Female Choreographers Now
At British Ballet Now and Then we have been following the debate on female choreographers. In 2009 The Guardian critic and historian Judith Mackrell asked “Where are all the great female choreographers?”, and considered reasons why we see so few dance works choreographed by women, particularly on major stages by the world’s most prestigious companies. Since then the question seems to have become simply “Where are all the female choreographers?”. Luke Jennings, author and dance critic of The Observer, has published thoughts on this topic on several occasions (“Female Choreographers”), highlighting work by Vanessa Fenton and Cathy Marston that he had admired in the smaller venues of the Royal Opera House that had not led to opportunities to create for the main stage (“Sexism in Dance”), and culminating in his response to Akram Khan’s position on redressing the gender balance in choreography (“You’re Wrong, Akram. We Do Need More Female Choreographers”). Female ballet choreographers, including Cathy Marston (qtd. in Jennings), and Crystal Pite (qtd. in Mackrell), whose work we discuss below, have joined in the debate.
The current Artistic Directors of the UK’s two most prestigious companies have been tackling this conundrum. As soon as Kevin O’Hare was in post as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet (RB) in 2012, he commissioned the much-sought-after Canadian Crystal Pite to choreograph a new work for his company. By the time the work, Flight Pattern, premiered in March 2017, the company had not performed a work from a female dance maker for 18 years. Under Tamara Rojo English National Ballet had already the previous year taken more radical action by staging a triple bill of new works created by female choreographers entitled She Said, thereby highlighting the voice of women in the creative process. Mackrell referred to the programme as a “campaigning first for an industry in which most of the repertory is created by men”. And indeed David Bintley, Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, a company that already has a “strong record” of performing works by female choreographers (Anderson “Birmingham Royal Ballet”), has followed suit with plans for a triple bill of choreographies by Ruth Brill, Jessica Lang and Didy Veldman next season.
So, in case you haven’t had a chance to see Flight Pattern or She Said, here is a short outline of the works to at least give you some impression of their focus and diversity.
Characteristic of Pite’s oeuvre is her concern with the human condition, and the world as it is with all its conflict and trauma. Referring to Flight Pattern she says: “This creation is my way of coping with the world at the moment” (qtd. in Spencer). On this occasion, the plight of refugees is her theme. But the work also demonstrates her skill in moving large numbers of dancers in imaginative and compelling patterns, groupings and configurations around the stage, ideal for a large-scale company such as the RB.
At the heart of She Said were two iconic women (one real, one mythological), and the act of dancing itself. Broken Wings by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa portrayed the life of Frida Kahlo in a swathe of vibrant colours and imaginative stage sets evoking the artist’s work. Kahlo’s life of love and suffering was portrayed in quite a literal way in terms of movement content, unlike Yabin Wang’s M-Dao, a sparse, pared down but searing account of the Medea myth, in which Medea’s dead children were represented by fallen drapes that she gathered in her arms, and her vulnerability portrayed by one bare foot. In stark and satisfying contrast, Aszure Barton’s virtuosic Fantastic Beings “inflects the classical language with a wonderful strangeness – brooding missed beats, skittering deviations, and an exhilaratingly bold eye for pattern” (Mackrell), and the choreography skilfully captures the unique movement style of each dancer (Kechacha).
The theme of strong women is an important focus for British choreographer Cathy Marston (qtd. in Winter), whose 2016 Jane Eyre is currently being performed by Northern Ballet (NB). Marston has been choreographing professionally for almost two decades in this country and internationally, and Jane Eyre is her third work for NB, the first being Dividing Silence, as early as 2004. Three years prior to this a pas de deux by the name of Three Words Unspoken was premiered in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House with Brian Maloney and a young Tamara Rojo whose intense and dramatic performance enriched the compelling choreography. Nonetheless, even though Marston held the position of Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House from 2002 to 2006, she was not given the chance to create work for the main stage.
Happily, over the coming months two of Marston’s works will be touring in various locations throughout the UK, giving thousands of people the opportunity to see her work. In addition to NB’s tour of Jane Eyre, Ballet Black is performing a brand new work that she has created for the company entitled The Suit. This is based on a fable by South African author Can Themba, and has already received positive reviews highlighting her skill and inventiveness in conveying various relationships, emotions and dramatic situations (Anderson, Roy, Wonderful News).
Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet (SB) since 2012, has been proactive in expanding his company’s repertoire with works by female choreographers, including Kristen McNally from RB and former resident choreographer for the Atlanta Ballet, Helen Pickett. Although he may not have commissioned choreography from Crystal Pite, in 2016, while the Royal Ballet were waiting for work to begin on Flight Patterns, SB in fact performed the European premiere of Pite’s 2009 Emergence, originally created for National Ballet of Canada (Crompton). Four years previous to this SB had premiered A Streetcar Named Desire, created for them by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, later to choreograph Broken Wings for ENB. This work has been seen in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, and London.
It would seem then that it is possible to see a variety of work created by female choreographers here in the UK, but it takes time, and either patience, or the willingness and means to travel. Thanks to forward-looking directors, next season we have more to look forward to: as well as BRB’s triple bill of new choreographies by women, ENB are staging She Persists, a triple bill of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, Broken Wings and a new work by first artist Stina Quagebeur.
Female Choreographers Then
While we have been appreciating the opportunities we now have to experience a range of works by female choreographers (limited though it still is), as we ponder on two female choreographers from the past, we are focussing on the crucial contributions they made to shaping British ballet style, contributions that are perhaps not generally fully recognised or acknowledged. One of them, Ninette de Valois, we tend to associate more with her crucial role in establishing the Royal Ballet; the name of the other, Andrée Howard, may even be completely unfamiliar to you.
Despite de Valois’ inestimable role in the establishment of British ballet and the fact that she was quite a prolific choreographer, few of her works are still performed. Amongst her most celebrated ballets are The Rake’s Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937), available on DVD in a 1982 performance by Sadler’s Wells (now Birmingham) Royal Ballet, and her 1931 Job. With their moral themes of faith against all the odds, human frailty, and the battle of good against evil, these works are rather sombre in tone. However, amongst her hundred or so works were a 1950 single act version of Don Quixote to a score by the Spanish Catalan Roberto Gerhard featuring Robert Helpmann as the Don and Margot Fonteyn as Dulcinea, as well as the comic 1940 Prospect Before Us about two rival 18th century theatre managers.
If you watch the scene with the Dancing Master from The Rake’s Progress, with its swift and intricate footwork complemented by quick changes in direction and bends and twists of the torso, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is a ballet by Frederick Ashton, the Founder Choreographer of the Royal Ballet, who is generally thought of as the architect of the English style. Critic Alastair Macaulay has pointed out the similarity in the styles of de Valois and Ashton in this scene (205), while Judith Mackrell has presented an intriguing and perspicacious argument that particular aspects of de Valois’ choreographic style were more inherently English in nature than were Ashton’s: “… De Valois’ choreography was in certain respects even more British in temper than Ashton’s – uncluttered, clear-eyed, and almost literary in its detailed realisation of character and plot” (“Vanishing Pointe?”). So, even though most of her works are no longer performed, it seems that de Valois made a significant contribution to the development of a recognisably English style in her capacity as a choreographer as well as in her role of founder-director of Britain’s national ballet company.
And so to Andrée Howard. Even though you are probably unacquainted with Howard’s choreography, she was in fact a founding member of The Ballet Club (later renamed Ballet Rambert, the company that eventually became Rambert Dance Company) and started choreographing in the 1930s. In 2005 the RB revived her best known work, La Fête étrange (1940), and the following year Rambert Dance Company revisited her Lady into Fox, the work that initially made her name in 1939. Other than these two ballets all of Howard’s works have been lost. Nonetheless, she is a truly fascinating figure in British ballet; in fact historian and archivist Jane Pritchard describes her as a “key choreographer from the founding years of 20th century British ballet”.
Both La Fête étrange and Lady into Fox are characteristic of Howard’s oeuvre in that they deal with dark subject matter based on literary themes. La Fête étrange tells the story of a young man who chances upon an engagement party and precipitates the break-up of the betrothal. More startling is the subject matter of Lady into Fox, as the title summarises exactly the narrative of the work: a young woman metamorphoses into a vixen. Howard’s choice of daring subject matter is perhaps at its most pronounced in her 1947 adaptation of David Garnett’s novel The Sailor’s Return concerning a mixed race couple trying to settle in Victorian England. Important for the current debate on female dance makers is Professor Susan Jones’ assessment of Howard’s oeuvre as “evoking in dance a specifically female experience” (261): “In several ballets Howard returned to the theme of the abandoned woman, isolated by social and patriarchal forces beyond her control, where the dissemination of narrative through choreographed movement principally charts the inner conflict of the female protagonist” (261-62).
