Do men still rule ballet? Let us count the ways.

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Do men still rule ballet? Let us count the ways.
Elizabeth Yntema, founder and president of Dance Data Project, at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, Jan. 11, 2022. Yntema’s Dance Data Project has been using a steady drumbeat of numbers to push the ballet world to action on gender equality. Evan Jenkins/The New York Times.

by Margaret Fuhrer

NEW YORK, NY.- Periodically, arts writers and critics will sound the alarm: Ballet has a significant gender gap. Women fill ballet’s stages and classrooms, but choreographers and artistic directors — the people with power — are predominantly men.

How serious is the problem? The numbers paint a stark picture. At the largest 50 ballet companies in the United States, 71% of artistic directors from founding to present have been men; 69% of all ballets programmed at those companies during the 2020-21 season were by men; in the mostly pre-pandemic 2019-20 season, 72% were by men. Worldwide, the odds that an artistic director of a major ballet company will have a female successor are just 29%.

Until recently, those figures would have been nearly impossible to find. They are available now thanks to Dance Data Project, a nonprofit organization that is using a steady drumbeat of numbers to push the ballet world to action on gender inequality.

The project’s president and founder, Elizabeth B. Yntema, had what she calls a “red-pill moment” several years ago, while attending a ballet performance at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago. A lawyer and philanthropist who studied dance growing up and has served on the board of the Joffrey Ballet, she realized she had not seen a single ballet company led by a woman at the theater that season. “In fact,” she said, “I hadn’t seen a single ballet choreographed by a woman.”

Yntema, 63, is a longtime champion of gender equality in various fields. (One of her other causes is bringing greater diversity to rowing.) She began doing “kitchen table” research on ballet’s glass ceiling, and discovered articles and a small study acknowledging the problem. But she couldn’t find adequate data — or an organization interested in gathering it.

“I’m a very reluctant entrepreneur,” she said. “I kept thinking, someone else must be doing this work. But after a while, I realized: I guess I’m it.” In 2015, she founded Dance Data Project. Incorporated as a nonprofit in 2019, the organization now employs a small team of researchers. In the past three years, it has released 15 large-scale and six smaller-scale reports assessing everything from artistic leadership to choreographic commissions to company expenditures. The project has also created an index of female leaders in dance, compiled a collection of resources for women in ballet and led campaigns to raise awareness about gender-related issues in the field.

Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, executive director of the dance advocacy organization Dance/NYC, believes this work has broad implications. “The kinds of market analyses that exist in other industries, where you can easily identify national or regional trends, all of those things have been largely missing from dance,” she said. “What the folks at Dance Data Project are doing is significant not just for how the industry advocates for itself, but also for how the general public views the role of the arts in a healthy economy.”

Dance Data Project has been vocal in conversations about the artistic director transitions now underway at several ballet companies. In December, it released two pointed studies analyzing gender distribution in ballet leadership. On that front, Yntema and her team have cause for celebration. On Jan. 11, San Francisco Ballet named Tamara Rojo — an international star who has commissioned more than 40 works by women during her decade leading English National Ballet — its new artistic director. This week, Cincinnati Ballet announced that its veteran leader, Victoria Morgan, would be succeeded by another woman, Jodie Gates.

Yntema spoke over Zoom from Chicago about encouraging as well as discouraging trends she’s seeing in ballet, and her ambitions for Dance Data Project. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: At the risk of asking an obvious question, why does dance need more data?

A: The lack of artistic and leadership opportunities for women in ballet has been talked about for years. But since nobody was putting numbers to it, it was all anecdotal. And it’s episodic. I would watch a series of stories or scandals appear, and then it would fall off the radar for a while. Without data, it’s almost impossible to measure progress. You need longitudinal data to be able to benchmark, to get a sense of where you’re going.

Q: What was the initial reaction to Dance Data Project?

A: The response from the philanthropic community was variously, “Why are you fiddling with dance while the planet is on fire?” Or “No one cares about performing arts any more” or “Ballet should just be canceled — it’s a retrograde art form.” Critics said that we should rewrite our mission to focus on a long list of other inequities. But only 1.9% of giving in the United States is devoted to women and girls [according to a 2021 report by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy]. That is particularly of concern in a sector like dance where women dominate at every level except leadership, particularly women of color.

Q: You began tracking modern and contemporary companies last year — do you plan to expand your research to racial disparities or other diversity issues?

A: I think it’s important to look at all aspects of equity from different angles. It is women of color who have been most affected by the “she-cession” [the pandemic recession, which has taken a disproportionate toll on women], and by COVID layoffs, which have hit dance so hard. We operate on a shoestring, so we don’t want to replicate the work of the many other organizations that have prioritized racial equity and other issues around inclusion. But we try to collaborate and help as much as we can with those who have the bandwidth and expertise to conduct that research.

Q: How have ballet companies themselves responded to your reports?

A: I think just by refusing to stop, by putting out more and more studies, we began to generate interest. Many leaders in the industry were stunned by the statistics we were coming up with.

Q: Have any statistics stunned you?

A: Some bring up really serious questions about how we fund the arts in the United States. Our data shows that the aggregate budgets of the largest 50 ballet companies are about $665 million, which ain’t peanuts. But if you look at the next 50 companies down, they represent just 7% of that, $47 million. So, Economics 101: This is an oligopoly.

What I’m afraid of is that the growing income disparity that we see in the general population is more than reflected in the arts, with the big getting bigger and everybody else scrambling for notice and funding. Smaller companies, which are often doing brilliant work — and are often much more welcoming to female creators of all colors — don’t get enough resources or media coverage. It can’t just be American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet.

Q: That said, those two very large companies will both have new artistic directors this year.

A: Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet and Kevin McKenzie at American Ballet Theatre, they’ve been in those positions since the late ’80s, early ’90s. They have trained at least two full generations of potential leaders — their imprint on the culture is immense. The choice of who leads these companies after them, and the other companies searching for new directors right now, will influence dance for decades to come. If we don’t bring a more diverse candidate pool forward, we’re going to have more of the same, and ballet will just dance itself into irrelevance.

Q: So it’s big news that San Francisco Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet have just appointed female directors.

A: Yes, bravo to San Francisco Ballet for selecting Tamara Rojo! She recognizes that training the next generation of leaders requires providing opportunities to young women. And strong regional companies can serve as the catalyst for change. This could signal a new, more interesting era in classical dance.

Q: What’s next on your agenda?

A: We’re working on creating a gender equity index, modeled partly on the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index. We’ll be evaluating companies based on where women are in terms of artistic and executive leadership and choreographic commissions, but also on things like, Is there a sexual harassment policy? Is there a mandatory arbitration clause, which has been so devastating to women seeking relief? What are the provisions for parental leave and elder care? Are there lactation rooms?

It’s an array of issues that are of specific interest to women and girls, to keep them safe and in the ballet workforce. This time next year, we will be issuing awards for best large company, best midsize company and best small company.

Q: What signs of progress have you seen?

A: What I love hearing is that women who choreograph are using our data in applying for grants, to make the case that they should be funded. In conversations with male directors, there’s also been a real shift. There’s a sense of, “Yeah, this is something we’ve got to address. We need to do more.” And we’re here to celebrate it when they do.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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