Where Are Women Leaders in the Ballet World?

In March of this year on a winter California night, I joined more than 41 million viewers across the globe to watch an historic moment unfold. It was a Sunday, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was televising its 82nd annual extravaganza. Amidst the beauty and the glamour, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in Oscar history to win the Best Director award. She was the fourth woman to be nominated in this category, but the first to win.

Seven weeks later I found myself making a trip from San Francisco, my home for the past 30 years, to Richmond, Virginia. I had been invited by Stoner Winslett, artistic director of Richmond Ballet, to take part in a panel discussion regarding women in the arts and, specifically, the dearth of female artistic directors leading larger ballet companies in this country. A year earlier, upon receiving the invitation, I was stunned to find out that currently in the U.S. only four women direct ballet companies with budgets of more than $2.5 million. Many women are teachers or fill the important role of ballet mistress (or as some women prefer to use, ballet master). I started in such a position before becoming associate director of Smuin Ballet in 1998. At that point, Michael Smuin cautioned me about taking on the title. He mentioned that I would not “be associate director” immediately, but that I would learn it over time. He was right. And that learning process was invaluable. Nonetheless, with all the women in professional companies, why do more women not find themselves in the top positions of leadership of our nation’s larger companies? Women have founded many of the country’s top regional ballet companies, so what keeps them from the role of artistic director? Has progress been so slow in our country since women’s suffrage 90 years ago? It’s hard to believe that it was as late as 1979 that the United Nations adopted a policy on the Condition of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. For various reasons, the U.S. has not adopted this women’s “bill of rights.”

Politics and policy aside, I joined my colleagues — Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet and Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founder and artistic director of Ballet Memphis — on the panel that met in Richmond in April, and was hosted by Stoner Winslett. Andrea Snyder, executive director of Dance/USA introduced the panel, which was moderated by the esteemed dance journalist, Anna Kisselgoff. Each of these dynamic women is focused, determined and passionate about what they do. We learned that the paths that brought these four artistic directors to their current roles were as varied as the women themselves. At one point, however, each of us said “yes” and accepted the responsibilities required to lead a ballet company. Like me, several of these women also fill the position of executive director, or have at various times.

Women in any profession must determine when and how they will balance the many goals they hope to accomplish. Women in any profession must determine when and how they will balance the many goals they hope to accomplish. Obtaining an advanced degree, finding a partner, experiencing motherhood, if that is a personal desire, are but a few. Many female dancers in this country focus on their dancing careers right out of high school. Depending on the pathway to a position in a professional company, many wrestle with the timing of these important life goals.

I took an unusual path to my dancing career. I enjoyed the majority of my performing career after my two children were born. While some dancers wonder when they will find the time to become mothers, I juggled motherhood with performance schedules and studying for my degree, while also acting as associate director of Smuin Ballet. It was because of Michael Smuin that I found myself in a position I had not sought, but because of his trust in my abilities, regardless of my gender, he gave me the valuable opportunity to learn about the operations of a dance company. With a board who also believed in my capabilities and in my potential to do the job, I find myself today in this unique position: a woman at the helm of a ballet company. Is it that more women don’t desire such roles, or that they are not encouraged in such capacities, that we don’t find more female artistic directors in this country?

Rather than coming away with answers, our discussion raised more questions. Women lead several major ballet companies around the world: Brigitte Lefèvre at the Paris Opera Ballet, Karen Kain at the National Ballet of Canada, and Monica Mason at the Royal Ballet are notable. Perhaps this conversation that started in Richmond should be opened up to an international dialogue. In some parts of the world, women are clearly considered capable of leading major ballet companies, just as they are entrusted to lead nations. As American women advance with grace and aplomb into leadership positions in government and business, it is my hope that we will see greater movement of our women in becoming leaders in the arts.

Perhaps this current situation in the field arises because many women in ballet are so intent on solidifying their performing careers that they don’t appear to exhibit an interest in artistic management. I would encourage women, at all levels of their career, to take an interest in and offer some extra time to assist and to learn from their artistic and executive directors, whether in the studio or in the administrative office. I would also encourage those in leadership positions, men and women, to talk to their female dancers and explore what their goals might be and what other interests they might have – in choreography, in teaching, in helping to stage a ballet, in development … there may be hidden abilities waiting to be discovered.

Celia Fushille is artistic and executive director of Smuin Ballet. As a founding member of the company and its principal dancer for more than 12 years, Fushille worked closely with founder Michael Smuin. In a career spanning 25 years, Fushille performed on U.S. and international stages and appeared on television and in film. Fushille’s exuberant style embraces and personifies Smuin Ballet, a dance company whose works remain accessible to the public by marrying the grace and traditions of ballet with the multi-dimensional elements of contemporary music and dance. Today, she oversees both the artistic and administrative direction of the company, assuring that the inspiration that began almost two decades ago lives on with each season of Smuin Ballet.


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