Mao’s famous phrase “Women hold up half the sky” crossed my mind this summer while I was parked on a blanket in an amphitheater, watching Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX project. According to OBT artistic director Kevin Irving, the project was meant to cultivate more work by female choreographers; after a national choreography competition, to which nearly 90 women applied, three—Giaconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins—were chosen to create premieres for OBT. During the show’s two-night run, these women essentially held up the entire sky with three wildly engaging, and distinctly different, pieces.
In an industry dominated by women, female choreographers shouldn’t be unusual—as it is, the phrase “female choreographer” sounds about as modern as “lady lawyer.” And yet, like female dance company directors, female choreographers still seem to be the minority at the professional level, particularly in ballet. Why is that? Haskins offered one theory in a pre-show talk. “Ballet is inherently sexist,” she said. “There are fewer men, so men get a little more attention” and encouragement to pursue their choreographic ambitions. Ultimately, Simoneau said, that leaves viewers with a primarily male perspective. But, she added, “We can change that.”
She didn’t say how, exactly, but as a new season begins, dance educators—so many of whom regularly choreograph for competitions and recitals—are well positioned to shape their students’ experience with, and expectations for, choreography. Learning to make dance starts in the classroom, with improvisation and, as Haskins says, attention and encouragement. Teachers can guide students through the building blocks of dance and give them opportunities to play with them in the classroom and in student choreography showcases. By nurturing choreographic talent, teachers might just inspire and embolden company-bound young women to see possibilities, push for the change Simoneau mentions, and make their voices heard.
DSL interim editor in chief Heather Wisner is a former associate editor at Dance Magazine. She has written about dance for SF Weekly, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, and Portland Monthly, among other publications.