Culture House Daily

I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance

19 January 2016

5:44 PM

19 January 2016

5:44 PM

I’m bemused by the outburst of claims that female choreographers are under-represented, held back, or discouraged by ‘institutionalised sexism’ from unveiling their contributions to the richness of British dance.

Only a fortnight ago I was thinking about what to write for my first 2016 piece, and this was the very question on my lips. Why was English National Ballet doing a special all-women choreography programme in 2016 as a protest statement when so many of the best things made in dance last year and the previous year were by female choreographers? But I decided I’d keep that powder dry until ENB come to the stage.

However, this weekend Luke Jennings, the Observer’s campaigning dance critic, let rip about ‘a gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment’. His thunderous volley replies to something the choreographer Akram Khan said last week about the number of women choreographers not needing to be increased ‘for the sake of’ a theoretical equality.

That in turn was Khan’s reaction to a conference staged by Rambert Dance last October when the loaded question to debate was: ‘How do we level the playing field for women in choreography?’ A small-scale female choreographer complained that the dance industry was ‘a vertical pathway that’s very hard to climb’ for women.

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Well, so it is for every small-scale choreographer. And I am having real trouble getting outraged about an anti-woman conspiracy when my best-ofs 2015 and 2014 have included work of memorable excellence from Crystal Pite, Rosie Kay, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Cathy Marston, have considered quality work from Shobana Jeyasingh, Martha Clarke and Didy Veldman, and noted promising signs from Sophie Laplane. Marston is creating Northern Ballet’s big new Jane Eyre this year and surely the Royal Ballet’s Kevin O’Hare is ruing giving Hofesh Shechter rather than Pite a guest choreography slot last year. Pite is too busy now to work for ENB, said Tamara Rojo recently.

Reaching back over the past decade or two of good stuff made, Siobhan Davies, Rosemary Butcher, Wendy Houstoun and Kristen McNally sit at the front of my cabinet of memories. I see that Jasmin Vardimon, Liv Lorent, Charlotte Vincent and Sharon Watson at Phoenix are all supported by the Arts Council in their creativity, and Sally Marie is making a name. Three of Matthew Bourne’s seven shortlisted candidates for his choreography award this year were women. Arlene Phillips and Gillian Lynne need no introduction, and Kate Flatt and Aletta Collins are priority choreographers for theatre and opera directors everywhere. Are these names worryingly outnumbered by male peers? Did they have to be twice as good as their male counterparts to get there? I wouldn’t say so.

If you widen your eyes in time and place, you must acknowledge Pina Bausch, Isadora Duncan, Trisha Brown, Bronislava Nijinska, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Mary Wigman and Agnes de Mille as prime movers in choreography’s development. In today’s flamenco field it’s the remarkable female choreographer-dancers such as Rocio Molina, Eva Yerbabuena and Sara Baras who push their art impatiently forward.

And is there evidence of ‘egregious’ or ‘shaming’ gender imbalance among the composers, lighting designers and theatrical designers associated with British dance? Jocelyn Pook, Errollyn Wallen, Elena Kats-Chernin, Lucy Carter, Paule Constable, Kate Ford, Katrina Lindsay, Es Devlin, Sue Blane, Yolanda Sonnabend, Maria Bjornson, Julia Trevelyan Oman, are names I pick at random, and it is not at all my impression that they are or were lone voices for their sex.

I love a barricade as much as the next woman, but there does not appear to be one high enough here to prevent driven talents from leaping over it.

I rather think that this wittering complaint is camouflage for two very real, combustible problems. One, which Jennings alluded to indirectly, is the prevalent fashion among many male choreographers, here and abroad, to treat women as bendy toys, depersonalized faceless acrobats to be yanked about to extremes, especially around the crotch region. It seems to me that if artistic directors and media types only get hot about that kind of commission, then it is they who need to be taken to task for their bad taste.

