Think of modern dance and its forbear, traditional ballet, and chances are you picture a woman in a leotard, limbs stretched, gliding effortlessly through the air. Women do make up the majority of professional dancers. Still, a lopsided picture emerges when one looks at the choreographers, artistic directors and celebrated enfants terribles of the dance world: they're overwhelmingly men. Or to paraphrase Evan Namerow's essay for the Dancing Perfectly Free blog, more often than not it's women on stage and men on top.
Caitlyn Swett wants to change that picture. Along with Sarah Ingel, Swett is producing the Women's Showcase: Dance Performance by Female Choreographers of Charlotte, happening Jan. 18 at Neighborhood Theatre. The event incorporates the works of 10 local and four regional choreographers from very different backgrounds, who each explore dance in varying ways. It will be the first women's showcase in Charlotte, with mainly grassroots companies and independent artists showing work.
While you won't see any pointe shoes and tutus, you definitely can expect some contemporary ballet, along with modern dance and performance art that aims to push the limits with creative works channeled through a woman's lens. The showcase creates an exchange of ideas and energy to support and move the dance community forward.
Generally in dance culture across America and Europe, men hold higher creative roles such as artistic director and resident choreographer. Women are more active in administrative roles, like associate director, or run schools attached to dance companies. Thankfully, this isn't necessarily the case in Charlotte, where back in July, the North Carolina Dance Festival released a list of Charlotte's influential dance companies, revealing that a majority of them are led by women. That may be because of Charlotte's high number of independent dance companies, though legacy organizations remain male-led.
Swett thinks this industry bias begins when dancers are very young. "In the early stages of dance and training, young boys are pushed toward individualism and creativity, while girls very soon find out how easily replaceable they are," Swett says. "That they're disposable in a sense, because while women dominate the dance field in numbers men dominate in power."
By contrast, the Charlotte dance community is made up of mostly women, with the exception of a few men, and that is reflected in classes, among teachers, and in the number of grassroots companies run by women. It's a tightly knit community, with members often going to each other's shows and freelance dancers collaborating with other companies. Events like the Charlotte Dance Festival and smaller shows like Loose Leaves, which showed works by new and emerging choreographers back in October, are building a strong dance scene.
Swett says the Women's Showcase is not out to discredit male voices, but to celebrate "our abundance of really awesome talent here."
It's important to note that at the Women's Showcase, not all the works will center around women's issues, but all will be told through a female lens. Male collaborators or dancers are allowed, but all the works come from female choreographers or are facilitated by female dancers. Some works tackle mental health and conversations around disabilities; others are abstract, but all of them are thoughtful. Participating companies include the Triptych Collective, Plexus Dance, The Mark, Baran Dance and many independent artists.
Blakeney Bullock, who works with the Helen Simoneu dance troupe in Winston-Salem, will dance in the Woman's Showcase as an independent. Her Untitled work originated with a male collaborator, who narrated the story of a young girl finding herself.
"I've been thinking about the ways in which men are sometimes narrating our lives; who the books are written by, the perspectives in which they are told. So I'm still using the original score, but I'm reworking the movement ... It's important not to end up erasing the voices of men, but hopefully we get to a point in our world where we can incorporate all the voices, where we all have an equal platform," Bullock says.
Swett reached out to so many companies as a way to bring the community together. "There are a lot of ways to explore the work of making dance and using this dance as a tool. My hopes are that it will continue that feeling of choreographers supporting each other. It's such a competitive field," she says.
Swett is a founding member of the Triptych Collective, which focuses on works dealing with social issues. In 2014, Swett and Ingell crafted a duet called (Wo/e)rk, a play on the concept of women in the labor force as well as the now-mainstream concept popularized by RuPaul's "You better werk, bitch." (Wo/e)rk was set to a chronological soundtrack of songs dealing with work, from Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" in 1982 to Brittany Spears' 2013 RuPaul remake, "Work, Bitch." The show's themes of work, income and internal working on self were illustrated through the choreography, which included building a bench on stage with power tools and eventually using it as a runway. Stock images of women in business attire climbing ladders and scantily clad models posing with drills flashed on background screens.
"There are a lot of feminist theories that resonate with me, and I feel making feminist work means being socially responsible and challenging the inequalities that exist in our culture through the work you make," Swett says.
For the showcase, Swett and Ingel are preparing a piece that examines the way society builds up celebrities in order to tear them down.
"We drop our pants and cry for an entire song," Swett warns jokingly. "It's about how it's entertaining when people are in crisis. We've performed different versions of the piece, and a lot of people say it's really moving."
The tears are real, and the rehearsal process very intimate. Some days they dance; some days they just talk.
"All of this is coming from a very genuine and responsible place. I remember the first time we all cried together, we were in a room in [Sarah's] office and said 'OK, let's try it.' We all went there together," Swett says. "We are taught from a very early age not to cry. To be here in front of you all and doing this thing we're not supposed to do."
But that's the point of much of modern and contemporary dance: to break down the walls between performance and audience, stage and pit, dance and life. To do so through a woman's lens is to enrich the experience exponentially.