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JUST DANCE: Ballet presents premieres by leading choreographers who just happen to be women

As recently as 20 years ago it was rare to find works by women on the programs of professional ballet companies. That’s changing, albeit slowly. On May 6 the Kansas City Ballet opens its spring program with new works by not one but two of the most sought-after choreographers in America — both of whom just happen to be women. Artistic director William Whitener says he never set out to make a Ladies’ Night at the Ballet. “If there had been a blind study in which I was just shown samples of these people’s choreography, without knowing if they were by a man or a woman, I would have picked these choreographers. It happens that these two caught my attention quite a number of years ago, and we’ve been waiting for the right time to present their works.”

From May 6th through the 9th the Ballet presents Toni Pimble’s Concerto Grosso and Jessica Lang’s A Solo in Nine Parts, on a program that also includes Todd Bolender’s Donizetti Pas de Deux and the company’s first-ever performance of George Balanchine’s Who Cares? And although the Balanchine piece (to music of the Gershwins) has dominated the company’s marketing materials, in terms of larger impact on the ballet world, it is these two premieres that are most likely to count as a real achievement for the company, and for its profile as a young, fresh company that curates everything from the classics to leading contemporary choreographers.

Gender has never been a major factor in determining what a choreographer’s work will look like, William says. “It’s about the person: who they’ve worked with and what their life experiences have brought them.” British-born Toni is a product of the Royal Academy of Dance, and early in her career she danced with three German ballet companies. The work of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and Antony Tudor has made its mark, William says. (Toni adds Jiří Kylián to the list) “I can see how that tradition informed her as a choreographer today, and yet she’s absorbed qualities from dance in general.” Toni acknowledges she has now been in the U.S. for longer than she ever lived in Europe, but she says “you never leave your roots entirely. The education you have as a young person is the basis for forming you as a person.”

Toni co-founded the Eugene Ballet Company in Oregon in 1978 and has cultivated it into a fine company. Along the way she has choreograph some 60 works, a remarkable achievement for someone running a company. She says she long recognized the potential of Ernst Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for dance, but it remained on a back burner until William asked her to make a 25-minute ballet for performance with live orchestra. And listening to the neo-Baroque score from 1925 again, she found that she “loved it just as much as before.”

Like many of her works, Concerto Grosso is a response to the pure impulse of the music, Toni says. “There’s no narrative, it’s just free association. It’s what the music says to me.” If there is a “Pimble” style, she says, it is one that focuses on “creating a lyrical, fluid style. I always try to let the music be my ultimate guide choreographically.” She says the Kansas City dancers were “very receptive, very open to the style of the piece, and seemed to be having a good time.”

Jessica began as a product of the Juilliard School, where she studied under Benjamin Harkarvy. After graduation she became a member of Twyla Tharp’s company “THARP!” But she says that, while her early experience with Twyla had a deep impact on her as a dancer, as a choreographer it served chiefly as a jumping-off point. “I used to go in the studio and improvise, but I don’t do that any more.” Before arriving in the studio she tries to absorb the music entirely. “I know where I want the piece to go. But I wait for the dancers to be there, and I improvise in from of them, and we make the dance together.” Choreographing is about “seeing what my tools can do, about the combination of what’s going to make them look good and what’s going to fulfill my vision.”

That vision has become much-desired among ballet companies: Jessica has created dozens of work for such groups as American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, Washington Ballet, and others. A Solo in Nine Parts was inspired by a Vivaldi Violin Concerto that contains nine virtuosic solo-violin passages spread through its standard three-movement musical structure. But instead of having a single dancer perform all nine solos, she has spread them out, she says, “breaking the solos up among the chorus, and making each solo fit the dancer personality-wise — their different intensities, what they can do physically.”

Have female choreographers made the headway they should have by now? Toni and Jessica are of somewhat differing opinions. Toni says women have made progress, and she is confident that they will continue to choreograph and assume positions of leadership. Jessica feels that women have a distance to go in the choreographic world, and says that the problem often grows from a tradition in which boys in ballet are pushed forward and given confidence — which can later lead them to become artistic directors and choreographers — while girls are constantly fighting a sea of competitors. “I think if we really want to make changes, we need to focus on planting the idea in young girls that there is life after dance, and work on building up that confidence.”

Gender politics aside, though, Toni and Jessica agree they want to be recognized not as “women choreographers” but for their work, period. “I happen to be a woman who creates dance,” Jessica says. “I don’t think about ‘me’ when I’m working: I think about the dance that I’m making.”

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

 

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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