Is it time for quotas? This was one of many questions discussed at a Dance Umbrella debate, part of the Big Dance 2016 events, at the beginning of this month.
The subject of gender inequality in choreography has been stirring up a lot of press in recent months. During a panel discussion in October last year, the Rambert Dance Company’s artistic director Mark Baldwin said,
I want Rambert to be a company which is diverse in its choices of choreographers. Programming work by women and choreographers of ethnic backgrounds plays a role. It is about embracing diversity.
The Rambert company certain plays its part with a large proportion of female dancemakers. Of course, you say, where are the female conductors? The cinema directors? True, but as Michael Cooper in the New York Times pointed out,
The dearth of female choreographers at major ballet companies is perhaps more startling, given the prominence of women in the rest of the ballet and dance fields — and the way pioneering female choreographers helped shape ballet during the 20th century.
He goes on to list Bronislava Nijinska’s creations for the Ballets Russes, the importance of Ninette de Valois as a dancer, teacher and choreographer and Agnes de Mille who became a charter member of Ballet Theater in 1940. Twyla Tharp, too, has made her mark and continues to have her say, though she, now, is in her seventies.
Even in contemporary ballet where again women – Martha Graham, Pina Bausch – were some of the most influential figures, has now become largely male territory.
In Luke Jennings’s article for The Observer, Sexism in dance: where are all the female choreographers? he quotes Fleur Darkin, choreographer and artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre,
Institutions are biased against female achievement systematically, not because individuals are misogynist. It is the culture, not one thing.
If this is true, should there be quotas to level the playing field a little?A gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment - Luke JenningsClick To Tweet
Akram Khan stirred things up a little when, at the beginning of this year, he told The Stage,
It is important to recognise that there is an imbalance, but there was an imbalance before for male choreographers. Pina Bausch, Martha Graham – the godmothers of contemporary dance – they were the big figures before, but for this generation it is slightly different, it has slightly shifted.
Maybe making a case for downtrodden male contemporary choreographers of the past wasn’t a wise move. He continued,
We should be aware of it and see what is going wrong, but at the same time I don’t want to say we should have more female choreographers for the sake of having more female choreographers.
Jennings, in The Observer, swiftly wrote off a ‘Dear Akram’ letter:
In saying that we should not have more female choreographers “for the sake of having more female choreographers”, you are choosing to disregard a gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment.
In the contemporary sphere, female choreographers are routinely passed over for commissions in favour of less experienced men. The more large-scale and high-profile the commission, the smaller the probability that it will be awarded to a woman.
In classical dance, female choreographers face even greater discouragement; no woman has been commissioned to choreograph a main-stage ballet at the Royal Opera House since the 1990s.
You can’t judge change on a few isolated events, and only time will tell, but Kevin O’Hare has commissioned Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite for a one-act ballet at The Royal Opera House next season, and Tamara Rojo, always ahead of the crowd, created her She Said programme with three works by three female choreographers.
The always outspoken Ismene Brown, in The Spectator, commented wryly,
Tamara Rojo programmed three female choreographers… because, she said, she had never danced a ballet by a woman, and wanted to see what women would produce…
…For the purposes of reacting correctly to ENB’s bill, it’s necessary to ignore British ballet’s founders, German and American dance’s radicals, many of the finest British choreographers of the past quarter-century, and start from the clean sheet of outright oppression. Is that really what Rojo thinks?
But back to City Hall in London, where to discuss the issue was a panel chaired by Sadler’s Wells’s Alistair Spalding. The panel consisted of Tamzin Fitzgerald, the Artistic Director of 2Faced Dance; the choreographer Vicki Igbokwe who is Artistic Director of Uchenna Dance; and Lucy Kerble, Director of Tonic Theatre. The evening was introduced by Emma Gladstone, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella.
Over 80 people participated in what proved to be a heated discussion which reflected a strong desire for change. Dance Umbrella has identified six main ‘action points’ which it will follow up when it meets with Mayor’s Office and One Dance UK in the next month.
The six points are:
Implement strategic equality quotas with Boards, funders, Associate Artists and artistic programmes.
Diversify programming teams to ensure programming of strong diverse work.
Lobby trade organisations and industry stakeholders, raising the issue of gender inequality wherever possible.
Provide continued support for women artists through increasing profile, mentoring and networks.
Individuals in a position of influence to ‘cheerlead’ the cause for equality via selection panels, Boards, advisory bodies and networks they may be part of.
The mantra that emerged for women in dance was ‘Do it yourself, but don’t do it alone’.