The buck stops here
Dance Gazette celebrates dancing women as leaders, creators, role models. Anna Winter meets three inspirational women.
A century since the first British women got the vote, the spirit of suffrage and the battle for equality lives on – just think gender pay gap revelations and the #MeToo movement. In the dance industry, the vast majority of participants are women but most powerful directors and choreographers are male. To discuss how leadership feels and why so few women make it to the top, we brought together former Royal Ballet director Dame Monica Mason and choreographer Kate Prince, founder of hip hop company ZooNation.
Monica Mason In the arts I always felt we were very lucky. I grew up in the Royal Ballet with Ninette de Valois as founderdirector. I looked across into Notting Hill Gate and there was Marie Rambert running the Rambert company.
Kate Prince I’m fascinated by this. I’m not surrounded by women in leadership roles. I was nominated for an Olivier award this year, which is lovely, but in my category – Best Theatre Choreographer – 94 nominations have gone to men and 18 to women since the award was created in 1991. This is an industry that more women go into than men, so why do more men emerge at the top? I refuse to believe that it’s because women aren’t as good. It must be because they’re not given the opportunities. In the West End, or in all dance, I can reel off names of male choreographers but run out very quickly with female choreographers.
MM I think there’s no one reason why this is the case. Again, in my early days, Gillian Lynne was already emerging as a formidable producer-choreographer.
KP I’ve been working and talking with the lighting designer Lucy Carter, who works with Wayne McGregor, and with the designer Anna Fleischle. In their fields the statistics are even worse. I don’t know to what extent it’s about women going off to be mothers and if that has a massive impact. I’m surrounded by women who want to be choreographers. I can name 10 women who choreograph small projects but don’t really get commissions. But they’re good.
MM In my experience I think women prefer to go into teaching. When I was there, the director and principal of the ballet school were women and de Valois’ assistant was a woman.
KP So you’ve come from a place with women leading?
MM A really equal society. However. When I joined the Royal Ballet the girls were paid 10 shillings less than the boys a week. That’s 50p. So I was on nine pounds and the boys were on nine pounds 10 shillings. It was a long time ago! In 1963 I became an Equity deputy. I said the first thing I want is equal pay because it was ridiculous. The girls do four acts of Swan Lake, two of Giselle and four of Sleeping Beauty and the boys go home. We got equal pay.
KP Did you? How?
MM We got together and talked to the management. I was very afraid of being labelled a troublemaker. During that period of the sixties we fought for better working conditions. We had no finishing time for a rehearsal day. They’d keep going until they’d had enough. The company rented studios in Barons Court and we’d have to go from there to Covent Garden and back on the tube. I lived at the furthest end of the Piccadilly line. We ate sandwiches on the train before a show. So we started to fight for a finishing time. It was good practice for later.
I never saw myself as director of the Royal Ballet. I didn’t apply for the job, I got it by default because the previous director, Ross Stretton, retired suddenly. My aim was to be the most wonderful assistant director. I had lots of experience of helping people – Anthony Dowell and Kenneth MacMillan – and when Ross left, the board asked if I would caretake for six weeks. After that, I was interviewed and appointed.
Very soon after I started, I had a meeting with an Equity representative and she said, ‘you’re going to have to tough up, chuck!’ I’d spent 15 or 20 years always saying, ‘I’ll ask Kenneth’ or ‘I’ll ask Anthony’ and suddenly I was where the buck stopped.
I think sometimes women don’t push themselves forward. With the Royal, the two main choreographers were Ashton and MacMillan. Women didn’t really get a look in. Except that Ashton always said that the greatest influence on him was Nijinska. She mounted Les Noces and Les Biches for us, so that was a fine example. De Valois’ ballets were in the repertoire for years. So I never thought ‘girls don’t choreograph.’ I’d grown up with women who did it.
KP I was at a discussion group recently and an idea was put about choreographic platforms for women only. Someone said, ‘you can’t do that, how would you feel if you came along to something and it was just men?’ And I was like, I go to those things all the time! They don’t say ‘men only’ but you go and it’s men doing the work. I think we do need to have positive discrimination and choreographic platforms that are only for women, to start promoting that female voice again. Perhaps for a time it was stronger but it’s not now.
The piece that I’m making at the moment is on the life of Sylvia Pankhurst. Researching the suffrage movement for the past two years, I’ve learnt so much and it’s changed how I see everyday situations. I feel guilty for what I’d taken for granted. I hadn’t realised how hard they’d had to fight and it’s made me really determined to do whatever I can in a small way, in the world of the arts, to empower and liberate women to be at the top if they want to be. Because I know that they do.
