Where Are All the Women Ballet Choreographers?

In Depth
Where Are All the Women Ballet Choreographers?

Claudia Schreier choreographed her first dance, a solo for her summer camp talent show, when she was twelve years old. In her sophomore year of high school, she did it again, choreographing a pas de deux for herself and her best friend, Kaitlyn, which they danced as the school orchestra played music from Swan Lake. The year after that she made a solo and performed it with the accompaniment of the school jazz band. By college, she was making ballets not just for herself and her best friends but for larger groups of dancers, and they consisted of a mix of classical and contemporary movement that reflected her own training.

Schreier, who grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, with a Jamaican mother and a white Jewish father, remembers feeling a compulsion to move to music when she was a child.

“My parents will tell stories of when we were growing up, it’d be time to sit down for dinner and I would be spinning in the kitchen,” she says. “I just was too restless to sit down. I’d be doing pirouettes by the dinner table.”

It’s a familiar story among dancers, but Schreier didn’t only want to move. “For me, it was beyond just the dancing,” she says. “It was the idea of wanting to create movement that felt like something outside of myself. That’s really what I remember the most, this compulsion to make movement and not just move.”

Schreier, thirty-four, is now a full-time choreographer, and has made ballets for Miami City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre’s second company. Her path into ballet choreography, and her presence in it, are both unusual.

For one thing, Schreier was never a professional dancer. As a teenager, she was prone to injuries: bone spurs that led to severe tendinitis in both ankles, problems with the ligaments in her shoulders, and repeated strains in her hip adductors. “PT was just a regular thing for me growing up,” she says, “and I think it was in large part due to the fact that I was trying to get my body to do things it was never meant to do.” Her knees didn’t straighten all the way, and she wanted hyperextended knees, the kind with a slight curve at the back of the leg to emphasize the opposite curve of the pointed foot.

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“I was surrounded by long-legged ladies with hyperextended legs, high arches, flexible backs, arms on the right way,” she says, and she tried all kinds of tricks to make her body more like theirs. “I tried to bend my knees backwards, to make them hyperextended. And so I would put my knees through things that they should never be put through to try to elongate the lines I put myself through hell.”

By the time she was preparing to graduate from high school, it had become clear, she says, that she wasn’t meant to be a classical ballet dancer. Injuries aside, she’d been told over and over again that her body was wrong for ballet. Her feet didn’t point enough; her legs didn’t straighten enough; she had a swayback and, by ballet standards, a prominent backside. “It was always a point of reference or conversation” with her teachers, she remembers. “Always.”

But she loved classical ballet, even if it didn’t love her back. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” When a teacher encouraged her to audition for the contemporary dance program at Juilliard, she was insulted. In hindsight, she concedes, she had no reason to be—it was an excellent program and she had very little contemporary training. “That’s something I would gladly take now and was not even remotely interested in at the time,” she says, “because to me it represented a failure on my part . . . a failure to achieve the look of the idealized ballet dancer.”

At the age of eighteen, Schreier stepped off the path that would have been mostly likely to lead to a career as a dancer: instead of enrolling in a college dance program or auditioning for full-time preprofessional ballet schools like Joffrey Ballet School, she enrolled at Harvard, where she could only minor in dance. She majored in sociology.

There isn’t much of a clear or formalized path to becoming a ballet choreographer, but to the extent that one exists, this is not it. Most ballet choreographers were once professional ballet dancers, usually full-time at a company, and sometimes that company is the first place where they are paid to make dances. After college, Schreier did go to work for a dance company, but in the office, not the studio. For seven years she worked in the marketing department at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, juggling a full-time arts administration job with what was, at the beginning at least, a side hustle in choreography.

Every spare second was devoted to choreographing and rehearsing a small company of dancers for performances of her work. “I would work during the day at my desk and then I would throw on my garbage pants and go downstairs to the studio and set [a] ballet until nine, ten o’clock at night, whatever it was,” she remembers. In her off-hours, she could use Ailey’s studio spaces at a discount, so she spent all of her paid vacation days in the same building where she’d usually go to work.

“I took my two weeks of rehearsal vacation to stay in the building,” she says. “I went back into my office building every day, putting on my other hat. [I’d go] past my coworkers and then take a left and go to the studio.” It was exhausting and unsustainable. “I was wearing myself out. I was waking up way too early, going home way too late. Every single lunch break, every free minute, every moment I had I was trying to split the difference.”

