For Women’s History Month

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In the 1800s, animal scenes were not considered “appropriate” subject matter for women painters. Rosa Bonheur painted them anyway, earning her a spot on my 2014 top-ten list of inspirational artists. 

 

In my first year of graduate school, one of my assignments was to write a list of the ten artists who inspired me the most. Easy peasy, right? I sat down, put pen to paper, and scribbled out my list, and then realized with surprise that they were almost all men. There are plenty of fierce, fabulous female choreographers, musicians, visual artists, and dancers out there … so how did so few of them end up on my list?

I spent the next three years with this question on my mind, and I think it was one factor that motivated me to delve into women’s studies and to feminist approaches to art making and education. I also think it is one of the reasons why I chose as the central focus of my thesis a woman (Anne Morrow Lindberg) and my relationship to her writing. I feel proud to have exposed the audience to the writing and life story of a strong, gifted woman, especially given the fact that her accomplishments can easily be overshadowed by those of her husband (Charles Lindberg). My bibliography for that project is filled with female sources of knowledge and inspiration: painters whose work hangs in the National Museum for Women in Arts; choreographers who take on feminist themes unapologetically but with humor, sensitivity, and grace; teachers and mentors who pushed me, prodded me, and pulled more out of me than I could have imagined.

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A photo from my thesis project, Like A Unicorn in Captivity, courtesy of Zachary Handler. The projection is a quote from the writings of  Anne Morrow Lindberg

 

But yet, that question remains …. why were so few women on my top ten list? 

And another question … if I had to do it again, would many women make the cut today?

In thinking about the answer to the first question, I have come up with several explanations:

  • The first is a matter of exposure. In my formative years, when my artistic taste was being developed, I was exposed to a lot of male choreographers, musicians, and artists. I love Paul Taylor for his work, but also for nostalgia that seeing that work generates for me. I show Taylor’s Esplanade in all of the Dance Appreciation and Choreography classes I teach because the work contains great examples of basic choreographic devices like abstraction, cannon, retrograding,  theme and variation, and movement motif. But watching it also brings back many wonderful memories: the first time I saw his company in concert with my mom, taking class at the Taylor school during my senior year in college, and learning excerpts of Esplanade itself at a summer intensive. All of those experiences shaped who I am as an artist, so of course I would hold a particular fondness for Taylor’s work. Perhaps if I had the same level of exposure to Martha Graham’s work, she would have made the top ten too.
  • The second is a matter of novelty. Growing up in the dance studio in the late eighties and nineties, before So You Think You Can Dance and the commercial hip-hop boom brought dancing boys into living rooms across the country, there just weren’t that many guys in dance class. Nor did I have many male teachers. It seems kind of natural that those men-in-dance that I was exposed to really stood out to me, whether they were fellow students, teachers, or choreographers. This also has something to do with how I thought of myself as a dancer, I think. I couldn’t shake and sway sexily like the girls in jazz class, nor I was necessarily cut out to be the Swan Queen (although I did play Odette in my studio’s mini-production of Swan Lake when I was 12, thank you very much). Because I didn’t fit into the female stereotypes, I was drawn to other ways of moving – more modern, and perhaps even more “masculine.” I remember volunteering to go with the small group of boys across the floor in ballet class, challenging myself to jump as high and as far as they did – if not higher and farther. So not only did the dancing men stand out in my early dance experiences, but I was drawn to the standards set for them. I was intrigued by how men moved and what they created through movement.
  • The third is sort of the opposite of novelty – and the hardest to explain. I sometimes think many female choreographers seem to be trying too hard. I will always love Appalachian Spring, and will look to Martha Graham with reverence and respect as one of the foremothers of modern dance, who made it okay for women in dance to be more than swans and sleeping princesses. But to me, most of her other work just feels – strained. Like it’s trying to prove a point. I remember thinking the same thing when I attended a performance series called something like “Through the Glass Ceiling” by American Repertory Ballet. I was happy to see a evening devoted to female ballet choreographers, but I just didn’t like most of the work. One piece stood out to me in particular. I can’t remember the name of the piece, or even the name of the choreographer, but I do remember the dancers barking on stage. Now, I applaud anyone who pushes ballet to beyond it’s perceived boundaries, but I remember thinking: would Balanchine have had to resort to this? (Not that there aren’t a slew of issues with Balanchine’s approach to ballet, but that is a topic for another post.) I think that female choreographers are often facing uphill battles. In ballet, choreography has traditionally been the realm of the male – think Petipa, Fokine, Nijinski, Balanchine, Wheeldon. In modern dance, it is sometimes the opposite, especially on the small-scale, grassroots level. In my experience, local dance scenes are often bursting at the seams with female modern dance choreographers. Being one of them, I know how hard it is to feel noticed. I know how badly you can want your work to stand out. I know how being “normal” can make you feel marginalized. I spent most of my graduate school experience dealing with white, suburban, female syndrome – that feeling like everything I did was kind of vanilla, because I was kind of vanilla. I struggled to find my voice in an artistic world that increasingly values diversity, globalization, and multi-ness. So, I understand how female choreographers in both the ballet and modern realms might feel tempted to make their dancers bark on stage. Anything to say, “I am not vanilla! My work is not vanilla!” Surely, men in dance face many struggles that I can not begin to understand. Perhaps feeling vanilla is one of them, and I am unfairly turning a common issue into a female one. But I can’t shake the feeling that, at least in my opinion, most work by male choreographers just feels more comfortable in it’s own skin than work by female choreographers – like it has less to prove. I’ve always appreciated, even envied, that level of confidence and coolness in art. Maybe that’s another reason why men topped my top ten list?
  • Finally, the fourth, and the least complicated – perhaps it’s all just a matter of taste. I like what I like, and maybe the gender of it’s creator doesn’t matter at all.

But I’m inclined to say that gender does matter in these things. In the midst of “white suburban female” struggles, when I felt like my work would never matter, I turned to my wonderful female mentors for support . They validated my struggles with stories of their own experiences, and taught me to embrace those struggles as they had embraced them. They helped me find my voice within my vanilla-ness – not in spite of it, because of it – because it is who I am, and it matters. They helped me to find the courage to be who I am: there is no need to hide behind a bunch of barking, my work is enough as it is – and so am I.

I want to pass those lessons on to my students as well. I want their top ten lists to be filled with inspirational figures both male and female. Some ways that I am working to make that happen are:

  •  Exposure: I am trying to ensure that both male and female artists are represented in my classes. For every time I use Esplanade as an example, I try to also use Cafe Muller by Pina Bausch or Fields of View by Susan Marshall or A Matter of Origins by Liz Lerman.
  • Critical Education: I want to ensure that my students not only know about male and female artists of prominence, but know how and why they came into that prominence. I try to talk about why gender matters in art: issues of access, of societal expectation, of funding, of education and training, and of exposure. I want my students to make informed decisions about who they like, and why they like them.
  • Equity: I want my students to know that their work matters, that they matter – male or female. I want to listen to their stories, to hear their ideas, and to honor their opinions. I want to help them hone their artistic voices, and give them the skills they need to create articulate, meaningful, and honest work. I want them to be on their own top ten lists, because the world is a better place because of their work.

For the record, and to answer the second question, my top ten list still includes Paul Taylor and Doug Varone. But it also includes musician Leslie Fiest and painter Rosa Bonheur and writer/actress/all around boss Tina Fey, and the awesome women I was lucky to work with in graduate school and in New Street Dance Group.

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