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Boston Ballet project aims to lift women choreographers

Boston Ballet dancer/choreographer Lia Cirio (right) rehearses her piece “Sta(i)r(e)s” with dancers (from left) Matthew Slattery, Daniel Cooper, Lawrence Rines, and Maria Alvarez.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It’s an issue as old as ballet itself: the lack of female choreographers in classical dance.

Around the world, from the United States to England and Australia, it’s true: While women choreographers have thrived in modern and contemporary dance, they remain strikingly rare on most major ballet stages. It’s especially puzzling when women typically outnumber men among ballet dancers, from girls stepping gingerly in their first pointe shoes to the tutu-filled ranks of a professional corps de ballet. Where are the prominent women choreographers graduating from their ranks?

The gender gap is starting to be addressed. In May, for example New York’s American Ballet Theatre announced a plan that includes at least three women choreographers per season.


Now Boston Ballet is leaping into the game with its own multiyear initiative to support and develop female choreographers.

“The topic has been on the lips of the people for quite a while,” Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet’s artistic director, told the Globe. Nissinen said he took an interest in gender disparities in ballet choreography, especially in the United States, since his native Finland “has been so equal always” — a country that proclaims itself a “gender equality pioneer.”

The most recent three seasons of Boston Ballet main-stage productions, including the current 2018-19 lineup, have included only one female choreographer. Other major US troupes show similar disparities.

“I think it’s really cool that we get to take a step and be like, ‘We’re powerful and we can do this also,’ ” says Boston Ballet dancer/choreographer Lia Cirio. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Aware that “the best way to help is to provide an opportunity,” Nissinen established the new ChoreograpHER Initiative. It begins Thursday and Friday with sold-out performances in the company’s BB@home series — a showcase hosted at Boston Ballet’s South End headquarters — that, for the first time, will feature six emerging women choreographers who are dancers within the company.

Principal dancer Lia Cirio, 32, is making her choreographic debut. Cirio, who joined Boston Ballet in 2004, never saw herself as a choreographer, but this year, when feeling a bit uninspired, she saw the listing for the program.


“So I signed up,” she told the Globe, adding that the initiative feels necessary. “In the history of ballet, it’s always men being the boss,” she said. “I think it’s really cool that we get to take a step and be like, ‘We’re powerful and we can do this also.’ ”

The company’s ChoreograpHER Initiative will have three venues: the classroom, studio, and main stage.

At Boston Ballet School — one of the largest such schools in the country — workshops for female students in 2019, 2021, and 2023, will help them create, rehearse, and present choreography with their peers.

Women company dancers will be able to present their choreography with BB@home programs in Boston Ballet’s Studio 7 — a voluminous space that can be converted to a black-box theater — for three consecutive years.

And while programming for the troupe’s main stage, the Boston Opera House, is still being firmed up, company ballet master Larissa Ponomarenko will restage “Giselle” there in the 2019-20 season, and a 2020-21 program will feature women choreographers, musicians, composers, designers, and visual artists. Boston Ballet hopes to present a female company dancer’s choreography in the vast theater in the future.

“Boston Ballet was founded by Virginia Williams, a visionary woman,” Nissinen said, “and I’m happy that we dance with the times and continue to do a good thing.”

Meredith “Max” Hodges, Boston Ballet’s executive director, said she hopes the initiative helps set an example around the world. “I would love to see a new generation of women choreographers burst onto the scene,” Hodges said. “Yes, here at Boston Ballet, but in our whole field, nationally and globally.”


She noted that this project builds on the company’s foundation. “We’ve commissioned work from and performed work from some extraordinary women choreographers,” Hodges said, recalling Karole Armitage, Helen Pickett, and Jill Johnson. “But at the same time we recognize that when you look across the field, there is an underrepresentation of women among major ballet choreographers. . . . The most important part is to recognize it and address it and say we’re going to make a plan, a future-looking plan to try to change the game here.”

Financial support will be important, Nissinen said: “We’re trying to secure some funding . . . for the whole project, not just for one evening.”

The company hopes this initiative “will galvanize and inspire gifts from the Boston community,” added Hodges.

Meanwhile six of Boston Ballet’s emerging women choreographers are honing their works, to be performed by colleagues male and female.

Jessica Burrows, 28, already has some choreographic experience. After dancing in her native Canada, she performed with Hong Kong Ballet, where she first got the chance to choreograph professionally.

“In Canada there are some really great female choreographers,” said Burrows. “I’ve been quite lucky to have so many positive examples in my life, and I hope that I can inspire more women to choreograph and create and put themselves out there.”


“I hope that I can inspire more women to choreograph and create and put themselves out there,” says Boston Ballet dancer/choreographer Jessica Burrows, here rehearseing her work “Variations.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A recent Burrows rehearsal featured detailed attention to each performer. Dancing with them, Burrows paused to correct missteps. At one point, when an overhead hand movement for dancer Daniel Cooper didn’t quite work, the two came up with a new approach together that they liked even more.

Afterward, Cooper dashed to Cirio’s rehearsal, where there was laughter between takes, the kind of familiarity that can come among colleagues with whom Cirio dances much of the day.

Nissinen has only peeked in on a few rehearsals, to give the choreographers “space so they can be comfortable.”

“These are not professional choreographers, the studio is so sacred,” Nissinen explained. “If I go there and watch quietly in the front, the dancers and the choreographers are going to be so aware of my presence, it’s going to hinder the creative process.”

Hodges, on the other hand, has taken time to watch some rehearsals, and she’s very excited by what she has seen.

“It’s a particular favorite of mine, when we are in the studio making new work, and this is no different,” Hodges said. “In fact, you might even say it’s even more exciting to see the women of our company, our extraordinary dancers, taking this leap.”

Lillian Brown can be reached at lillian.brown@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @lilliangbrown.