Boulder says that companies have a responsibility to help close the gender gap in choreography, long before it comes time to craft an all-women or women-heavy program. I think that special attention needs to be paid, especially in places that foster ingenuity and choreography, to fostering those young female choreographers and devoting them a little bit more attention, Bouder said. A little more of a chance to develop, and listening to them a bit more when theyre young and “says hes” want to choreograph. The New York City Choreographic Institute, which is affiliated with City Ballet and has developed many of todays resulting ballet choreographers, should heed her advice: theirlist of alumni is almost comically male-dominated.
Though companies have a role to play, Bouder points out that some of the unfairness that make it easier for men to be creative and to start learning to choreograph early are built into the fabric of the art kind. For dancers in the corps, when a lot of people are young and they have ideas and they want to do things, the workload for women is heavier than it is for men. In most ballet companies, because of how ballets are structured, women perform more than men. You put on a ballet like[ Balanchines Walpurgisnacht Ballet] and theres one guy and, like, 20 girls. [ Editors Note: Its actually 24. ] At New York City Ballet, our guys dance a lot more, but the women do far more than they do. Even if there are guys who are on every night, there are women who are on in three ballets every night. Which entails more rehearsal period, too, during the day. Which means less creative time. Even womens stage makeup takes more hour, Bouder notes, and so does breaking in and sewing ribbons on to pointe shoes, which professional ballerinas must do on a daily basis. In her early years, Bouder says, I was on stage every night and then I had to go home and sew my pointe shoes. Youre just preoccupied. Creativity requires time, and men have more of it than girls do.
You require more than time to be bold and take risks you also require a culture that gives you granted permission to do it. And Bouder says that boys in ballet are far more likely to get that than girls are. Because girls outnumber sons in ballet schools as well as in companies, she explains, theyre held to a higher disciplinary criterion. There are so many little girls that they need to virtually weed them out, the ones who are serious and the ones who arent. So, she says, you have to be perfect , not only in class but in stance and decorum and you have to fit in and be quiet. And the boys in some cases are allowed to only get away with slaying … but it doesnt matter because theyre just trying to keep them in the class and keep them dancing, because you need boys to partner the girls. This means more freedom outside of the studio, too. And theyre allowed to be creative and theyre allowed to try things, and girls are not. They can merely do whatever as long as they keep demonstrating up.
And then, the boys become humen, and they get to construct the ballets and run the companies? I ask. That seems like a pretty raw deal for the women. Bouder concurs. Its really unfair when youve spent your whole life playing by the rules, merely to be stifled.
Bouder became a mother last year, soon after a video of her doing an eye-popping pirouette combination while almost nine months pregnant ran viral. She wasnt back to full dancing strength in time to work with the two women choreographers whose runs were performed at City Ballet this season. So shes taking matters into her own hands. I feel like Ive gets to the point in my career where I can get a message out and people will listen and perhaps I can make a difference…. So that it doesnt have to be this route. I want to be a voice for that, and I also want to be an example of someone who is actively trying to make a difference.
Bouder says that having a daughter has changed the way she thinks about which voices get heard, and which get stillness. And its also made her more daring outside of the studio and offstage. Having my daughter only builds me braver, she says. It stimulates me want to step out and do the things that I hope she has the heroism to do.
The Ashley Bouder Project will perform with New York Jazzharmonic Friday, March 17, and Saturday, March 18, at Symphony Space.
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