Many decades ago, George Balanchine, the patriarch of American dance, pronounced that "ballet is woman," a definition that has withered into a cliché for many ballerinas. If ballet is indeed “woman,” why, thirty-four years after Balanchine's death, are there still so few women in choreographic and artistic leadership positions? Although ballet is commonly regarded as a feminine art form, women are often not allowed any artistic or administrative say. In the shadow of Balanchine’s legacy, women are expected to be silent muses while men occupy positions of power.
The tides have shifted in some parts of the country with women like Lourdes Lopez, who is leading Miami City Ballet to success, and Suzanne Farrell, who has nearly doubled the size of her company for an ambitious last season. But the deficit continues to plague New York, where the phenomenon of male-defined ballet has been entrenched at major companies and accepted by their change-resistant donor base.
Add to all this the threats of President Trump's proposed cuts to arts spending, as well as the new administration's institutionalization of a national “boy's club.”In this climate, female artists, especially those without the financial backing of a major company, are again at risk of being discredited and disregarded.
There is, however, potential for organizations such as Columbia Ballet Collaborative—with a well-established alliance of female innovators—to find a viable path toward change. CBC, having created a place where young choreographers can get a foothold in the professional realm, holds a unique position in the arts and culture community on campus and, more broadly, in New York City. Most crucially, CBC provides choreographers with resources that are hard to come by: studio space, talented dancers, connections, and the freedom to take risks.
The company, founded by Victoria North in 2007 and now led by Elizabeth Ratze, has always had a female artistic director. After a recent rehearsal in the Barnard studios, Ratze noted, CBC was demonstrating that female directors are not only capable, but also innovative and worthy of respect, setting the standard for gender equality within arts organizations from the start.
Gender inequality, though magnified by the gender-centric art of ballet, is a problem that Columbia faces as a whole—from male dominated discussion sessions to the heights of administration. But to get at the root of the problem, we must continue to change the arts. Columbia needs art that accurately reflects campus demographics. And the responsibility to produce it falls just as much on the student body as it does on the institution.
To this end, students must make a greater effort to support the student-run arts organizations that provide the community with thoughtful female leaders. What some may not realize, is that CBC relies heavily on outside support for financial backing. With only partial funding from the Activity Board, support stems largely from student councils and unaffiliated foundations and individuals. When spending for the arts decreases on a national level, every organization will be affected, especially ones without institutional backing. We cannot allow Columbia to risk losing its artistic character, which has been shaped by its wealth of strong, female voices.
At a moment when such progress is under threat, each member of our community has a responsibility to acknowledge the gender-biased structures that restrict who gets to speak and who gets to be heard. To gain a better understanding of who we are—whether we be artists or not—it is imperative to engage in the arts. When artists are marginalized, and voices excluded, we lose sight of the full scope of our artistic identity and potential. The biggest change can be made on the smallest level, namely, by attending shows for independent arts groups like CBC on campus. If we educate ourselves with exposure to diverse, original art, we can begin to engage in meaningful conversation that will help women artists, and in turn, the entire community.
On the occasion of CBC’s 10th anniversary, Columbia, and New York as a whole, face important questions. Who is given artistic authority? How can these artists shape our identity? The resulting conversation can redefine outdated standards, and CBC's work is a reminder of what is at stake. Indeed, equality of opportunity and expression in dance cannot exist without a new understanding of “woman” in relation to "ballet."
The author is a sophomore in General Studies and a professional dancer with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. She is studying English with an interest in poetry and film.
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