Dance Beyond Brexit

Javier Torres and Dreda Blow in Northern Ballet's Jane Eyre, photo Caroline Holden

Brexit risks seriously damaging Dance in the UK, says a new report published by OneDanceUK. Ballet Position unpicks its findings

Dance is a central part of the creative industries in the UK. If you look at numbers alone, at £92 billion per year its contribution to the economy is far from negligible.

Beyond that, though, dance is generally accepted to have a key role to play in education; and the prestige of British dance companies abroad, reinforced by regular touring, is important to burnish the UK’s international image.

Furthermore, dance in the UK attracts top international talent, be it to train at prestigious fee-paying institutions, such as The Royal Ballet School, English National Ballet School, or Rambert School, to mention but a few, or to contribute diverse performing and choreographic talent, views and approaches to the cultural melting pot.

All that, however, is at risk after Brexit, according to a report just published by OneDanceUK, the organisation formed to support the dance sector and be its collective voice.

Movement Beyond Borders is the result of extensive conversations within the dance sector, which started soon after the EU referendum of June 2016 and culminated in a comprehensive survey circulated to companies that range from the established big beasts of the sector to small independent outfits.

Brexit – The Uncertainty

The prospect of Brexit, even before it becomes reality in March 2019, is already having a profoundly destabilising impact across the sector, as Hanna Madalska-Gayer, OneDanceUK’s Advocacy Manager and one of the survey’s compilers, told Ballet Position.

“The main thing that’s coming across is the lack of certainty around what the arrangements will be post-Brexit. That lack of certainty is making it very difficult for individuals and organisations to do much planning now.”

To get a full picture of the UK dance sector’s deep integration with continental Europe it helps to look at some of the facts and figures pointed up in Movement Beyond Borders:

– at present, dance in the UK benefits from EU funding through programmes such as Creative Europe, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus +. There is no alternative UK source to fill the gap, should these inputs cease after Brexit;

– the average proportion of nationals from the EEA (European Economic Area, which includes the EU and non-member countries with reciprocal arrangements) employed as performers and creative/artistic staff across large scale dance companies is 25 – 33%. This rises significantly in the case of small companies;

– touring is a considerable income generator for UK dance companies. At the moment, touring in
most of the EEA is relatively easy, because sets and costumes can travel by road with no need for customs clearance.

Not surprisingly, then, the most damaging impact of Brexit would be if freedom of movement across EU borders were to cease, says Hanna Madalska-Gayer.

“The most important for our sector is the ease of movement for people and objects. I think that’s the one that not only we at OneDanceUK, but many other industries in the country are worried about.”

Brexit – The End of Free Movement?

Under current rules, EU nationals can reside and work freely in member countries.  They can travel visa free throughout the EEA. Should these provisions be terminated after Brexit, companies would be faced with escalating costs and bureaucracy. As Tamara Rojo, herself a Spanish national and currently Artistic Director of English National Ballet, told the survey:

“The dance world relies on free movement of creatives (…) we don’t have the resources to deal with hundreds more visas each year.”

Movement Beyond Borders estimates that an end to ease of movement could result in increased costs of more than £130,000 per year for some major UK dance companies, amounting up to 10% of turnover.

Consequently, the overwhelming majority of survey participants (86%) told the survey “Brexit will affect their UK-based work and productions (…) by reducing their ability to bring artists and organisations into this country.”

Movement Beyond Borders found that practically all of its respondents felt an end to free movement would also adversely affect touring, with new visa and customs requirements adding costs and delays to the whole process.

The same constraints would apply to European companies performing in the UK, where dance audiences have become used to seeing the best from continental Europe, be it Nederlands Dance Theater or Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, to mention but a small fraction of the artists that make up the bulk of programming for Sadler’s Wells, for example.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Viktor

Konzept Arts and Ideas is a new performing arts management company, with offices in London, Turin and Berlin. Its producer, Natalie Richardson, told Movement Beyond Borders:

“I think we will see a stultifying and isolating trend in the artistic work that becomes too inward looking.”

