Ismene Brown

I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance

I'm having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance
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I’m bemused by the outburst of claims that female choreographers are under-represented, held back, or discouraged by 'institutionalised sexism' from unveiling their contributions to the richness of British dance.

Only a fortnight ago I was thinking about what to write for my first 2016 piece, and this was the very question on my lips. Why was English National Ballet doing a special all-women choreography programme in 2016 as a protest statement when so many of the best things made in dance last year and the previous year were by female choreographers? But I decided I’d keep that powder dry until ENB come to the stage.

However, this weekend Luke Jennings, the Observer's campaigning dance critic, let rip about 'a gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment'. His thunderous volley replies to something the choreographer Akram Khan said last week about the number of women choreographers not needing to be increased 'for the sake of' a theoretical equality.

That in turn was Khan’s reaction to a conference staged by Rambert Dance last October when the loaded question to debate was: 'How do we level the playing field for women in choreography?' A small-scale female choreographer complained that the dance industry was 'a vertical pathway that’s very hard to climb' for women.

Well, so it is for every small-scale choreographer. And I am having real trouble getting outraged about an anti-woman conspiracy when my best-ofs 2015 and 2014 have included work of memorable excellence from Crystal Pite, Rosie Kay, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Cathy Marston, have considered quality work from Shobana Jeyasingh, Martha Clarke and Didy Veldman, and noted promising signs from Sophie Laplane. Marston is creating Northern Ballet’s big new Jane Eyre this year and surely the Royal Ballet’s Kevin O’Hare is ruing giving Hofesh Shechter rather than Pite a guest choreography slot last year. Pite is too busy now to work for ENB, said Tamara Rojo recently.

Reaching back over the past decade or two of good stuff made, Siobhan Davies, Rosemary Butcher, Wendy Houstoun and Kristen McNally sit at the front of my cabinet of memories. I see that Jasmin Vardimon, Liv Lorent, Charlotte Vincent and Sharon Watson at Phoenix are all supported by the Arts Council in their creativity, and Sally Marie is making a name. Three of Matthew Bourne’s seven shortlisted candidates for his choreography award this year were women. Arlene Phillips and Gillian Lynne need no introduction, and Kate Flatt and Aletta Collins are priority choreographers for theatre and opera directors everywhere. Are these names worryingly outnumbered by male peers? Did they have to be twice as good as their male counterparts to get there? I wouldn’t say so.

If you widen your eyes in time and place, you must acknowledge Pina Bausch, Isadora Duncan, Trisha Brown, Bronislava Nijinska, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Mary Wigman and Agnes de Mille as prime movers in choreography’s development. In today’s flamenco field it’s the remarkable female choreographer-dancers such as Rocio Molina, Eva Yerbabuena and Sara Baras who push their art impatiently forward.

And is there evidence of 'egregious' or 'shaming' gender imbalance among the composers, lighting designers and theatrical designers associated with British dance? Jocelyn Pook, Errollyn Wallen, Elena Kats-Chernin, Lucy Carter, Paule Constable, Kate Ford, Katrina Lindsay, Es Devlin, Sue Blane, Yolanda Sonnabend, Maria Bjornson, Julia Trevelyan Oman, are names I pick at random, and it is not at all my impression that they are or were lone voices for their sex.

I love a barricade as much as the next woman, but there does not appear to be one high enough here to prevent driven talents from leaping over it.

I rather think that this wittering complaint is camouflage for two very real, combustible problems. One, which Jennings alluded to indirectly, is the prevalent fashion among many male choreographers, here and abroad, to treat women as bendy toys, depersonalized faceless acrobats to be yanked about to extremes, especially around the crotch region. It seems to me that if artistic directors and media types only get hot about that kind of commission, then it is they who need to be taken to task for their bad taste.

The other problem certainly is institutionalised, though it’s not sexism. It’s one which Akram drew attention to in last week’s interview, and which the dance industry would rather overlook. This is the insistence by him and other leading contemporary choreographers that British contemporary dance training is inferior to that of foreign competitors. Given the causal link between the calibre of dancers and the calibre of choreography, this has to be an urgent matter for cool, careful investigation, and certainly it could be holding back Britain’s small-scale choreographers in landing major commissions, whatever their gender.

I think it’s time to stop airy-fairying about with the thought police and get down to brass tacks.