The other problem certainly is institutionalised, though it’s not sexism. It’s one which Akram drew attention to in last week’s interview, and which the dance industry would rather overlook. This is the insistence by him and other leading contemporary choreographers that British contemporary dance training is inferior to that of foreign competitors. Given the causal link between the calibre of dancers and the calibre of choreography, this has to be an urgent matter for cool, careful investigation, and certainly it could be holding back Britain’s small-scale choreographers in landing major commissions, whatever their gender.

I think it’s time to stop airy-fairying about with the thought police and get down to brass tacks.

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Show comments
  • Bram

    Well the article you are commenting on came from Guardianland, where everything is a massive global worldwide male conspiracy to keep teh wimmins down. Nobody outisde their identity political bubble takes those loons seriously/

  • Ellie
  • HamishMacPherson

    Ismene, not sure anyone is policing thoughts, just calling out bullshit claims made by someone with a bit of power.

  • AKersley

    A comparison of the tags for this article is illuminating i.e. of the 10 ‘historic’ choreographers mentioned in the article, 9 have been tagged while of the 24 ‘modern’ choreographers mentioned, only 5 have been tagged. What does that say about the interest in women choreographers today?

    Another small detail is that the article is supposed to be about British dance but not one of the ‘historic’ choreographers listed is British (7 Americans, 2 Germans and one Russian) and I don’t remember one of them creating a ballet in Britain?

    I think that this problem stems from the fact that British companies were founded by women, Dame Ninette de Valois, Dame Marie Rambert, Dame Alicia Markova but have been run by men for long periods of time since and those men have not helped any female choreographers either through encouraging women to choreograph new work or keeping older work alive and in the repertoire. Where are the works by Dame Ninette, Celia Franca, Andree Howard to name but three? Sadly lost to the world because there are hardly any dancers who have danced in their ballets.

    • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

      THANK YOU Akersley for pointing that out re nationality: this rather goes to show that this country is historically incapable of promoting a female choreographer to large-scale status.

      Birmingham Royal Ballet performed de Valois’s Checkmate on their 2011 tour; I saw it at Sadler’s.

      • AKersley

        They have also done Rake’s Progress I believe but is that really ALL that was worth reviving?

        • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

          Obviously, we should be grateful that even those two pieces were revived… *mutters*

  • Kathryn Roszak

    Thank you for naming quite a few women in the field! It is very interesting that the issue of equality is so provocative. .I am hoping that women choreographers in Britain are faring better than in the States. Over here, we have to wonder where are the women ballet choreographers at New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and elsewhere. Also, where are the women Artistic Directors in ballet? We usually find them in the smaller budget companies. I’d love to know if all the women Ismene Brown listed were paid the same as the men? My awareness of the sitaution comes from realizing I could not encourage my daughter to enter ballet as there are so few leadership roles for women. I am always amazed as much of the audience and many of the patrons are women. As a woman ballet choreographer my legacy will be creating the Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California. We are inviting a dozen women choreographers to participate along with women composers, designers, and film-makers. Artistic Directors who program women ballet choreographers will be honored. We start this May. Hopefully in the future we won’t need to say “Where are the women?” but how can we be ready for them.

    • John P Hughes

      Wynn Holmes (born Vancouver, now working in Toronto and Montreal), formerly a leading ballerina in Canada, is very successful. She teaches dance moves to the singer-songwriter Béatrice Martin (Coeur de Pirate) who is short, does not have a dancer’s form, has long loose hair and performs in heels. One can’t imagine a male choreographer achieving what Wynn has with CdP. No other singer does it.

      See links in my previous post below for the results of her teaching. Also here (in TV studio in Paris):
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLfbX5AJDZ4
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZGNtFiqH4E
      and live at Olympia Paris 5 November 2015
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCTIFBFva3U
      Dance is designed to be seen from a distance and this last film is too close-up, so it does not bring out what Wynn Holmes designed for the song. I saw this performance from the circle and it was excellent.