Dance in Post-Brexit UK

Movement Without Borders provides the first official, wide-ranging assessment of the possible impact of Brexit on a key sector of the UK’s cultural life, and contains a number of recommendations to mitigate its effects.

Among them, “we urge Government to ensure a quick, easy and either no or low-cost, long-duration, multi-entry visa or work permit arrangement for creative and cultural workers, to ensure continued ease of movement for people and objects;’

and, “reciprocal arrangements must be put in place to enable cultural exchange without increased bureaucracy or cost to organisations touring in Europe, internationally or the UK.”

Hanna Mandalska-Gayer says that Movement Beyond Borders is one of the key tools for OneDanceUK in its ongoing contacts with government departments and individual politicians:

“The report was sent while it was still in its interim version, before it was properly published, to the Department for Culture [Media and Sport] and others, so they will have seen a lot of the content.

“We’re also over time sharing a lot of its content with policy makers as and when they need it; (…) and it has been shared with MPs and peers.

“We actually have a meeting of the all-party parliamentary dance group – OneDanceUK actually manages the secretariat for this group – and we’ll be meeting on the 11th September and we’ll be sharing the report with them as well.”

Like so much of what surrounds Brexit and its terms, it’s hard to tell where, if anywhere, such efforts will lead. One thing is certain, though: as Movement Beyond Borders makes clear, “when making creative work, it’s all about finding the right person for the right role – no matter where they are from.”

Curtailing ways of “finding the right person for the right role” will inevitably lead to an impoverishment of the work, with all its deleterious implications for the health of cultural life as a whole in the UK.

by Teresa Guerreiro

Movement Beyond Borders can be accessed in its entirety on the OneDanceUK website

 

The Two Faces of English National Ballet

ENB, Tamara Rojo as Frida Khalo in Broken Wings, photo Laurent Liotardo

With English National Ballet mired in allegations of unacceptable workplace practices, Ballet Position goes behind the scenes to find out more

Over the past five years English National Ballet (ENB) has burnished its public image to a peak of gloss and glamour. The company is dancing with verve and assurance, and the visionary and bold programming developed by its Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, has won her a loyal following, plaudits and honours, including a CBE for Services to Dance.

The public success of the company is a given, something that its staff recognise and appreciate. It comes at what price, though?

Scratch the surface and a very different image begins to take shape. It’s not pretty, glossy or glamourous. The word that best describes the climate inside ENB today is “toxic.”

Fear and Intimidation

In an article published on 27 January The Times lifted a small corner of the veil to expose an alleged culture of fear and intimidation at the company.

Rumours of bad human relations and plummeting morale had been circulating for years, seemingly validated by a staggeringly high turnover of staff year after year. “I have never seen brand new people come into a company and within two years leaving at the rate they are now,” a seasoned observer told Ballet Position.

Fifteen dancers left the company last summer alone.

And yet the The Times report was the first time allegations of unacceptable managerial conduct in the company came out into the open.

Ballet Position wondered why. Why have people with compelling stories to tell not spoken out before? Or sought redress in-house?

We talked to twelve ENB dancers past and present, as well as support staff, and had sight of relevant documents. And the answer we consistently got was “fear.”

“I’ve been wanting to talk about this for so long, but was so afraid,” said one.

It is hard to comprehend, let alone describe, the palpable sense of fear common to the sources we approached on a strictly confidential basis.

Think about it: fear, all-pervasive and paralysing… in a publicly subsidised company… in 21st century Britain…

Equally striking was the eagerness with which accounts that had been churning inside came pouring out once people had been assured of absolute confidentiality. Striking too, that as they spoke to Ballet Position and relived their time at ENB, many of those who are no longer there still broke down and cried.

“I was so depressed, I still cry remembering it,” said one former dancer.

“I am so glad it’s all coming out at last,” said another, a sentiment echoed by most of those we spoke to.

Destabilising Behaviour

The stories we heard were remarkably consistent. They told of a style of management that relies on bullying, psychological pressure, rudeness, public humiliation and “an absolute lack of empathy.”

