Choreographer/dancer Bruce McCormick. Courtesy Men in Dance

A Grand Jeté for Gender

Local dance companies aim to fix the art’s centuries-old imbalances between men and women.

At first it looks like a contradiction. In the same season that Pacific Northwest Ballet is presenting an evening of works by female choreographers, the Men in Dance group is hosting a showcase of dances all performed by men. Both projects were created to solve a problem in the dance community. On the surface, you’d think they’d cancel each other out, but in fact they each address a different aspect of gender participation in the art form.

As with most theatrical works, the cast you see onstage at a dance performance is a small percentage of the people involved in getting that show produced. From teachers and mentors through arts agencies and presenters down to choreographers and administrators, a substantial number of people are working to make sure that when the lights go up, the performers are onstage. And a substantial number of that substantial number are men. Even though dance has been identified as “women’s work” by the culture at large, the higher up the administrative tree you go, the more male it is. A fast look at 14 of the largest ballet companies in the U.S. shows that just over 80 percent of the artistic directors are men (executive directors do much better, with just under 50 percent women in those positions). But the job that has been the most under the microscope recently is the choreographer.

Women may have been the mothers of modern dance, but female choreographers in ballet are still the exception to the rule. When you look at the historical repertory, you’re hard-pressed to find a work made by a woman, and that imbalance seems to have extended to current times. The tempest in the British press in 2013 about the lack of female choreographers led to much hand-wringing and panel-discussing, but actual change in the studios is a slower process. PNB’s artistic director Peter Boal was hesitant about labeling the company’s November program “Her Story,” not wanting to imply that the choreographers were there for their gender alone. But the three dancemakers represented—Jessica Lang, Crystal Pite, and Twyla Tharp—are some of the most vital choreographers working in any genre today; the hope is that making their presence more visible by bringing their work together can help erase some older stereotypes.

But while often in ballet more men than women make dances, when you shift your attention to performers, a different gender balance is at play. Women began to outnumber men in performance since they were first allowed onstage centuries ago, and are still in the majority. A dance work, or even an entire company, of all women raises no eyebrows today, while an all-male cast, as in the upcoming Men in Dance showcase, is unusual enough to make that aspect a marketing focus. But for Richard Jessup, one of the founders of the project, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, that’s still the point. While young men are encouraged to participate in all kinds of sports, dance is still seen as a female activity, and men who pursue it often face even more hurdles than women. While the only actual requirement for a work on the Men in Dance program is that all the performers are male, the presenters are trying to show the broadest variety of work they can. Often you’ll see a snarky jazz work next to an abstract movement study or a work for children. Ironically enough, almost every program has featured dances choreographed by women—the only goal is to show what men can do onstage.

Alongside these distinctions between the people onstage and the people who create the work they perform, a bundle of other issues are involved. Twenty-first-century conversations about equity in dance include gender, but in the intersectional world they need to extend into questions of race and class as well. Ballet, descended from 17th-century royal entertainment, has made some headway in that direction, but still can struggle with inclusion. Despite works of social concern—like Tharp’s Afternoon Ball in the upcoming “Her Story” program, with a trio of street rats set in contrast to a waltzing couple dressed for the ballroom—the repertory has more than its share of fairy-tale narratives. American modern dance has strong roots in women’s rights and social justice, but it can also labor under a stereotype when it comes to embracing a larger community. In a panel discussion about race and dance hosted last spring by Pacific Northwest Ballet, PNB executive director Ellen Walker explained her light-bulb moment when it came to understanding the need for teachers and administrators of color in ballet schools: She compared it to her own experience when she came into a room of fellow dance-company administrators and automatically looked around to see if there were any other women there. As the motto says, you cannot be what you cannot see.

George Balanchine was an extraordinary choreographer, but he was also good with a snappy quote. One of his best-known aphorisms was about gender: “Ballet is woman” has the pithy quality of a T-shirt slogan and the frustrating permanence of established law. Perhaps the goal for the dance community moving forward is to break that law more often.

Men in Dance Showcase, Velocity Dance Center, menindance.org. Fri., Oct. 6–Sat., Oct. 7.

Pacific Northwest Ballet: “Her Story,” McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, pnb.org. Fri., Nov. 3–Sun., Nov. 12.

dance@seattleweekly.com

More in Arts & Culture

Cast trailers for “Three Busy Debras” filming at the Snoqualmie YMCA parking lot on Sept. 4. Madison Miller / staff photo
New TV show filming in Snoqualmie

“Three Busy Debras” is being filmed in cities in the Seattle area, including Snoqualmie.

Tyler, The Creator performs during Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in Seattle, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Gallery: Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival 2019

Scenes from Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival at the Seattle Center.

Acquisition gift chosen from 2018 Seattle Art Fair. Installation view of Recent Acquisitions: Toyin Ojih Odutola, Frye Art Museum, 2019. Photo: Jueqian Fang.
Seattle Art Fair renews partnership with Frye Art Museum

The Seattle Art Fair, presented by AIG, is pleased to announce the… Continue reading

Bread Face. Courtesy of the artist @breadfaceblog.
Seattle Art Fair returns Aug. 1

The Seattle Art Fair, presented by AIG, is proud to announce the… Continue reading

Linda Hodges Gallery in Pioneer Square. Photo courtesy Linda Hodges Gallery
Despite Construction, Pioneer Square’s Art Galleries Remain Strong

Long a hub for Seattle’s visual arts scene, the neighborhood gets an new space this spring with the opening of ARTS at King Street Station.

Patty Gone offers an artistic toast to Danielle Steel. Photo courtesy Mount Analogue
Patty Gone’s Queer Romance Novel Reflections

The artist’s upcoming residency at Mount Analogue explores the cultural impact of pulpy romantic fantasy.

Photo by Spencer Baker 
                                Mark Haim’s torso will be guided by his friends’ movements in Parts to a Sum.
Crowdsourced Choreography

Mark Haim’s ‘Parts to a Sum’ exemplifies how choreographers are relinquishing control in the name of collaboration.

Seeing the Seattle Opera’s <em>The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs</em> counts as screen time. Photo by Philip Newton
The Innovative Tech Disconnect of ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’

Like the technology Jobs pioneered, the Seattle Opera production is flashy but lacking in soul.

Seattle Asian American Film Festival 2019 Picks

Make the most of the cultural cinematic event with these four selections.

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Britney Barber (center) and Samantha Demboski (left) perform in ‘Empty Orchestra.’ Photo courtesy Jet City Improv
Making It Up As They Go Along

Jet City Improv’s retributive actions towards a former player raise issues of the comedy institution’s staff culture.