Is British dance dominated by male choreographers?

Dance history essay written at London Contemporary Dance School, May 2000

Introduction

The dance world is sometimes accused of being dominated by male choreographers. To find out if this is true, it is important to ask how you can "dominate" the dance world. It will obviously be important to look into these issues:

In this essay I will research public funding for dance, distributed by the Arts Council of Britain, giving only a brief overview due to lack of data on how much each of the funded companies receive from the Arts Council. I will then focus on the genre of contemporary dance to see who gets performance space at major venues like The Place Theatre, Sadlerís Wells and Queen Elizabeth Hall during two of the programmed "seasons" of The Place. Media coverage is difficult to assess, but a few Internet searches will reveal what the impact of a selection of choreographers is on this newest of mass media.

During the research, I will often have to determine if a single company will contribute to the domination of either male or female choreographers. When looking at funding of repertoire companies I will mainly classify them by the person given as "artistic director", but select a few companies and look at currently performed rep pieces to get an impression of whether male or female choreographers are dominating their programs. To be more thorough, one might study the entire repertoire and look at how often each piece is performed by the company. Another dilemma is how to judge groups that work more collaboratively during the choreographic process, where the choreography is heavily based on input from the performers.

It could be argued that the percentage of female vs. male choreographers rather than being 50/50 should reflect the proportion of females among the performers. Some dance companies, perhaps especially in the ballet world, are organised in strict hierarchies, with males dominating on the top and females outnumber them among artists and corps de ballet. Within such strict hierarchies, it makes sense to demand proportional balance at all levels, but it is still a very long way to go before this is achieved.

Within the limits of a small essay, there will be no room for a discussion of audience numbers or the various dance or choreography awards, neither is there space to study other genres than contemporary dance.

British Art Councilís funding of dance

Regular funding list

Companies who receive regular Arts Council funding, are Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre, Rambert Dance Company, Richard Alston Dance Company and Royal Ballet. Every single of them has a male artistic director, but since some of them are repertoire companies, the balance between male and female choreographers may be slightly more even. A brief look at the pieces currently being performed tells us that among the companies deemed worthy of regular Arts Council funding, male choreographers reign supremely. I will later take a closer look at the repertoire of the biggest contemporary company on the list, Rambert Dance Company.

Fixed-term funding

Among the ten companies given fixed-term funding, the picture is different. The groups Badejo Arts, DV8, Green Candle Dance Company and V-TOL Dance Company all have male artistic direction, but they are joined by CanDoCo, Cholmondeleys & Featherstonehaughs, Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, Siobhan Davies Dance Company, Union Dance Company and Yolande Snaith Theatredance. We see that six out of ten companies have female artistic direction, and four are funded by female choreographers with clear public profiles and strong artistic reputation. Also, three are named after their artistic leaders, raising audiences' awareness of watching a female-led company.

Others from Green list

The proportion 6 out of 10 is reflected through the rest of the Green list. Of 2901 other listed companies, 61% are under female artistic direction. The question when looking at the gender balance among publicly funded British companies is therefore why this proportion is not reflected among the selected few that receive regular funding.

Repertoire: Rambert and Ricochet

Neither Rambert nor Ricochet dance company is based on a single choreographerís output, which is why I define both as "repertoire" companies. Rambert has a male artistic director, Ricochet's artistic direction is chosen by the performers themselves. To get a brief idea what their repertoire is like, I have chosen to take a quick look at the programmes they are currently performing.

Rambert is doing three of its old classics: Christopher Bruce's "Ghost dances", Glen Tetley's "Embrace tiger and return to mountain" and "Four scenes", another work by Bruce. This is not entirely representative for the gender balance in the Rambert repertoire, since it includes a number of pieces from Siobhan Davies's work as associate choreographer and a few choreographed by female Rambert dancers or commissioned choreographers. Still, the dominance of male choreographers seems to be an issue Rambert should address in their choices of which pieces to revive.

Ricochet is currently performing one work by Russel Maliphant, called "Cut", and a series of five solos commissioned by the dancers themselves. Thus, the program consists of six pieces, and unfortunately, only one is choreographed by a woman: La Ribot`s "Pressed daily".

The dominance of male choreographers has historical roots (the old London Contemporary Dance Theatre was often criticised for this) so it may come as no surprise that Rambert as a company with a "past" has a repertoire dominated by male choreography. The Ricochet programme is more surprising, and hints that perhaps the reputation of male choreographers today is higher than the reputation of females.