These allegations are laid firmly at the door of the Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo – described as someone with “no people management skills” – and the Assistant Artistic Director, Loipa Araújo.

Their behaviour is described as “entirely destabilising.”

“Tamara comes into the studio and the atmosphere immediately changes: you don’t know whether she’s going to start screaming or give us the absolute silent treatment.”

“Surely it can’t be right to stop a rehearsal, or class, single out one person and tear that person apart in front of everybody else.”

To a dancer mid-class: “Look at you! What the f*ck have you been doing?”

Displease the AD or AAD and you become a non-person, totally ignored in class and rehearsal.

“I don’t think Loipa ever addressed a single word to me; no corrections in class – nothing.”

The psychological effect of this kind of treatment is profound: “traumatised” is the word used by more than one of our sources.

Then there is the pressure to dance even if injured. Told by the Artistic Director that asking for more recovery time after a serious and extremely painful illness revealed “lack of commitment to the company” one dancer told us “I felt I had to hide my condition… I danced out of fear.”

And there are consistent reports that the advice provided by in-house medical staff has been simply ignored or overridden.

If someone falls out of favour, we’re told, their life is made so miserable they end up leaving; some
abandoning the profession altogether.

“I didn’t finish my career the way I would have liked,” a former ENB dancer, who resigned when the psychological pressure became unbearable, told us. “I knew I had to stop dancing some day, but I felt I had another three or four years of dancing in me.”

Decisions that affect the lives of dancers are described as capricious and arbitrary. One older dancer was granted a restricted amount of unpaid leave to pursue interests that would help him develop a post-dancing career; only to be told at the last minute it wasn’t possible after all.

He, too, resigned; but because he fought his corner all the way, now he’s not even allowed in the building.

Roles are given and then taken away with no explanation. One day you’re told you’ll be doing a solo, only to hear the next day you are second cast corps after all.

Feedback “is non-existent or entirely negative,” sometimes given mid-performance.

The result is that dancers’ confidence is totally shattered. “I was constantly told I wasn’t good enough, but had no feedback to improve. I ended up on anti-depressants.”

And this from another dancer who used to enjoy performing: “I don’t want to be on stage terrified that something is going to go wrong.”

Conflict of Interests

Then there is the personal relationship between Ms Rojo and one of her subordinates, Lead Principal Isaac Hernández.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández
Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández

 Personal relationships between managers and their direct subordinates are problematic at the best of times, bordering on the unprofessional and unethical.

This is so when they are conducted discreetly; it’s even more so when they are flaunted, as is the case with the Rojo/Hernández liaison. We have reason to believe Ms Rojo is fully aware of the conflict of interests involved; and yet we’re told Mr Hernández’s has become “cocky,” and shows off his special status by, for example, rolling in late for class and leaving early; or sitting in to observe the women’s class for no apparent reason.

“It makes people feel very uncomfortable,” we were told. And his presence “stops dancers talking freely among themselves.”

”He’s like a second pair of eyes ready to report back” to the AD.

That Mr Hernández is brought into the Spanish language huddle of Tamara Rojo and Cuba’s Loipa Araújo, in which non-Spanish speaking dancers naturally have no part, contributes to the sense of exclusion and mistrust, which now seems to afflict a considerable section of the company.

“I Felt Completely Alone”

Tamara Rojo and Loipa Araújo are not working in a vacuum, though. English National Ballet has an Executive Director, currently Patrick Harrison, and a Board of Trustees, currently headed by Justin Bickle. It is recognised by the stage trades union Equity, under whose rules it should operate. It is also a recipient of considerable public subsidy in the form of annual Arts Council grants.

Oh, and there is an in-house Human Resources (HR) department…

Were none of them aware of these problems? We’re told the dancers fill in annual anonymous “employment satisfaction forms” and certainly last year many used them to make their grievances abundantly clear. To no avail, it seems.

