Adia Whitaker

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–When Adia Whitaker moved to New York in 2000 from San Francisco, she was 24 and had been creating dances since she was 14.

She had been looking forward to getting to New York, widely considered a dance capital because of its abundance of performances and studios and dancing talent. But that didn’t mean she knew much about forming a dance company.

“When I started my company, I had a really hard time,” she says about the Ase Dance Theatre Collective. “I felt like I was out in the wind.”

Realizing she could use some help she auditioned for New York City’s Urban Bush Women’s Project Next Generation for emerging female choreographers. It offers a commissioning award and was developed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar three years earlier.

“That was the first time I was around a group of women I felt I could ask questions of about growing my company,” Whitaker says. “Jawole was the first person who’d entertain my questions.”

Project Next Generation is one of just a few programs in New York exclusively dedicated to helping female choreographers get a leg up in a field where Wendy Perron, editor in chief of the 80-year-old Dance magazine, says male choreographers receive “way more opportunities.”

“I think what I said in the article 30 years ago is still pretty much the same,” says Perron, referring to an article she co-authored in the Village Voice about women comprising the majority of choreographers, dancers, administrators, teachers and students but reaping few prizes and opportunities. “A girl can train and dance all her life and find it very difficult to get a job and a boy can study dance for one year and get jobs all over the place because there is a dearth of men in the field.” Perron, a former dancer with Trisha Brown Dance Company and other troupes, also had her own company for more than a decade.

Arts Grants Disparity

In its current fiscal year the New York State Council on the Arts–a source of public funding–awarded close to $2.2 million to companies and choreographers. Grants totaling $840,650, or 38 percent, were awarded to male choreographers or male-led companies; female-led companies received $597,550, or 27 percent. The remaining $760,200, or 34 percent, was awarded to companies led by men and women.

JoAnna Mendl Shaw, artistic director of the Equus Projects, and Ellis Wood, founding and artistic director of Ellis Wood Dance Company, have studied male and female representation in New York’s dance world.

Through interviews and panel discussions they found women outnumber men as dance students and teachers and running studios but more men are in positions of making decisions about the presentation and creation of dance. The Gender Project–created by Shaw and Wood to analyze statistics about male and female representation in the dance world–found when a company’s budget is $500,000 to $1 million, most often there is a male artistic director.

“When you talk about major grants by major arts funding to large companies, those companies tend to be led by male artistic directors, especially in the ballet world,” says Cynthia Gehrig, president of the Jerome Foundation, based in St. Paul, Minn., which supports emerging choreographers through grants to artists and those who commission new dance work. “It’s still unfair. There aren’t many female choreographers who have large companies with large budgets. That kind of discrimination still exists.”

Gehrig says that the Jerome Foundation is exceptional in that more of its grants go to women. In 2006 it awarded $152,250 to emerging female choreographers and in the same period $53,750 to male choreographers.

“With Jerome Foundation’s focus on emerging choreographers and small companies, maybe it’s the size and the focus of Jerome that results in an increase in the number of women who are supported,” she says.

Sugar Salon

Another program seeking to give female choreographers a boost is Sugar Salon, funded by grants and dedicated to mentoring, commissioning and presenting the work of female choreographers. It pairs two established choreographers with six working their way up.

Barnard College's Sugar Salon

The program, co-conceived by Marisa Beatty, a graduate of Barnard College, is housed at the women’s private college in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. It provides rehearsal space for choreographers to experiment and develop new work and a forum to share ideas and feedback. Barnard also hires the residents as adjuncts to create work for its students.

Mary Cochran, chair and artistic director of Barnard’s dance department, says programs like Sugar are needed to help women gain confidence. “A lot of men have the guts because the way the culture is and the way the culture raises them to really push for themselves in the public arena,” she says.

In 2004, its first year, over 60 choreographers applied for the program. In the second year more than 80 applied.

All of Sugar’s choreographers have gone on to see the work they created at Barnard performed.

Dancing Through the Ceiling

Another advocacy program, Dancing Through the Ceiling, is dedicated to female ballet choreographers and has commissioned 12 new works in its eight years of operation. Graduates of the New Brunswick, N.J.-based program have gone on to form their own companies or join the executive ranks of established companies, says Graham Lustig, its founder.

Other programs, some of them longstanding, also help advance women by fostering minority and emerging talent. One is New York City-based KDNY, which serves as a fiscal sponsor to female-directed dance companies so they can solicit donations and grants to develop new works.

Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn presents work by female choreographers in its annual dance festival and other programs and provides commissions and performance fees to them. In its 2008 season four out of 10 choreographers will be women, says the 31-year-old center’s executive chair, Alex Smith.

Harlem Stage’s E-Moves also supports a number of female choreographers by offering emerging and evolving artists of color performance opportunities and feedback from established choreographers.

In October Whitaker and her 12-member company performed in the Living Word Festival in San Francisco, which was organized by the Bay Area’s Youth Speaks organization. The dancers were all paid artists’ fees and a daily rate, and Whitaker received a choreographer’s commission.

To keep her company going, Whitaker puts every dollar that the company earns in performance ticket sales back into the company and adds the money she earns teaching dance to New York City students.

She also received a modest grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council for 2007 and in 2006 was awarded a choreographic fellowship from the Maggie Allesse National Center for Choreography, which is at Florida State University.

An anonymous female donor supported Sugar Salon’s first year and since then the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and individual donors have funded the program.

Angeli R. Rasbury, a writer, educator, artist and lawyer, writes about women, girls and culture and works with youth in New York City.

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For more information:

Ase Dance Theatre Collective on MySpace (includes videos):

The Urban Bush Women:

Free to Dance, resource on African American dance history:

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