  • John P Hughes

    Here is the use of modern dance to the highest standard in pop in 2015. The best pop track and video of 2015:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=333OLz3NiK8

    A another prize-winner, the ‘Crier tout bas’ video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9p-9U53txWQ

    The choreographer is the former leading Canadian ballerina Wynn Holmes; the dancer the world’s most talented modern pop musician of the 2010s, Coeur de Pirate (Béatrice Martin).

    For ‘Oublie-moi’ / ‘Carry on’ (there are French and English versions), filmed at St Raphael’s Ruins, a former church near Cornwall Ontario, in November 2014, the male dancer’s role was choreographed by Nico Archambault and Béatrice Martin’s by Wynn Holmes.

    For ‘Crier tout bas’, filmed in California in February 2015, Béatrice Martin’s solo was wholly created by Wynn Holmes. Someone to add to Ismene Brown’s list I suggest.

  • Tamerlane

    Curious to know the gate receipts…No men in tights! Lady viewers don’t like that!

    • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

      Royal Opera House’s box office would disagree with you on that.

  • Bauble

    ‘Causal link’? Could you point me in the direction of the research that has found this causal link? I think you might be confusing causation with correlation and not considering some rather important confounding variables: difference of funded rehearsal time, and choreographers who are not very good, to name a few. Alistar Spalding – “Choreography is still male dominated”.

  • Birtles

    Dance? Dance? How about road works, refuse collection, long distance lorry driving, street sweeping, the building trade ? When, oh when, are the old-girls of St.Paul’s Girls’ School going to be allowed to make their contribution?

    • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

      They already are…

  • King Kibbutz

    British dance is rich?

  • Nuahs87

    “I’m having trouble finding an anti woman conspiracy in dance”. The feminists are having the same trouble, but they will find it. Everything is anti women, you just need to accept that as fact first and twist the evidence to fit later.

    • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

      The non-feminists are finding the so-called conspiracy in the dance industry very easily. They do it by opening their eyes then looking around them.

      • Kimber Jones

        Oh Chantal, enough, you always pop up giving your regressive, pig-ignorant bias and putting it forward as the sine qua non of truth. You know NOTHING about dance apart from pushing forward your own agenda. Go back under your rock idiot.

    • http://rantingoldgit.blogspot.co.uk/ Arthur Sparknottle

      I heard Jane Garvey on ‘Woman’s Hour’ the other day say during a
      discussion of the British State Pensions system that, ‘It is a system
      designed by men for men’. The context of this is that the age of
      retirement for women has been raised to match that of men. I was puzzled
      by this. It seems to have escaped her that for generations, the shorter
      living gender, have had a retirement age five years higher than women,
      who for the first forty years after the war, were predominantly not the
      people paying into the pot, since fewer women were working then. So
      what did this mean? It meant that men had an average 7 years of
      collecting their pensions and women had an average of eighteen or
      twenty. A system designed by men, for men? I don’t think so, but let’s
      not let facts get in the way of complaining about anti-female grievance.

      • HamishMacPherson

        Wrong article?

        • http://rantingoldgit.blogspot.co.uk/ Arthur Sparknottle

          No. It’s just another example of women griping about how they are over looked and neglected. It was true two hundred and a hundred years ago; now it is not. On the contrary.

          • HamishMacPherson

            lol. Good one!

  • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

    The “small-scale female choreographer” you refer to at the Rambert debate is in fact the director of a long-established midscale NPO which has been nominated for a Best Independent Company award in the upcoming National Dance Awards.

    • Kimber Jones

      Wow? Are we supposed to be impressed? Face facts, Chan, if she was good enough to earn a living in dance she wouldn’t be moaning in public forums and embarrassing herself publicly. Sour grapes dear? it’s the white WHINE you and your acolytes choose as your poison of choice.

  • http://www.article19.co.uk/ Article19

    yes, but you write for the Spectator, seriously, who reads this and takers it seriously?

    • Kimber Jones

      More people than take your tedious little fanzine seriously. AND the Spectator doesn’t have to beg its own readers for donations to keep running. Sound of one hand clapping much? Morons.