The view among some of our sources is that Equity is ineffectual. So, having been unable to get the Ballet Rep to answer our repeated phone calls, we emailed Equity’s Press Office a series of detailed questions. We received the following statement:

“We are currently working with our members to resolve a number of issues at the ENB, but those discussions are confidential. We have not got any further comment to make at this time.”

Good enough?

As for the Arts Council, which subsidises ENB to the tune of £6.2 million per year, a spokesperson told us it “was not aware of any allegations of improper behaviour in relation to ENB,” prior to The Times article, but added:

“…ensuring that staff, audiences and participants are able to work and experience arts and culture in a safe and secure environment must be of paramount importance to arts and cultural organisations.”

However, having been prompted by the report in The Times to seek a meeting between senior Arts Council and ENB members, the statement goes on, “we are satisfied that ENB has appropriate policies and processes in place to handle grievances, complaints and conflicts of interest, and that it takes its responsibilities in this regard very seriously and have not asked them to investigate beyond the actions it is already taking.”

ENB – What Now?

So, back to ENB.

Ballet Position sent two lists of detailed questions to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Justin Bickle, and the Executive Director, Patrick Harrison, via the ENB Head of Press.

Among our questions: were they were aware of the allegations of a climate of fear and intimidation at the company as a direct result of the AD and ADD’s style of management; and what action did they propose to take to deal with these serious problems?

We received a statement that does not directly answer any of our questions. After stressing the company’s artistic success over the past five years, the ENB statement notes the introduction of

“significantly increased medical provisions and clearer and more generous reporting lines for
dancers and more training for their managers.”

We are unclear as to the meaning of “clearer and more generous reporting lines.” Furthermore, all our sources are unaware of any improvements in management as a result of “more training.”

The statement goes on to say, “We are committed to providing a safe environment, free of harassment and bullying of any sort, and we respond to any specific concerns that are raised.

“We have well-established staff policies addressing whistleblowing, safeguarding, grievance, bullying and harassment, and conflict of interest.”

Ballet Position remains unclear as to what those policies are; and wonders why they appear not to have been implemented.

The statement concludes: “…we will continue to work with our recognised unions, board and staff to ensure feedback is listened to and any concerns are addressed. 

“We are open-minded about finding the most effective ways for staff to raise concerns, and a series of meetings are planned with all staff and dancers now the company is back from its mid-season break.”

A Cry For Help

Here’s the thing, though: staff have raised concerns anonymously in the “employment satisfaction forms” and told us they saw no results, no improvements.

In the present climate of fear, for an individual to follow the company grievance procedure is seen as career suicide. “You will find yourself before the AD, stating a grievance against her…”

Our sources told us they do not trust the company to hear their grievances in good faith and act on them. Nobody trusts HR to act as an impartial arbiter between management and staff.

Talking to the press, then, is a last resort, a cry for help – because there’s only so long you can go on dancing on the edge of fear.

by Teresa Guerreiro

Laurretta Summerscales: becoming Juliet…

Laurretta Summerscales in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, photo Laurent Liotardo

ENB Principal Laurretta Summerscales talks to Ballet Position about her favourite roles and the current  phase in the company’s history.

Juliet is one of Lauretta Summerscales’ favourite roles. Juliet, that is, in the Rudolf Nureyev production of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s 1977 ballet on Prokofiev’s complete score is the version danced by Laurretta’s home company, English National Ballet, for whose predecessor, London Festival Ballet, Nureyev created the work.

“Oh, I love Juliet!” she exclaims, and her face, already animated throughout our lengthy conversation, lights up further. “This is the only version of Romeo and Juliet I absolutely love.”

Nureyev himself described his Juliet as “passionate, willing and more mature than [Romeo] is.”

Lauretta: “You can see the transition as she turns into a woman – she realises what she wants and then she’s put into a situation where she has to choose between two sides, but she loves them both, doesn’t understand it. She’s, like, caught in a trap.

“I see her as a very strong character, so that’s why I can act her quite easily because she’s strong, even though she’s not toughened, harsh; but she knows what she wants and she’s very strong against everybody.”

