As its name suggests, Cincinnati Ballet’s Kaplan New Works Series prides itself on moving dance forward. You can count on the company’s annual season opener to be modern-slanted, edgy even. This in-studio production also offers a rare opportunity to see dance in so intimate a venue you can hear the dancers breathing. But this year it pushes boundaries in ways beyond movement styles.
For the first time, all of the choreographers on the New Works bill are women: Amy Seiwert, Paige Cunningham Caldarella, Heather Britt and Jessica Lang. All except Lang are School for Creative and Performing Arts grads presenting world premiere pieces. And each has achieved recognition performing with and/or choreographing for companies of national and international acclaim. That might not seem surprising, but, it’s statistically significant.
“When we think of dance, we so often assume it is a female-oriented profession,” says Victoria Morgan, Cincinnati Ballet’s CEO/Artistic Director. “But the truth is, women are significantly underrepresented in the choreographic and leadership realms of professional ballet.”
Morgan reports that the Ballet did some research. “In the 2012-13 season, of all the companies that have an operating budget of $5 million and above, there will be 290 ballets produced. Of those 290, only 25 of those will be by women,” she says. “And I think there’s something sort of wrong with that picture.”
During recent interviews with choreographers Seiwert and Caldarella, each discussed the gender imbalances in choreographic and leadership roles in the dance world.
Given that female dancers far outnumber males, how, when and why does this shift happen?
“As a female dancer, you’re so single-focused on your career,” says Seiwert, Resident Choreographer and former dancer of Smuin Ballet. “The competition is so high that everything is about being a better performing artist. Everything in your day is what you eat, how you train, how you rehearse. … So when the opportunity to choreograph sometimes comes up, you’re like, ‘No, that will take away from my dancing.’ ”
Caldarella, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company who is serving as Associate Chair at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, says she’s noticed that in the academic world, more dance departments tend to be run by women — unlike dance companies, where men are more likely to be in charge.
Coming from a primarily modern background, New Works is Caldarella’s first time choreographing for a ballet company.
“The fact that they’re taking a chance on someone like me who gets a moment to break into that company side of things is really exciting,” she says. She describes her new contemporary piece as “an abstract commentary of technology and social media.”
Caldarella is challenging the Ballet’s dancers with doing modern floor work in pointe shoes and dancing without using set counts in the music. She and the dancers learned from each other. “I found that they really embraced it,” she says. “In many ways, they challenged me to kind of up the ante in terms of choreographic details.”
Seiwert, who comes from a classical ballet background and performing career, says she’s been experimenting with movement vocabulary in recent years.
“It’s all the same physics, but how do you use those physics in a different way?” she says. “Like taking classical vocabulary and really trying to use it in different ways than I knew how to — really just trying to build what felt like a unique vocabulary to my body.”
Seiwert discovered her own challenges while creating her playful modern ballet piece on the Ballet’s dancers.
“Contemporary dancers are so much more used to improvising and generating their own material, and classical dancers are more like, ‘Is the head here or there?’ ” she says. “The more someone did something pretty far out, the more I was like, ‘Yes!’ It was fun to watch.”
Seiwert says of choreographing, “Nothing makes you a better performing artist than standing on the other side of the room and actually seeing that part of the process. It’s a pretty big gift getting to do it.”
With women running the show, New Works promises to be an equally delightful gift for audiences.
Cincinnati Ballet presents THE KAPLAN NEW WORKS SERIES at Mickey Jarson Kaplan Performance Studio at the Cincinnati Ballet Center Thursday through Sept. 16. Tickets: 513-621-5282 or cballet.org.