      • http://www.article19.co.uk/ Article19

        are you still here? we see you changed to a new account on the Guardian, did you get banned on that site too? Remember, we still have the hate filled email from you, with all your “die of cancer” charm, shall we post a link to that so that the Spectator and its readers know what kind of person you are (and we know who you really are)? Grow up, get a life or get some therapy…

        • Kimber Jones

          Oh dear, Chere enfant, with your slander, falsified document and lies. go back to your silly little blog, beloved by deviants, druggies and dole-bludgers. This is a serious blog, by a REAL critic, dealing with relevant issues – shouldn’t you be signing on? Or tapping your risible readership to part with its dole money to fund your turgid unreadable blog? Silly girl, thank God for Cameron and his forward-thinking approach to the arts, if you can’t pay you can’t play.

        • Kimber Jones

          Oh dear, more of your slander and doctored emails, I find it tres amusante that you would hold onto this anger, but then your idiotic fanzine site is nothing but anger, and sophomoric rage, darling grow up, you really do yourselves or your five readers no favours, shouldn’t you be signing on soon, anyway, or begging your members, all five, for more money to keep your risible endeavour going? ta ta love.

          • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

            Oh look, the app is working, nothing but gambolling kitten gifs superimposed over whatever your post said. I assume your GP couldn’t squeeze in an emergency appointment with you today for further anger management therapy, then?

  • iMutti

    I am having trouble finding dance anywhere outside of Londinium. Why is that?

    • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

      Because you’re not looking? There is plenty of dance going on, every day in every city.

      • iMutti

        Compared to France, Hungary or Spain? Compared to the Rhein Main Ruhr region? You have got to be kidding me.

        • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

          Hungary, Ireland and Spain are countries. Rural France and the Rhein Main Ruhr region are both regions. This is turning into a weird attempt at a geography lesson. Believe it or not, there are very healthy and thriving dance industries beyond the M25. There *is* life beyond the M25, you see…

          • King Kibbutz

            The ‘rural’ could legitimately be operant on the subsequent ‘Hungary, Ireland and Spain’.
            Taken then with the other regions mentioned, the comparison made with ‘outside of Londinium’ would seem valid.

            I have to say I know nothing of dance as it hasn’t got here yet.

            • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

              I’m sorry to hear that you’re living on a remote isolated island.

              • King Kibbutz

                I’m bearing up.

              • Kimber Jones

                As do you, Chan, IN YOUR HEAD.

                • Chantal Guevara

                  Wow, Kimmie, those anger management courses really aren’t working out for you, are they?

                • Kimber Jones

                  Darling, the ones i truly pity are your parents, they must see your antics and weep.

                • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

                  Do ask your GP for a recommendation for a more effective anger management course, I’m so sorry to hear that the latest course of treatment hasn’t worked.

          • iMutti

            England ex-London compared to rural France (ex-Paris), rural Spain (ex Madrid) or rural Rhein Ruhr Region (not even Berlin included) and so on? You have got to be seriously kidding yourself.

          • Kimber Jones

            Shut up, moron, change the record or go and sign on or whatever it is you do.

      • Kimber Jones

        Which no one is watching Chantal, because it’s boring, turgid, navel gazing twaddle. If you silly girls had anything relevant to say, you’d be funded and have an audience, fact is you don’t. Time to grow up dear, the welfare state isn’t there to fund your playtime.

        • http://www.cloud-dance-festival.org.uk/ Chantal

          Hey Kimmie, did you know that there’s now an app which replaces all of your comments with cute kitten gifs? I guess you’ve made that much of a name for yourself with all of your abusive comments on every platform you can find!

    • Alex

      Too many uncivilised Britons?

      • iMutti

        I am not sure, are they do you think?

  • Neptunium

    It’s easy headlines these days. Every potentially lucrative industry is being attacked by gender huckters these days. And worse, it’s only certain women they count.

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