Legendary choreographer George Balanchine once said, “ballet is woman,” and that seems to be the case, considering the scarcity of boys aspiring to become ballet dancers compared to the legions of girls. But of the girls who grow up to become top dancers, few have actually graduated into the upper levels of leadership.
Right now, the biggest U.S. ballet companies are run by men — with one exception: Miami City Ballet, where Lourdes Lopez is wrapping up her first season as head of the company.
“On stage, the female dancer is the main focal point, but once we step off the stage we don’t maintain that,” Lopez said.
In terms of budget size, Miami City Ballet was the eighth-largest ballet company in the country in 2011, the year for which the most recent data is available. You have to go all the way down to No. 20 to find the next female artistic director — the Cincinnati Ballet’s Victoria Morgan.
When Robert Gottlieb, the renowned ballet writer and former New Yorker magazine editor-in-chief, was asked to help MCB find a new artistic director after founder Edward Villella announced his retirement, he turned to Lopez for advice. But it didn’t immediately occur to Gottlieb to consider her for the job.
“As I talked to her and heard her extremely intelligent, well thought out answers, it occurred to me: why not Lourdes?” recalls Gottlieb. “She’s the perfect person.”
Before she took the Miami job, Lopez had worked in both the artistic and executive side of several major dance organizations. She was a member of the New York City Ballet, ran the George Balanchine Foundation and co-founded a contemporary ballet troupe.
Growing up in Miami, she and her friends dreamt of becoming great dancers but never of being the boss, Lopez said.
According to Dory Vanderhoof, who co-founded a firm that helps companies find artistic directors, women don’t seem to be applying for those leadership jobs at the same rate as men. “We usually get one or two women to four or five men,” Vanderhoof said. The firm has found artistic directors for 10 companies. “In terms of the people ultimately selected, eight of them were single males and two of them were married, where the males took the artistic lead and their spouses worked in the studio with them.” That’s with selection committees that were more or less evenly split between men and women, he said.
Both Vanderhoof and Lopez think one of the reasons might be because girls and boys have such different experiences during their training years. In the United States, boys who want to do ballet are hard to come by.
“I would say that in our advanced female class you’ll have 20,” said Lopez, “where the advanced male class you might have seven. And we have a big school.”
But most ballets have almost the same number of male and female roles, so boys often receive full scholarships to ballet schools and other forms of special treatment in order to attract them to the profession.
Philip Neal, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, was one of those boys.
“I always joked, it would be 30 girls in a line with one little boy tap dancing on the end,” Neal remembers of his early dancing days in Richmond, Va. “Even at the School of American Ballet, where I was on staff up until quite recently, the boys’ program up to a certain age was all scholarship to attract enough boys. It wasn’t even merit-based, just pure scholarship.”
Neal, a guest instructor at the Miami City Ballet School, admits it’s a lot harder for a girl of equal ability to get money for her dance training.
Darleen Callaghan, director of the ballet school, says offering free classes to males is as much to lure parents as it is for their sons.
“You have to open the door for them so they take the chance,” Callaghan says. “If you offer a scholarship, families are more willing to let them try it.”
The school’s recruitment efforts seem to be working: Miami City Ballet School enrolled more boys at the beginning of this season than ever before.
Even though the ballet field is flush with women, it’s generally men who become choreographers and artistic directors.
This phenomenon, where men quickly rise to the top of female-dominated professions, is called the glass escalator. University of Texas at Austin Sociology Chair Christine Williams, who coined the term, says it’s the opposite of the glass ceiling effect.
“So, instead of suffering from a wage gap they often receive a wage premium for men even though they’re working in jobs that are predominately female,” said Williams, who has been studying gender inequality in the workplace for decades.
She says for women in ballet to make it into a top company, they may have to be the best dancer out of hundreds of others.
“And is that also the case for men? Probably not. I think that for a lot of men there are certainly examples of outstanding talent, but it’s almost like there’s affirmative action in place for men in these positions.”
However, as cushy as ballet might sound right now if you’re a guy, Neal says devoting your life to the art form is a double-edged sword. Growing up in a private, all-boys school in Virginia, Neal had to deal with a lot of teasing.
“On one hand you have a great opportunity by being the boy and having less competition than the girls do,” said Neal. “But what you have to go through in your real life is not easy.”
But many people in the field say the young men emerge with a sense of empowerment that their female counterparts don’t get.
To wit: Miami City Ballet principal dancer Jennifer Kronenberg just released an advice book for young dancers. Natalia Garcia, 11, went to a recent book signing, and when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Garcia quickly replied, “a professional ballet dancer.” When she was asked about being the boss of a company one day, Garcia answered with a little chuckle and a prolonged “Nooo.”
UT-Austin’s Williams says the way girls and young women answer those kinds of questions tell us a lot. “Women might start off saying, ‘No, I’m not interested in leadership,’ and people go, oh, OK. She’s not interested.”
Lopez says she doesn’t consider herself particularly special. She credits her parents, Cuban exiles who taught her to take advantage of any opportunity that came her way.
She says she’s not sure if her new post is a sign that the culture is changing — women ran major companies before. The most important thing for her is to take Miami City Ballet to the next level.
And she’s glad she jumped at the chance to lead the troupe.
“I feel fulfilled in the same way as when I was dancing — just a real sense there’s a purpose again.”