On an autumn afternoon in a cavernous Pacific Northwest Ballet studio, something brand-new was slowly beginning to take shape. Choreographer Eva Stone, whose ballet, “F O I L,” will make its world premiere as part of the “Locally Sourced” program in November, watched intently as a group of PNB’s female dancers settled into her work, memorizing it in their bodies.
“It’s almost like your hearts are beating in unison,” she said of the delicate movements of a trio. Urging the dancers to immerse themselves in each moment, Stone reminded them that the steps were actually uncomplicated. “The magnificence,” she said, “is in you.”
Just the quiet, everyday miracle of art and bodies, but there was something unusual going on that day.
Though we often think of ballet in terms of women — pointe shoes, tutus, swan queens — female choreographers are relatively rare in the ballet world, and local female choreographers at PNB are even rarer. Stone, a Seattle-based dance-maker and producer (she curates the annual dance festival, “CHOP SHOP: Bodies of Work,” and is artistic director of the Stone Dance Collective), is making her PNB debut as a choreographer. She’s one of only five women whose choreography has been seen on PNB’s mainstage in the last five seasons, along with Twyla Tharp, Crystal Pite, Jessica Lang and Robyn Mineko Williams. In that same time frame, 27 men have presented their work.
“It’s a long history of an art form dominated by women that sees men in all the upper, powerful positions,” said Stone, speaking after one rehearsal ended. She noted that it isn’t just choreographers: In the upper echelons of the ballet world, the majority of artistic directors and managing directors are male, too. “I don’t know where or when that began, why a field dominated by women believed that having men in power would make us all safe and moving forward and successful. But it’s something that’s been happening for a very long time.”
While ballet company rosters tend to be slightly majority-female (PNB currently has 47 dancers on its roster, 27 of whom are women), the statistics for those who create the dances tell another story. The Dance Data Project, which examined the top 50 American ballet companies, found that for the 2018-19 season, 81 percent of the works performed by those companies were choreographed by men; for 2019-20, that figure was 79 percent. PNB’s average is in the same neighborhood — over the past five seasons, 83 percent of the works on its stage have been choreographed by men.
“There are so few female choreographers because historically we haven’t been the ones that have been given power to do so, and the opportunity to do so,” said PNB corps de ballet member Amanda Morgan, whose choreography has been shown at PNB’s Next Step program and at the Seattle International Dance Festival. She suggests that because there are so few opportunities for women to break in, many would-be choreographers are reluctant to even make the attempt. “For a lot of people, it’s like, I don’t even want to try, I most likely won’t get it.”
The past few years have brought more attention to the glaring lack of female choreographers. Many of them, it seems, are waiting in the wings, needing training and opportunity. “Just because you’re a dancer doesn’t make you a choreographer,” said Stone, herself a longtime teacher of choreography and contemporary dance technique. “You need skills, you need education.”
In hopes of facilitating that training, Stone started the New Voices initiative at PNB School, a choreography class for young women that was first presented in the 2017 summer student intensive. “I talked a million miles an hour, they took voracious notes and did voracious movement studies, and we had an informal showing at the end,” Stone said. “It went incredibly well and the feedback was phenomenal.
“I said to the audience, ‘If I threw a bunch of tools and wood on the floor and said, ‘Build me a house,’ it’s unlikely you could build anything of value,'” Stone explained. “If I said, ‘Here’s how to cut wood, here’s an angle, here’s how to hit a nail,’ if I gave you that detailed information, you could build me something that would support something else. And that’s what this course is about.”
Peter Boal, PNB’s artistic director and director of PNB School, was impressed by what he saw. Now, Stone’s New Voices course is part of the PNB School curriculum for Level VII female students (ages 14-16).
“After watching the young women in New Voices develop skills, confidence and craft over the course of the inaugural year, I saw 19 individuals adopting a different approach to everything,” Boal said in a statement. “They direct their peers with respect and authority, create choreography with risk and reflection, and have a newfound sense of their abilities and possibilities. I know this class will affect these students in a multitude of positive ways as they become artists, contributors and choreographers.”
This program and others like it may well help create a new generation of female choreographers. Morgan said she observed several of the New Voices classes and found them — and Stone — inspiring. She’s now at work on a collaborative dance project with other Seattle artists, and is determined to continue as a choreographer. As a dancer and a woman of color, she says, “It’s very important to put my voice out there — it’s not heard as much.”
And Stone, as she presides over the final touches of “F O I L,” serves as a never-too-late example.
“This opportunity is very rare for me,” she said of the unexpected commission from PNB. “I’ve been under the radar for 30 years, and now I’m on this big stage with costume design and lighting design and a budget and these dancers. I’ve never been here before. I’m 53 years old and I’m an emerging choreographer.”
And one who seems, in that studio surrounded by dancers, very much at home.
“Locally Sourced,” a Pacific Northwest Ballet program featuring three world-premiere ballets from local choreographers: “F O I L” by Eva Stone, “Love and Loss” by Donald Byrd,” and “Wash of Grey” by Miles Pertl. Nov. 8-17, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $37-$190; 206-441-2424, pnb.org