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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

A Woman Is Finally Directing the San Francisco Ballet. It's a Start.

Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo was announced as the first woman artistic director of the SF Ballet this week.

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Photo: Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images (Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Ballet announced the appointment of Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo as its newest artistic director. Rojo, the former artistic director of the English National Ballet credited with the company’s next-gen resurgence over the last decade, is the first woman to hold the top post at SF Ballet since it was founded in 1933 — and a rare example of a woman in leadership across ballet companies worldwide. Replacing longtime director Helgi Tomasson, who has led the company for 37 years, Rojo’s selection ushers in a new era of hope for dancers who have long withstood mistreatment by primarily male directors across the country.

Rojo’s vision for San Francisco Ballet mandates keeping “our art form relevant to a younger audience that sometimes has new values and principles,” according to The New York Times. The ballerina-turned-director vowed to continue commissioning up-and-coming female choreographers and “new voices to interpret the classics”—both subsets that have been notably absent from revered balletic institutions. Given that millennials and Gen Z have begun to hold ballet accountable for its startling lack of diversity, Rojo’s arrival couldn’t come at a better time. According to Chloe Angyal, author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself, “Rojo has really prioritized choreography by women and about women who aren’t swans and fairies.” She noted a show Rojo commissioned that chronicled the life of Frida Kahlo and was choreographed by a Latina woman.

“This hiring is very significant because it’s common for an artistic director to sit at the helm of a company for 20-30 years,” Angyal told Jezebel. “When you think about how many dancers’ careers they have the opportunity to shape, as well as how short professional dancers’ careers can be, you’re talking about multiple generations of dancers whose careers will be shaped by one person.”

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According to the Dance Data Project, however, women have represented just 29% of all artistic directors at the top 50 American ballet companies since their founding. While Rojo’s appointment provides much-needed representation and a razor thin (but not insignificant) sliver of hope for young people who have been holding out for a better artistic future, ballet, unfortunately, needs a lot more than just “hope.”

“One of the contradictions of ballet is that it is so synonymous with femininity, and the most powerful visual icon of the art form is a woman,” Angyal noted. “But when you pull back the curtain or go back stage, the vast majority of those with the decision making power are men.”

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Ballet has long been considered the pinnacle of classical dance—emblematic of nobility, ethereal grace, and elegant lines. But ballet’s Euro-centric, aristocratic origins are inseparable from the now pervasive sexism, racism, classism, and body image issues that plague young ballerinas. The white forefathers of ballet and artistic purists, like Marius Petipa and George Balanchine (the co-founder of New York City Ballet), believed that strict uniformity was central to the idea of the corp de ballet or ensemble and therefore responsible for any ballet’s ultimate commercial success. Their early beliefs, still baked into the industry, dictated that Black dancers, for instance, would visually disrupt the flow of the group, detracting from the choreographer’s overall “vision.”

So, while the ballet community cheered along as Misty Copeland became the first Black woman to be promoted to principal ballerina in American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history, many remained blissfully ignorant of the continued barriers to success for dancers of color. Even as Copeland paved the way for generations of Black dancers to come, ballerinas of color like Cortney Taylor Key were forced to “pancake” before performances: a messy process using makeup to paint pointe shoes the color of their skin. The lack of “nude” tones currently available in pointe shoes, tights, and leotards by major dance retailers is a big indicator that the fight for racial equality in ballet is ongoing.

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Alongside the industry’s deep racial equity issues, ballet dancers are also particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, eating disorders, and grooming by male directors, choreographers, and older principal male dancers. Former student at the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s affiliated academy, Alexandra Waterbury started ballet’s #MeToo moment when she discovered in May 2018 that her boyfriend, a principal dancer with City Ballet, shared explicit photos and videos of her with fellow company members without her consent. Her suit argued that City Ballet was responsible for upholding a culture that enabled “fraternity-like” behavior. Several years later, Boston Ballet dancer Sage Humphries and dancer Gina Menichino filed a complaint against dance teacher Mitchell Taylor Button, alleging that he manipulated and groomed them for sexual assault for years. One woman claimed she was first assaulted by Button at age 13.

“What we really need is to completely reimagine not only what an artistic director looks like, but also what stories ballet companies are telling, who gets to tell them, and what music we tell them with,” said Angyal. “There’s no way that one person at one company can be tasked with that. We need to be realistic about how much power Rojo will actually have.”

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While Angyal commends Rojo’s work thus far, she says the industry still has a ways to go — it’s still completely normal to go to the ballet and watch a triple bill of short dances all made by men, white choreographers, or white men. For signs of real progress, take note of who is getting to choreograph, whose works are premiering, and what work is getting revised.

“It’s very easy to get stuck on the bodies you see onstage and to think that is the sum total of a company’s achievement of diversity. But there are hundreds of staffers who ballet goers never see,” she says. “The richest irony is that the people we all see have the least power in the entire institution.”

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Undoubtedly, Rojo has made ballet a safer, more inclusive place and will continue to do so in San Francisco; but one-off leadership changes such as these don’t even begin to scratch the surface of ballet’s deeply rooted toxicity. Employing good leaders and former dancers is a start.