Judged by many to be the balletic version of Romeo and Juliet closest to Shakespeare’s original, Nureyev’s ballet doesn’t stint on the bawdiness and violence that characterised Renaissance Verona. And he introduces some changes that intensify the dramatic effect.

“This is the only version (…) where she actually sees Tybalt dead. In all the other versions that I have seen you never have the chance to show the audience your emotions, what you go through!

“You have seen Tybalt dead and you have love for him and you have love for [Romeo] different types of love… this complete torture of two sides… and also you have a go at him saying, “how dare you do this?” and at the same time you love him.”

Throughout, though, and this seems to be the clincher for Lauretta Summerscales, “she’s quite calculating, thinking about things, thinking about “should I, shouldn’t I?” she’s scared, but you can see that she hasn’t lost control.”

Laurretta Summerscales
Laurretta Summerscales

As she gestures to signify her enthusiasm for this role, the tell-tale sparkle of diamonds flashes from the ring finger of her left hand. She is engaged to fellow Principal Yonah Acosta, with the wedding booked for the very first day of their summer holiday, post Romeo and Juliet.

The natural question, then, is, would she like to establish a regular stage partnership with her life partner?

“It would be great to do Swanilda and Franz [in Coppelia] because there’s a bit of feistiness, and we’re like that naturally, so I would love something like that because I would just have so much fun with him on stage.”

‘Feisty’ is definitely one word you would associate with Laurretta. It’s also a word that applies very much to ENB’s Director since 2012, Tamara Rojo. Does that create problems?

“I find we’re both quite feisty. I think it’s more because I’m pushy and I think I annoy her sometimes, which is understandable.

“It’s difficult, because as a dancer you don’t want to be seen that you’re laid back or that you’re super confident and you expect everything. I always want to show that I am always wanting more, I don’t want anybody to see me as big-headed (…)

“So, I never want her to think badly of me, so sometimes I’m like, ‘Im here, just to let you know.’  I’ll bet she’s gonna say, ‘go away, leave me alone.’  I don’t know that for sure, but that’s the impression.”

Big-headed is definitely not the impression Laurretta Summerscales gives. On the contrary, with her open smile and willingness to engage, she comes across as disarmingly unpretentious. Strong-willed, though; and intent on widening the range of her roles.

Brought into the company after only two years in the English National Ballet School, her progress up the ranks has been fairly swift, and promotion to Principal came, aged 25, in January 2016.

A strong dancer with a powerful jump, and appearing taller on stage than she is in real life (at 5ft 4 or 1.62 m she’s well within a female dancer’s average), she has tended to be typecast as, say, Medora in Le Corsaire, Odille rather than Odette, Myrtha rather than Giselle.

And yet, she gave a good account of Giselle in her debut in the role last Winter.

Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

“I want to be able to be versatile and feel I can bring a bit of this, a bit of that, I’m not in a box. I don’t like to be in a box, I have this thing, ‘no! no box!’” (Laughs)

Versatility has to be the name of the game under Tamara Rojo’s ambitious plans for English National Ballet. The company’s repertoire now includes work by contemporary choreographers such as Akram Khan, Russel Maliphant, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and China’s Yabin Wang, in whose complex reading of the Medea myth, M-Dao, Laurretta starred.

Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo

Another coup for Rojo was the acquisition of MacMillan’s seminal work, Song of the Earth, choreographed on Mahler’s haunting Das Lied von der Erde, where Laurretta would be eager to dance the central role of The Woman – though she has no idea yet whether that’ll come to pass.

There is actually a lot ENB dancers don’t know about Rojo’s overall plan for the company.

“I understand she wants to push the company up there, to be different, to grab people’s attention, but what her plans are for the future, like what ballets and stuff, no. We may have an idea, rumours, there’s always rumours, but you never know because things do change like this” – she clicks her fingers – “so until you see it in black and white… but that won’t be shown to you until literally a month before.”

Laurretta is understandably reluctant to be drawn on internal company politics; but pushed about the Director’s accessibility to ideas or even suggestion from below, she will say this:

“When she’s a dancer, in dancer mode, you can talk very freely, but when she’s a director it’s a very different dynamic.”

