Exclusive: American Ballet Theatre Helps Ballerinas Smash the Glass Ceiling

If, as George Balanchine famously quipped, “ballet is a woman,” then it’s a woman in the way that boats and countries are “she”—feminized symbols of valuable property with a man at the helm. Indeed, for all its tutus and pointe shoes and long-legged sylphs, professional ballet is a man’s world. Those fluttery 19th-century Romantic ballets? All choreographed by men. The titans of the 20th century? George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe. And don’t forget today’s most in-demand dance makers: Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Trey McIntyre and Jorma Elo.

In addition to choreographing, a lot of the fellas tend to hold powerful positions like artistic director or artist-in-residence of major companies like American Ballet Theatre and Boston Ballet. A study commissioned by Dance/USA a few years ago found that 80 percent of this country’s 59 major ballet companies (those with budgets of $1 million-plus) are run by men. When Balanchine chose a successor to run New York City Ballet, he picked Peter Martins over his longtime muse and star, Suzanne Farrell. “It has to be Peter,” he said. “He knows what a ballerina needs.”

No disrespect to Mr. Martins, but WTF?

There are, of course, a few notable exceptions: Bronislava Nijinska choreographed for the Ballets Russes back in the early 1900s, ballerina Ninette de Valois went on to found London’s Royal Ballet, and Twyla Tharp has works in the repertories of many major ballet companies. You may not recognize their names, but some of today’s successful ballerina-turned-choreographers are Lila York, Julia Adam, Helen Pickett and Sabrina Matthews. And Azsure Barton, a contemporary choreographer with crossover appeal (she’s currently artist-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center), seems bound for superstardom.

But ballet’s most powerful players remain overwhelmingly male. So now that we’re a few years into the 21st century, what’s keeping ballerinas from making the leap from dancing onstage to running the show? Ballet companies are asking themselves this question, and a few, like American Ballet Theatre, are taking steps to turn the tide. Earlier this year, ABT launched Voices and Visions: The ABT/Altria Women’s Choreography Project, a multi-year effort to commission new works by emerging female choreographers and provide choreographic training to women in the company. So far, ABT has commissioned works by Barton and Lauri Stallings, and choreography workshops started up in September.

This week, we caught up with choreographer and Juilliard faculty member Stephen Pier, who’s leading the training, and ABT corps member Elizabeth Mertz, one of the five ballerinas taking part in it.

Flavorwire: How did the Women’s Choreography Project come about?
Stephen Pier: We were trying to figure out why men show more initiative. There’s something about the culture of ballet that encourages people to follow directions very well, but not to take initiative. And since women tend to start very young, they seem to get a little bit more steeped in that culture. I think Kevin [McKenzie, artistic director] and Rachel [Moore, executive director] are trying to change that. The dancer of today has to be able to take initiative, because choreographers are asking for that.

FW: What drew you to the program?
Elizabeth Mertz: I’ve imagined choreographing for years, but I’ve never tried it. I’ve been dancing professionally for 15 years now, and you get used to being told what to do all the time. This was a great opportunity to see if I could take what was in my head and create something. On the first day, Stephen told us to create a phrase, and we all created such extremely different things. I actually kind of liked what I came up with and I was inspired by my co-workers. So from day one, I realized that I can create something. I just have to get up and try.

FW: Is the workshop meeting your expectations so far?
SP: I went in not knowing what to expect. It’s been extraordinary — there are already several who have shown potential. What’s really interesting is that there are five distinct voices. Some are staying very much in the classical idiom, some are developing their own idiom, and there’s every shade of gray in between. I have no restrictions on what kind of vocabulary or material they use as long as it’s authentic to their intentions.

FW: What have you discovered about your own choreographic style?
EM: I discovered that my style is definitely not classical. I don’t immediately do glissades or arabesques or tendus. I think I naturally want to move kind of slowly and turn in and turn out a lot and be very grounded. I basically like trying anything—I don’t know how I would classify myself yet. I love taking something that I’m thinking of and creating something from it. I would love to keep exploring and definitely keep doing the workshop and be brave enough to choreograph more than just a two-minute piece.

FW: Beyond becoming a choreographer, what are the benefits of learning how to choreograph?
SP: Dancers are playing a completely different role in the 21st century than they did in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. They are being called upon to contribute not only to the performance but to the creation of these pieces. So it helps them immensely if they have some idea what the choreographic process is about. We’re moving away from that hierarchical form that ballet has existed in, where there’s a leader all the way down to the corps de ballet. It’s becoming more and more collaborative. They’ve got to be on that or they’re going to be left way behind.