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From Dance Muses to Makers in Women’s Showcase

by Kimberly Lawson

January 14, 2016

Photos: (above) Charlotte's Audrey Baran, artistic director and founder of Baran Dance; (below) a scene from last year's inaugural Womens' Showcase

The world of dance isn’t one you’d think feminists would need to shake their fists at—not with the sheer number of women who dedicate their lives to the craft. But many of the larger dance companies across the U.S. and world are directed by men.

Even our own Charlotte Ballet is under male leadership: President and artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux has led the company since 1996. (He plans to step down and take on the role of artistic director emeritus in June 2017.)

It hasn't always been this way. In 1963, a $7.7 million Ford Foundation grant spurred the beginnings of a handful of ballet companies in cities including Boston, Philadelphia and Houston. They started and grew under the leadership of female artistic directors; those companies are still thriving, but none have the steady hand of a woman at its creative helm. 

Despite what’s happening in larger companies, there are plenty of female choreographers taking charge and creating their own work. A local festival dubbed Women’s Showcase, happening Sunday, Jan. 17 at the old Goodyear building on Stonewall Street, aims to spotlight some of them in Charlotte and beyond.

“The idea behind it was that even though women make up much of the workforce and much of the driving power behind dance—work being created and being performed—we saw a disproportionate amount of recognition going toward all of these women that create work in our community,” explains event co-organizer Sarah Ingel, a freelance dancer who’s worked with a number of local companies. She helped found the festival last year with Caitlyn Swett, a former member of the dance troupe Triptych Collective who now lives in Winston-Salem.

Many of the performances will touch on the female experience, either directly or indirectly. (Refreshing, since so often women’s stories and issues portrayed in TV, film and print media are being explored or dictated by men.) For example, Audrey Baran, artistic director and founder of Baran Dance, will offer some humorous commentary on women’s stereotypes and domestication in a solo taking place in a kitchen setting. Another piece, choreographed by Charlotte Ballet dancer Emily Ramirez, will explore how media markets to women.

Too often, Ingel says, women are treated “as muses or objects to be molded in the vision of the male choreographer.” This event gives them the chance to not only present new work in a safe space, but it also allows them to take back control of the artistry in their own bodies.

Megan Payne, who’s working with Ingel on this year’s showcase, says the lack of female leaders in dance isn’t surprising. “Just because it’s dance, it doesn’t mean it’s different anywhere else. Women are still fighting for those positions everywhere.”

Which begs the question, why? Historically, we’ve seen greats like Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp go from the spotlight to starting their own companies and creating timeless choreography. And unlike the science and technology industries, there are plenty of qualified women working and excelling in dance who could rise in the ranks.

One of them was Rachel Moore, who, until last October, served as the CEO of the American Ballet Theatre. In an interview with Boston’s NPR station, she points to how differently boys and girls are trained. Because female students in dance schools often outnumber male students, sometimes by as many as one boy for every 10 girls, it's the boys who tend to get “coddled.”

“The girls are trained to be ‘good girls,’ obedient and silent and to stand in a line and look all the same," Moore says. "And that’s not true with the corps de ballet for men or for the boys in the schools. They are encouraged to be much more individuals, to do solos, to stand out more than the girls.”

As a result, girls are taught to fall in line, perfect their technique and push their bodies to conform, rather than stand out and ultimately aspire for leadership.

And after years and years of working under the watchful eye of someone else, it’s difficult to break out of old habits. Gaby Soto-Lemus, a Durham-based dancer who launched her own company a few months ago and has a piece in Sunday’s festival, reiterates the idea that women have long carried the title of muse rather than artist. “I know of a lot of women who try to make their own work after having been in a company led by a man for a long time, but it’s hard for them to assert their own identity.”

Baran, the choreographer set to explore the role of women in the kitchen in Women’s Showcase, agrees. She says she doesn’t see any real obstacles holding women back outside of their own fears. “I think it’s just a mental block. Women are maybe intimidated…and there’s no reason for that; it’s in our heads.”

Payne suggests women are still seen as just “bodies in dance. They’re not seen as thinkers; they’re just seen as movers. They’re just seen as something valuable—you tell them what to do and they can do it with their bodies.”

The aspiration of prima ballerina reveals this all too well, says Ingel. “They are seen as a symbol of what the female body can achieve. But at the same time, most of the credit still goes to the men who made them that.”

A great example of that hits close to home. In 2014, Patricia McBride, Charlotte Ballet’s associate director and wife to Bonnefoux, was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for her long career in dance, including 30 years with the New York City Ballet. It was a proud moment for Charlotte’s dance community. But when media outlets wrote about McBride and her achievement, many of those stories were as much about her mentor George Balanchine as they were her. In one article, McBride was even called his “true muse.”

It’s why events like Women’s Showcase are so important. They celebrate female choreographers who have made that difficult transition, as Ingel describes it, from “being the one receiving the gaze of the audience to the one directing the gaze of the audience.”

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Tags: dance, choreography, Women's Showcase, ballet, Ford Foundation, Patricia McBride, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Charlotte

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