Performance space and seasons

Most London performances of contemporary dance are programmed into seasons, of which two of the bigger are Dance Umbrella and Spring Loaded. These seasons span multiple venues, most important is The Place Theatre but companies are likely to attract too big audiences for a 300 seats-theatre will be performing at QEH or Sadler`s Wells.

Dance Umbrella

The Dance Umbrella festival studied lasted from 29th of September to 14th of November 1999. During this period, 18 companies gave 43 performances containing a total of 30 pieces. Females led 7 of the groups (41%), males 10 while one was mixed. The male-directed companies gave 24 of the performances, the female 17 (41%).

Spring Loaded

The spring season of The Place Theatre this year presents 47 companies giving 97 performances. 15 of the groups have female choreographer or artistic director, while 17 have male Ė the remaining either have mixed artistic direction or no information about the choreographer is given in the leaflet(!)2. The balance between groups as well as performance times given each of them is almost exactly 50/50. The only imbalance is in the use of the bigger QEH-space, where 4 out of 6 performing companies were male-dominated. Adding that Rambert is performing its triple bill at the Sadler's Wells without being a part of the Spring Loaded-programme, it is clear that male choreography dominates the larger stages.

We see that Dance Umbrella has still some way to go to get the balance, probably partly because they are inviting big, established companies from abroad. Spring Loaded, on the other hand, has got it almost right.

Media: Internet coverage

As a mass medium, what makes the Internet unique is that you can influence your own presentation and coverage without depending on any third-partyís editing ability or ideas about what is interesting. To what extent dance companies make use of the possibilities the Net has to offer, could be the subject of an entire essay, so rather than reviewing their web pages, I will refer to a fast word count by AltaVista done on the 25th of May, 2000. Search is by phrase, and one male choreographer is included for comparison:

"Shobana Jeyasingh" word count: 320 - 32 pages found.

"Yolande Snaith" word count: 213 - 77 pages found.

"Richard Alston" 547 pages found.3

"Siobhan Davies" word count: about 400 - 724 pages found.4

The fact that Siobhan Davies company has their own, relatively extensive web site probably contributes to her high score. Apart from her, we clearly see a general lack of content about female choreographers.

Conclusion

It seems to me that British dance is still dominated by male choreographers, and the more established a company is the less it pays attention to gender issues. It seems that the funding and performance programming to a certain extent is aware of the imbalance and trying to address it, and there is a more even balance among less established dance companies.

Does it matter, anyway? Are any themes and styles specifically feminine, and thus require female choreographers? Certainly, a company like DV8 treats gender issues in their work and even though classified as a male-directed company uses the dancers - including the women of the company - for choreographic input.

I believe it matters, because society in general still lacks high-profile women who can be role models, and because female experience needs to be given theoretical and practical value. Because it matters, the Arts Council should make sure they get some of these high-profile female choreographers on their regular funding list as soon as possible, to enable them to play even greater roles in British dance, and inspire other women to follow their lead. Another reason is that some men seem to be more comfortable going to a performance by a male choreographer for a variety of prejudices, for which the only remedy is to develop female-led companies to the point they can not be overlooked by anyone who wants to see contemporary dance. This is about what is seen as "the normal" in our society, labelling female choreographers as deviate from the male norm.

Bibliography

  • Bremser, Martha: 50 contemporary choreographers. Routledge London/ N.Y. 1999.
  • British Arts Council: The Green List 1999.
  • Dance Umbrella: Dance Umbrella 1999 programme leaflet. Information also drawn from website www.danceumbrella.co.uk
  • The Place Theatre: Spring Loaded 2000 programme leaflet. Website www.theplace.org.uk.
  • Notes

    1 34 companies are not included in the statistics, either because they had both male and female artistic leadership or because no such information was given. A few are left out because the choreographer had a non-British name and I could not find out if they were male or female.

    2 The Place Theatre seems for instance not to consider it important to credit choreographers in the children's programme "Offspring".

    3Word count for "Richard Alston" not included because there is an American senator with the same name, so the word count came up with a misleadingly high number.

    4 Very funny data, these. Obviously, I can't control-count, best to let them illustrate how unreliable search engine result can be..

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