Choreographer George Balanchine, often heralded as the father of American ballet, once said, “Ballet is woman.” And when he co-founded the New York City Ballet in 1948 that may have made sense. Established in a different era for women, the Boston Ballet was formed out of a regional school by director E. Virginia Williams in 1963 and championed female talent and artistic direction. Now it seems that Balanchine’s quote no longer applies to leadership roles. Choreographers are overwhelmingly male. In 2016, the New York City Ballet performed 58 ballets and not one was created by a female choreographer.
This year, the Boston Ballet is working to change that with BB@home: ChoreograpHER, a two-day program of performances by emerging female choreographers from the Boston Ballet company. The performance will feature six works by principal dancer Lia Cirio, second soloist Hannah Bettes, and artists Jessica Burrows, Lauren Flower, Sage Humphries, and Haley Schwan, respectively.
“It’s exciting to have this evening at the Boston Ballet. I think it’s just the beginning,” Flower tells Exhale. “Female chorographers have a lot to offer.” Her piece, Momentous, set to music by Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet and Andrew Bird, is drawn from experiences in her own life that she reimagines through dance. Her intention is to celebrate the important, or “momentous,” occasions. This is her third original composition and her first to debut at the Boston Ballet.
I think the biggest challenge is that the majority of women are raised through society to take risks more carefully. They may not be used to offering up their opinions as easily as men are encouraged to. —Haley Schwan
Schwan’s piece, Just, set to the music of Nico Muhly played by Nadia Sirota, examines the vulnerabilities of humanity and whether or not they will pull people together or tear them apart. Schwan says she wanted her piece to be relevant to the challenges women face because the program is focused on female choreographers. She choreographed Iggy Azalea and Rita Ora’s performance of “Black Widow” for the 2015 MTV VMAs, but Just is her first piece debuting at the Boston Ballet.
Schwan says the disparities between male and female dancers run just as deep as other gender biases. “I think the biggest challenge is that the majority of women are raised through society to take risks more carefully. They may not be used to offering up their opinions as easily as men are encouraged to,” she tells Exhale.
Both Schwan and Flower encourage young choreographers to persevere despite the gender biases in the industry. “My best advice would be to not second guess the process. If the opportunity arises, you should go for it,” says Flower. Schwan agrees but warns dancers not to forgo health for opportunities. “I think it’s important to be kind to yourself. I’m a big advocate of mental health being more important than success,” she says.
BB@home: ChoreograpHER performances will be held at the black box stage in the South End location on Nov. 1–2. In addition to the six brand new performances, the event will feature a conversation with the ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen, moderated by visual artist Shantell Martin.
Flower and Schwan hope the evening will inspire others to move forward with their craft. “A lot can be gained simply from knowing what’s possible,” says Schwan. “We’re all in it together. We’re all quietly pushing the boundaries together.”