MM I’ve been involved for the past seven years with St Hilda’s College in Oxford. There’s a professor of English there called Susan Jones who was a dancer with Scottish Ballet. She organised a tribute to MacMillan recently with a supper in the college. I looked around the room and thought ‘isn’t this amazing, there are no men in this room!’ You behave differently. I’m in my late 70s now but nevertheless if a guy, especially an attractive man, engages with you there’s a little bit of whatever it is, and you think, I’m still alive! There was a fascinating psychology professor there who told the story of being interviewed by about four different colleges. In each case she was interviewed by a panel of men, but at St Hilda’s it was a different ball game. She said it wasn’t intimidating, it was all about exchange of ideas – it was so constructive, so positive, so creative and imaginative.
KP That’s what we need, an environment where women are selecting women. When I teach the most advanced group at ZooNation Academy – they’re aged 10 to 16 – the boys go to one side before class and the girls go to the other side, sit and talk. The boys start practising, doing tricks and flying through the air. They have this different mindset. I’ve never had it where a group of girls walk into the room, go to the front and take the space with that self-belief. It makes me sad! I was never like that, ever. These girls have so much possibility but how can we teach them better?
Anna Winter How did you get into choreography?
KP I was the girl at nine who said I’m going to be a choreographer. I was bossy, all I wanted to do was watch dancing on MTV and make up dancing.
AW Did you have any inspirational figures? KP It used to be Tina Landon, the choreographer for Janet Jackson. She features heavily in this video of the making of the Velvet Rope tour. She had a dog in the rehearsal room, and I was like, ‘you can be a choreographer and take your dog to work?! I’m in!’
AW But where are the female ballet choreographers? Last year, Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern was the first work by a woman on the ROH main stage in 18 years.
MM There are fewer but the ones I’ve known are giants, like Martha Graham.
KP Is there anything in the system of dance where men are favoured over women and given the opportunities?
MM Not in my world. At the lower and upper school, there’s the choreographic prize and there’s never a predominance of boys.
KP Then how can you have that statistic from the last 18 years?
MM Well, I must take some responsibility for that, because I did not commission a woman to choreograph for the main stage in my 10 years. There wasn’t one outstanding woman that I wanted to bring in. But I did make sure both Nijinska ballets were remounted and the most wonderful ballet called La Fête Étrange by Andrée Howard. But I agree with you, it’s a drop in the ocean.
KP I really want to get to the bottom of this. I want to take some other women with me, I don’t want to leave them behind just because I’m doing ok. That’s not right.
AW Did either of you suffer imposter syndrome?
MM Yes. I hung three photographs in my office – de Valois, Ashton and MacMillan. I remember closing the door, standing in front of them and wondering what they’d think of me being director. ‘Should I really be in this office, following those amazing people?’ We’re all products of our backgrounds and so much is luck. But with girls, confidence is the word. If you’re a gentle person and quiet, people push you out of the way.
Taking the plunge
Vidya Patel is a dancer in demand. Since reaching the BBC Young Dancer finals in 2015, the 22-year-old Birmingham-born kathak artist has forged a singular path, blending big-name contemporary projects with continued training in Indian classical dance. In 2016, she worked with Richard Alston on An Italian in Madrid; the day after we meet she will premiere a solo he created for her.
She has just returned from a tour of India with Akademi’s production The Troth, choreographed by Gary Clarke: the only woman in a cast of six. ‘Being in an all-male environment, I was nervous at first,’ she says, ‘because I’m often surrounded by women. In my household, my older sisters and I are very vocal about our decisions and choices. In Gary’s work there was no sense of feeling less.’
Patel’s teacher Sujata Banerjee, with whom she’s worked since her school days at Birmingham’s Dance Xchange CAT programme, continues to be a guiding force. ‘She’s one of the most inspirational woman in my dance journey. As soon as I met her, there was warmth and energy about her. When I was thinking about going into dance as a career, she said “if you’ve got it in you, take the plunge.”’ She credits Banerjee with instilling a sense of seriousness and purpose. ‘She grew up surrounded by legends of Indian classical music, those tabla players who would practise for hours, so she’s got that discipline that she wants to pass on. She says kathak is like language – you don’t have to be born in the country where it originated to speak it well.’
What does the future hold? ‘I’d love the chance to work with different companies and I want to start making my own work in the Indian classical form, delving deeper into it.’ In the meantime comes a tour with The Troth and a research project in July with Shobana Jeyasingh. ‘She’s such an intelligent woman. With her being south Asian, it really inspires me to see how she’s built her company within the contemporary industry.’
This article originally appeared in Dance Gazette issue 2, 2018.