In the late 1940s to early 50s Howard staged works for both Sadler’s Wells Opera/Theatre Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now BRB and RB). It is very interesting to us that a young Kenneth MacMillan was performing with these companies at that time and even danced in her ballets Assembly Ball (1946) and La Fête étrange (Parry 64, 71). This means that he had plenty of exposure to her work. With her penchant for disturbing, or at least unsettling, subject matter, it seems inconceivable that Howard would not have made a lasting impact on this giant of British ballet, celebrated for bringing realism to the art form. (You can read about MacMillan’s choral works in our January 2018 post.)
Therefore, in our opinion, it not only important to give female choreographers opportunities to create ballets, but also to ensure that their most effective works are preserved and that their influence as choreographers appropriately acknowledged.
Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … Next month, just one year after its creation, Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings will be the first of the three works from ENB’s She Said to be revived (with some reworking). It is being performed as part of the Voices of America bill, which will be reviewed by our editor, Libby Costello.
© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018
Anderson, Zoë. “Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, London, Review”. The Independent, 6 Nov. 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/birmingham-royal-ballet-a8040666.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
—. “Ballet Black, Barbican Theatre, London, Review”. The Independent, 20 Mar. 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/ballet-black-review-barbican-a8264861.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
Crompton, Sarah. “Scottish Ballet: Crystal Pite; Angelin Preljoçaj review – one great, one good”, The Guardian, 21 Aug. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/aug/21/scottish-ballet-crystal-pite-emergence-angelin-preljocaj-mc-14-22-edinburgh-festival-review. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Jennings, Luke. “Female Choreographers: further thoughts”, Luke Jennings, 2 Mar. 2015, https://thirdcast.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/female-choreographers-further-thoughts/. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
—. “Sexism in Dance: where are all the female choreographers?”, The Guardian, 28 Apr. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/apr/28/women-choreographers-glass-ceiling. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
—. “You’re Wrong, Akram. We Do Need More Female Choreographers”, The Guardian, 18 Jan. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jan/18/akram-khan-more-female-choreographers-for-the-sake-of-it-luke-jennings-reply. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Jones, Susan. Literature, Modernism and Dance. Oxford UP, 2013.
Kechacha, Rym. “She Said: the enduring power of the female voice in dance at ENB”. Bachtrack, 14 Apr. 2016, https://bachtrack.com/review-she-said-lopez-ochoa-wang-barton-english-national-ballet-sadlers-wells-april-2016. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
Macaulay, Alastair. “Ashton and De Valois”. Ninette de Valois, Adventurous Traditionalist, edited by Richard Allen Cave and Libby worth, Dance Books, 2012, pp. 199-208.
Mackrell, Judith. “Crystal Pite: ‘In ballet, girls are less likely to be prized for being mavericks’”. The Guardian, 2 May 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/may/12/crystal-pite-girls-ballet-choreographer-prized-mavericks. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.
—. “English National Ballet: She Said review”. The Guardian, 14 Apr. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/14/english-national-ballet-she-said-review-sadlers-wells-london. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.
—. “Vanishing Pointe: where are all the great female choreographers?”. The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/oct/27/where-are-the-female-choreographers. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.
—. “Where would we have been without her?”. The Independent, 6 June 1993, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/dance-where-would-we-have-been-without-her-dame-ninette-de-valois-celebrated-her-95th-birthday-1490132.html. Accessed 4 Mar. 2018.
Masterpieces of British Ballet: Checkmate, The Rake’s Progress. Choreographed by Ninette de Valois , performance by Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. 1982, VAI, 2006.
Parry, Jan. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2009.
Pritchard, Jane. “Women Choreographers and English National Ballet”. ENB, 8 Mar. 2018, http://www.ballet.org.uk/blog-detail/women-choreographers-english-national-ballet/. Accessed 18 Mar. 2018.
Roy, Sanjoy. “Ballet Black review – Shakespeare in tutus for enchanting double bill”. The Guardian, 18 Mar. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/mar/18/ballet-black-review-shakespeare-in-tutus-for-enchanting-double-bill. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
Spencer, Mel. “Crystal Pite: Flight Pattern is my way of coping with the world at the moment”. Royal Opera House, 9 Mar. 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/news/crystal-pite-flight-pattern-is-my-way-of-coping-with-the-world-at-the-moment. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Winter, Anna. “Cathy Marston: ‘Many of my works are led by strong women’”. Exeunt, 28 June 2016, http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/cathy-marston-many-works-led-strong-women/. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
Wonderful News. “Ballet Black’s The Suit & A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an emotional and joyous journey”. The Wonderful World of Dance, 16 Mar. 2018, http://www.thewonderfulworldofdance.com/ballet-blacks-suit-dream-within-midsummer-nights-dream-emotional-joyous-journey. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.