Dance Magazine: A Female Force
By Victoria Looseleaf
In 1966 the great soul singer James Brown crooned, “This is a man’s world…but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.”
Now, more than four decades later, a lot, bad grammar aside, has changed. Or has it? Though women have made great strides on many fronts—politics, the boardroom and yes, even in music (from Madonna to Lady Gaga, estrogen rocks)—the question persists in the dance world: Where are all the women artistic directors?
And while a few women have risen to positions of power (including Monica Mason at The Royal Ballet, Brigitte Lefèvre at Paris Opéra Ballet, and Judith Jamison at Ailey), we look forward to seeing those numbers increase. There is hope, in today’s world, of women continuing their quest to attain and maintain leadership roles. To that end, Dance Magazine spoke to five women in charge of major dance companies today. Discussing their leadership styles, how they have evolved, and their status in the 21st century, these feisty females all have strong identities and ideas about their places at the top of the ladder.
Transitioning from prima ballerina to artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain is unique in that her entire working career has been with this one esteemed company. Currently overseeing an organization of 200, Kain first joined the troupe in 1969 as a dancer, eventually becoming artistic director in 2005. Indeed, Kain has the distinction of having served under all the troupe’s directors, allowing her to experience various leadership styles firsthand, beginning with the company’s founder, Celia Franca.
“After Celia there were five men, and I learned what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do as director,” recalls Kain. “But I worked with Celia the longest, and she had a way of being very tough and very nurturing at the same time.”
Like Franca, Kain says part of her job is to nurture the dancers, making them feel confident about their abilities while also challenging them. “I’m part of their support team,” says Kain, “not someone who’s ordering them around. From the smallest things—like addressing them by their names—to the bigger ones, I feel my dancers and I have a good relationship in terms of negotiating what works for the company and what works for the artist.”
Kain adds that she leads by being true to herself. “I can’t be another person, or a distant director. I am personally involved in all my dancers’ careers. I look forward to presenting them with new challenges and introducing them to new choreographers and seeing what that alchemy will be like.”
The result of such alchemy was on view this season in the triumphant company premiere of Wayne McGregor’s landmark work Chroma, as well as in full-length classics such as Don Quixote and Cranko’s Onegin.
Stoner Winslett, the founding artistic director of Richmond Ballet, is also a nurturer who champions new repertoire. Sidelined by injury, the ballerina became the organization’s first full-time employee in 1980, assuming the directorship that same year. In addition to performing classics, Richmond Ballet’s 15 dancers and 8 apprentices perform works made for them, including nine by Winslett.
“A good director has to have a vision,” says Winslett, who has commissioned 54 pieces, “and has to be able to convince other people that that vision is their vision. When I came to Richmond it was a student company, so I’ve had the privilege of starting with students and hiring dancers and growing them. There’s a lot of nurturing in that. I also treat my dancers the way I like to be treated.”
Unlike leadership approaches with a top-down hierarchical style, Winslett says she follows the “servant leadership” model. “You serve the dancers, you serve the choreographers and try to pull them into the joys that dance onstage can be,” says Winslett.
Another eminent institution is ODC. Founded by Brenda Way, ODC is one of the oldest contemporary dance centers on the West Coast and is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary (see sidebar). Originally trained at School of American Ballet, Way then discovered modern dance, taught at Oberlin College, and relocated to San Francisco in 1976—a heady time, she says, for feminists.
“In the early days of the company,” recalls Way, who has also choreographed many works and raised four children, “when it was a collective, that and feminism were affecting my notions of leadership. In modern dance, since you are reinventing the language—or trying to do that—you invite the participation of your dancers in a deeper way, which means you probably have somewhat less of an authoritarian environment.
“The form itself opens it up to different kinds of leadership. My view,” she adds, “has always been to enlist instead of insist.”
That attitude has served Way well, including helping her to develop her 10 dancers, whom she makes part of the creative process. “That’s typical of contemporary dance,” she notes. “But how you work with both their ideas and their delivery of those ideas on a daily basis is how you develop an artist. I try to be straightforward and very particular in my feedback.”
Feedback—and flexibility—are also two keys to Liz Lerman’s success as the founding artistic director of the Maryland-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Begun in 1976, LLDE is another collaboratively led institution—this one intergenerational.
“Whether it’s female in the sense that we nurture or whether it’s because maybe as women, we are not so willing to put only ourselves forward—so we don’t have quite that much of an aggressive streak that says, ‘It’s all about me’—I don’t know,” admits Lerman. “But in my case, a lot of it’s been about ‘we.’ The quality of nurturing is good for dance and it’s been good for me.”
Lerman, whose leadership style is inquiry-based, says that women tend to see the bigger picture as opposed to focusing on the individual. “You’re not going to see me yell and say, ‘Do this.’ I’ll ask questions, push, prod, and challenge my dancers to be able to do it. It’s very much a partnership.”
LLDE member Martha Wittman knows Lerman’s style firsthand, as she does a number of directors. At 76, Wittman has danced under the direction of Doris Humphrey and in companies led by Joseph Gifford and Anna Sokolow. Recalls Wittman: “My memory is of being told much more explicitly what to do under male directorship than working with women. With Liz,” Wittman continues, “she has a sense of who people are and what their potential is. She draws on that potential and helps people to develop further than where they are.”
For Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who founded Urban Bush Women in 1984, being a good director requires a combination of passion for the art, long hours, and a commitment and willingness to grow. That said, however, Zollar, whose works originally challenged assumptions about body types and styles of movement and have always been political, does not believe in sweeping generalizations. “It’s all about the individual. There are certain socialization processes as women that either work for you or against you. I think it’s all in terms of how the individual internalizes that that really comes to your own style.”
Leadership, she adds, is also about values. “When I first began, for me the value was about just getting the work done by any means necessary. What I’ve learned is that positive reinforcement goes much further than negative reinforcement.”
Zollar, who has choreographed more than 30 works for her troupe, as well as works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is still performing at 60. She says she believes in exposing her dancers to all the arts. That, coupled with the work, is how she develops them as artists.
“It’s through doing the work and trying to get to the highest level of the work. By exposing them to writers they may not be familiar with,” Zollar asserts, “by learning as much as they can about culture, it’s all connected. You can’t separate it from the movement.”
Whatever their styles, in this generally male-dominated arena, these five women have each taken a unique road to directing and maintaining a company. And while nurturing is a common thread, they seem most fulfilled watching their charges evolve into artists.
What better way to uphold the art form, then? As Winslett so beautifully said, “I was privileged enough to learn ballet and had some gifts that could help that flame be passed from one generation to the next.”
Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the Los Angeles Times and teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.