Male-led ‘Femmes’ ballet highlights gender imbalance in dance: choreographer

MONTREAL — The recent controversy over a male-led ballet performance that was billed as an homage to women highlights the need to address gender inequality in the dance world, according to a former ballet dancer who brought the issue to public attention.

Kathleen Rea launched a petition last week to get Montreal-based Les Grands ballets canadiens to add a female choreographer to an upcoming show entitled, “Femmes,” after she learned it was created by three men.

The now-closed petition, which collected almost 3,000 signatures, criticized the campaign’s “objectifying” marketing language, which referred to women as “one of culture’s most generous symbols.”

Rea, 48, a choreographer based in Toronto, said her frustration grew when she learned the National Ballet of Canada’s 2018-19 lineup doesn’t include any pieces choreographed by women. She said it made her realize little had changed in the years since she’d danced with the company.

“When I danced with the National Ballet company of Canada, out of the 40 or 50 ballets I danced, only one was choreographed by a woman — and that was 20 years ago,” said Rea, who runs a small dance theatre company.

“I had so hoped that change had happened in the ballet world since then, but when I saw this program I thought, ‘it hasn’t, and this is the time to speak out.”’

In response to the furor surrounding the petition, Les Grands ballets canadiens announced Tuesday it was changing the show’s name from “Femmes” to “Parlami d’Amore,” an Italian title meaning “talk to me about love.”

Artistic director Ivan Cavallari said in a statement the company’s current season includes two ballets created by women, and added he was also making plans to meet with three female choreographers and a female orchestra head to discuss a future performance.

“We have heard, we’re taking action and we reaffirm our openness to dialogue, continuing to make way for women,” Cavallari said.

One of Parlami d’Amore’s three choreographers, Medhi Walerski, backed out of the show in order to express his support for what he called “a more inclusive participation of female artists in the dance world.”

Rea said that while she’s pleased with the results of her petition, more needs to be done to address the “shocking” gender inequality in the ballet industry.

While dancers are overwhelmingly female, she said most of the board members, artistic directors and choreographers are male.

“The board of directors of the big companies, the positions are mostly held by white men,” she said. “And the white men tend to hire white male artistic directors, who tend to hire white male choreographers.”

She said aspiring female choreographers aren’t given the same chance to prove themselves as their male counterparts, who benefit from more funding, support, and mentorship opportunities.

Rea is developing a tip sheet for dance companies with suggestions on how they can support female choreographers and increase diversity in leadership roles.

She also has a meeting scheduled with Cavallari, during which she’ll press him to hire a female choreographer to replace Walerski and ask him to commit to implementing programs for up-and-coming female choreographers.

In the current climate of heightened awareness regarding gender inequality, ushered in by the .MeToo and .TimesUp movements, the ballet world must change, if only for it’s own good, Rea said.

“If they want to stay current and relevant, they need to do this for their survival,” she said.

“The audience base is largely women, and in the post .metoo, women’s march era, women aren’t going to stand for this any more.”

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