She is much happier talking about her ambitions for the future, the roles she’s got her eye on beside that of The Woman in Song of the Earth:

“Definitely La Bayadère, I’d love to do both Nikiya and Gamzatti, but I absolutely love Gamzatti, especially the last solo – it’s really difficult in the red dress, it’s beautiful!

Don Q, for sure – I feel like I can really just explode on stage. Elite Syncopations I’ve always liked because of Darcey Bussell.

“And the last one that I’d like to do is Sleeping Beauty. The Act II solo – I like the challenge, it’s such a long solo, it needs so much control…”

More immediately, Laurretta Summerscales is reprising the role of Juliet during ENB’s forthcoming stint at London’s Royal Festival Hall; and then, of course, there is the small matter of her own love story to attend to come the first day of the summer holiday and her wedding to Yonah Acosta.

by Teresa Guerreiro

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ENB dance Romeo and Juliet at the RFH, 1 – 5 August 2017. Laurretta Summerscales dances Juliet with Paris Opera’s Josua Hoffalt as Romeo on 4 August at 19:30

The Strange Case of the Missing Choreographers...

Crystal Pite photo Georgia Straight

Does gender, rather than talent, determine which choreographers get commissions? We report on the state of an increasingly heated debate.                                 

Towards the end of her 10-year tenure as Director of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason was asked why she had never commissioned a work by a female choreographer.

This was her reply: “quite simply, I have not come across one that I felt was suitable. Choreography is not a gender issue – it is an issue of talent.”

Ouch.

Eat your heart out, Crystal Pite. Helen Pickett. Shobana Jeyasingh. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, et al.

Sorry, ladies, you’re quite good but… how to put this?… not good enough for the august Covent Garden stage. Too… “not classical” maybe? Too… contemporary? Not as contemporary, though, as Wayne McGregor, whom Dame Monica appointed Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet.

Go figure.

The debate on the continuing failure of top ballet companies both in Britain and across the world to commission new work from women choreographers has been flaring up regularly over the past 10 years or so.

Just last October Rambert held a one-day symposium on this question. That in itself was interesting. More interesting, perhaps, is that a very similar, if not identical event was held in 2009 at the initiative of Dance Umbrella and Dance UK.

That was meant to lead to changes and progress. In reality, nothing much seems to have changed in six years.

Just a few days ago a press release landed in my inbox. Edge, the London Contemporary Dance school post-graduate dance company, is touring 15 venues and six countries with a programme of new works.

All four featured choreographers are men.

And so the debate rages on.

Tamara Rojo, ENB
Tamara Rojo, ENB

Never one to miss an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has stepped in with She Said, a programme of specially commissioned works by women choreographers for ENB’s Spring period. It will feature Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang and Aszure Barton.

This is how Rojo explained her decision:

“I had the idea for female choreographers four years ago before the current debate started. My original motive was simple: I had never done a piece by a female choreographer. In the theatre the dynamic of the piece is always from a male perspective.”

If you think about it, from its beginnings with its ethereal sylphs all the way to the modern-day fashion of women being manipulated and passed around the stage splayed crotch foremost, ballet has always obeyed a very male view of what women are, or should be like.

It seems that in the field of decision-making, the perspective is also very much male.

The immensely talented British-based Spanish dancer and choreographer, Avatâra Ayuso, has thought about this a great deal. Recently honoured with a nomination for the Emerging Artist Award in the 2015 National Dance Awards, she describes her attempts to get funding for her choreographic projects as a permanent struggle.

Avatâra Ayuso
Avatâra Ayuso

“The directors of the institutions who have the power to commission are men. Society is ready for half and half (…) but those that run the institutions don’t do enough research to find male and female choreographers. They just go with the habit of having male choreographers.”

She goes further:

“They don’t want to take risks! I think having a woman is also taking a risk, because they don’t know what we can do.”

