Female choreographers: further thoughts.
I’ve been asking female choreographers about the problems they face for some years now. Why are so few women employed as creators of dance? Why are they so rarely commissioned to undertake major choreographic projects?
In looking for answers to these questions, it seems to me that we should accept that certain truths are self-evident. Firstly, that choreography is where the creative power is located in dance. Secondly, that men in dance compete for power roles more aggressively than women do. They promote and market themselves more loudly, and being largely untroubled by self-doubt, make exalted claims for their work that equally capable (but more equivocal) women hesitate to make. And thirdly, that from their first day at vocational school, female dancers face harder struggles than men do. Competition between female dancers is more intense, and they tend to be regarded as replaceable and interchangeable, while male dancers are more likely to be valued as individuals with individual talents. These distinctions are particularly acute in ballet, where the women’s work-load is observably heavier than the men’s. Consider, for example, the comparative demands made on male and female dancers in Swan Lake or Giselle.
Three main factors handicap potential female choreographers in ballet companies, while simultaneously privileging men:
Time. The work-load of female ballet dancers is much heavier and more stressful than men’s. The time spent on issues relating to pointe work and foot-care and treatment alone can be estimated at up to 25 hours a month. For most female ballet dancers, there are barely enough hours in the day to keep up with the demands of rehearsal and performance. There simply isn’t time to consider choreography.
Fear. Why would you take time off to make a ballet, and lose your precarious, hard-won place on the casting ladder? You’d be identifying yourself as different in an environment where conformity is all. You might be perceived as “getting above yourself”, as setting yourself apart from your fellow swans and bayadères, or assuming an improper, unearned power role.
The Muse myth. The notion that the female dancer is the physical instrument through which the male choreographic genius expresses himself, and that this relationship is essentially immutable. Classical companies go through the motions of extending choreographic opportunities to their dancers in a gender-blind fashion, but in reality it is overwhelmingly male dancers who are able to take advantage of such schemes. In consequence, the primacy of the male choreographer is confirmed, rather than questioned.
Female choreographers in contemporary dance face a different, but not unrelated, set of constraints. At first glance, the playing field appears less egregiously uneven. The female contemporary dancer is not required to conform, either physically or metaphysically, in the way her classical sister is. In rehearsal and performance, work-loads are more equally distributed between the genders. There are more female choreographers in contemporary dance than in ballet.
But these choreographers have less power and less influence than their male counterparts, and the UK contemporary dance top table is very much a boys’ club. Female choreographers in contemporary dance all express the same grievance: that men are invariably selected over women for large scale commissions, even when the men in question have markedly less professional experience than the female candidates. You could interpret this complaint as sour grapes or paranoia were it not for the absolute unanimity with which it is voiced. Pretty much every female choreographer I’ve spoken to says the same thing.
My own observation is that at the top level the contemporary dance commissioning process tends to favour work of a certain physical and thematic scale. Big houses like big work. They like it to conform to certain structures, certain scales of theme and duration. It’s a bit like the way that, although no-one admits it, a film has to be endowed with a particular kind of conceptual grandeur to be considered Oscar-worthy. Male choreographers seem to gravitate towards high-concept dance creation more instinctively than female choreographers. Partly because they like the big, broad-sweep stuff, and partly because they know that commission-wise, this is where the action is.
Of course this is a generalisation, and I don’t take the view, as some do, that female choreographers wilfully limit their own horizons by inclining to the small-scale. But I do think there is a subtle difference of approach, and that the preferential commissioning of male choreographers is unbalancing our experience as audiences. We see, time and again, the same structures, the same grand-scale theorising, the same foregrounding of virtuoso technique. And I’d like, rather more often, to be shown infinity in a grain of sand.
Here’s an extract from the Wikipedia entry for High-concept:
“High-concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low-concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that aren’t as easily summarized.”
Commissioners like high-concept dance works, with their “succinctly stated” premises. And male choreographers like delivering them. But a lot of female choreographers are more interested in low-concept work. Pina Bausch, for all the length and complexity of her stagings, was essentially a low concept choreographer. Her work is made up of those “…other subtleties that aren’t as easily summarized.”
And perhaps it’s the fact that their work often isn’t “as easily summarised” that leads some female choreographers to approach the commissioning process with a certain diffidence. That leads them to hesitate, uncertain of how they will be received, while the high-concept guys – even the younger and less experienced ones – stride confidently to the front of the queue.
There are no easy answers to any of this. Perhaps what’s needed is for those who commission dance to re-imagine their role. To look at the gender balance of their commissions, and if it’s unequal, to ask themselves why. To ask themselves if they’ve looked far enough, and listened closely enough. And if not, why not.