Choreographing, like all other creative pursuits, requires time and space. Rehearsing dances requires a very specific kind of space, and staging them requires another; neither of those spaces is free or even inexpensive, especially not in New York or other major cities. And of course, while choreography can be done alone, you will eventually require dancers, who need to be paid for their time and labor. Choreographing, like all creative pursuits, can start to look less like a career path and more like a luxury for those who have alternative sources of income or wealth.

New York City Ballet, one of the nation’s oldest ballet companies, has more than four hundred works in its repertory; only ten were choreographed or co-choreographed by Black artists.

After almost a decade of splitting the difference, well after her side hustle had become its own nearly full-time gig, Schreier received a choreography fellowship that allowed her to quit her office job and focus all of her energy on making dances. She had the time and the space she needed, as well as access to dancers, and didn’t have to maintain a full-time job in order to subsidize her art. At last, choreographing was no longer in the seams of her life but in the center of it.

Schreier is unusual not only because of her path from aspiring ballet choreographer to full-time dance maker. She’s also a woman of color in a line of work that has traditionally been inhospitable to women and to people of color. In the 2018–2019 season, 81 percent of the works performed by American ballet company companies were choreographed by men. Of the world premieres that were performed that same season, 65 percent were choreographed by men. New York City Ballet, one of the nation’s oldest ballet companies, has more than four hundred works in its repertory; only ten were choreographed or co-choreographed by Black artists.

In 2020, among companies that had installed resident choreographers—“one of the most secure opportunities for the otherwise freelance choreographer” because it provides “a steady salary, the possibility of benefits, a group of dancers with whom to workshop, time, access to set, costume, lighting designers and a regular audience”—76 percent of companies worldwide had a man in the position. In early 2020, Schreier was appointed to a three-year term as the resident choreographer for Atlanta Ballet.

The question of why there are so few women making dances for ballet companies is not a new one. In 2005, dance historian Lynn Garafola noted the dearth of women in the current ranks of ballet choreographers and also argued that the apparently slim contributions women have made over time were a matter not of fact but of historiography. It was not that women did not choreograph, she argued, but that they were barred from choreographing for the most prestigious ballet companies and theaters. And because of ballet’s fixation on the elite, those dances—and the women who made them—have largely been written out of ballet’s history.

“Viewing the ballet past as a succession of individuals of genius,” she wrote, “consigns most of ballet history to the dustbin. Yet it is here, in the now invisible crannies of the popular, the forgotten, and the second-rate, in the everyday chronicle of the ballet past as opposed to the selective chronicle of its most privileged institutions, that women made dances.” Garafola recounts finding traces of these women—Louise Virard, Adelina Gedda, Rita Papurello—almost by accident, calling them “turn-of-the-century ghosts . . . invisible to history although they had worked in the theater for years.”

In other cases, the dances women made have remained on record, but the women have not been credited for their contributions. Women have always choreographed, Garafola wrote, but theirs were rarely the names in the programs—or, because the programs were not printed for the most revered theaters in town, they were never saved and placed in an archive to be fished out and dusted off by dance historians who were writing the story of ballet.

Women, Garafola wrote, “were seldom entrusted with entire productions: indeed, because their choreography usually took the form of isolated dances within a larger work (dances, moreover, that they themselves often performed), their contribution rarely was acknowledged.” Instead, the story of ballet has been written as one in which women dance and men make dances. The dancers die, but the dances are written down, passed down in notation and in dancers’ bodies from one generation to the next, almost always with a man’s name attached to them. Men create ballets on women, but the women fade away. The ballets make the men immortal.

The disappearance of women’s choreographic contributions from the historical record means that women who aspire to make ballets don’t look like the “succession of individuals of genius” that come to mind when the ballet world collectively pictures a choreographer. That succession—Jules Perrot, Jean-Georges Noverre, Marius Petipa, Sergei Diaghilev, Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins—is a centuries-long line of white men, with brief appearances by white women like Bronislava Nijinska and Agnes de Mille. Whether or not the mental image is historically ac- curate, this is what the ballet world thinks a choreographer looks like.

Men create ballets on women, but the women fade away. The ballets make the men immortal.

This bias adds yet another obstacle to the already hard road for aspiring women choreographers, even those who enjoy advantages Schreier did not. Even for white women who belong, or have belonged, to ballet companies, there are structural barriers to entry. The first will be unsurprising by now, given all we’ve learned about how girls and women are valued and trained in ballet. Choreography requires creativity; ballet teaches girls the importance of conformity. Choreographing requires finding and using your voice; ballet rewards girls and women for silence. Choreography is a form of leadership; ballet punishes girls and women who aren’t obedient. From their earliest days, girls in ballet learn that what is valuable about them is not their mind or their creative spirit but their body and their ability to follow instructions.

From Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself by Chloe Angyal, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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