Or as the American choreographer Elizabeth Streb bluntly puts it, “people like giving money to men.”

Despite the glaring omission of women from the forthcoming Edge programme of contemporary dance, gender inequality seems more acute in classical ballet than in contemporary. Women have, after all, played a key role in the development of the very concept of contemporary ballet, its themes and its language.

The roll call of female giants of contemporary dance is long and awe-inspiring.

Martha Graham, Letter for the World (1940) Pina Bausch, Haendel Suite
Martha Graham, Letter for the World (1940)                       Pina Bausch, Haendel Suite No. 11, Sarabande

Isadora Duncan. Martha Graham. Pina Bausch. Twyla Tharp. Lucinda Childs. Crystal Pite…Just a few names of out of a list too numerous to call in full.

But look at classical ballet.

Not even fact that ENB’s new crowd-pleasing and hugely successful production of Le Corsaire was re-choreographed by a woman, Anne-Marie Holmes, seems to have given major companies an incentive to follow suit.

Full kudos, then, to Scottish Ballet, for commissioning not one woman but two – choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and film director Nancy Meckler – to create its dance version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Balllet
A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Balllet

It paid off. The ballet was nominated for the Olivier awards and won the Critics’ Circle Best Dance Production and the South Bank Best Classical Choreography awards.

Next on Scottish Ballet’s list is a new commission from Crystal Pite, and perhaps even more significantly a new piece from its budding in-house choreographer, the young dancer Sophie Laplane. Both will feature in the company’s 2015/16 season.

Defenders of the status quo look at such successes and argue that, in the words of (male) dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, “we don’t need more female choreographers for the sake of it.”

Or, as the Spectator ballet critic Ismene Brown put it, “I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance.”

To which The Observer ballet critic Luke Jennings, responded in characteristically trenchant fashion by pointing to “a gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment.”

Jennings argues that in contemporary dance “the more large-scale and high-profile the commission, the smaller the probability that it will be awarded to a woman.”

And he goes on, “In classical dance, female choreographers face even greater discouragement.”

The last time the Royal Ballet commissioned a female choreographer to create work for its main stage was in 1999 (pre-Dame Monica’s directorship, obviously…): Siobhan Davies’ A Stranger’s Taste.

This imbalance in Covent Garden is mirrored in some of the major international companies.

Women may have been Balanchine’s muses, but no new works for New York City Ballet bear the imprint of a woman choreographer.

And for all his protestations that he wanted to drag the Paris Opera Ballet kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Benjamin Millepied filled his first (and as it turned out his last) season in Paris with the works of male choreographers – McGregor, Peck, Wheeldon, Ratmanski… and more.

Here’s the problem. Talent is subjective. You can always argue, as Monica Mason did, that she couldn’t see enough of it to justify a commission.

In other areas that fall under anti-discrimination laws compliance is easier to measure. But how do you “measure” talent?

Nevertheless, there is clearly a predisposition on the part of those who commission to give men, rather than women, a chance to prove their talent. And a chance to fail and try again.

So, in the cogent words of Luke Jennings, “it’s time for dance to shed its institutionalised sexism, to rid itself of the whiff of privileged boys’ clubs and backstairs deals and join the artistic mainstream.”

ENB’s She Said will be an important step in that direction.

However, it will probably be judged almost exclusively in terms of gender; and that will, to a certain extent, obscure an objective assessment of the works’ artistic merit.

I would argue that it’s only when a programme on any dance stage – august or less so – is made up of works by both male and female choreographers and the focus of attention are the works themselves rather then the gender of their creators that a proper balance will have been achieved.

Avatâra Ayuso has been very active in the campaign for a level playing field for female choreographers. She welcomes the current debate:

“I think the issue should be out there. We’re not silly girls waiting for things to happen. No! No, no! It’s good that people get to know what’s going on. In fact, I have my own kind of survey that I normally do with people who are not dancers. I ask them, “so, was it a male or female choreographer?” They answer, “oh, I don’t know!” They don’t care. They just want to see quality.”

Teresa Guerreiro

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