On Gender and Performance: Six Statements by Six Artists

By Kate Mattingly


Comments by Akram Khan in January about women in the dance world(1) sparked a flurry of responses, both online and in publications. Dancers’ Group has decided to examine this topic more carefully and with a closer look at questions of access and opportunity for women in dance in the Bay Area. One well-circulated response to Khan’s words expanded the conversation beyond a discussion of opportunities for men and women: a collective of scholars wrote that “such a simplistic binary” obfuscates the more complex relationships between gender, race, sexuality, class, age and disability. Their article(2) cited the work of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw and argued that “oppressive institutions (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, classism, etc.) must be examined only in relation to each other.” They called for further discussion to analyze how not only choreographers, but also arts managers, funders, and decision-making bodies could be brought together in “productive dialogue.”

This article also seeks productive dialogue by asking questions about access to opportunities for Bay Area artists. In March I interviewed six people, then transcribed our conversations and sent this writing to each artist to select a “statement,” which is printed below. By retaining the artists’ voices I aim to dismantle a pattern of writers speaking for dancers and choreographers. Each artist exposes how overlapping identity-markers inflect artists’ creations as well as access to funding and commissions. They draw examples from dance worlds, presidential campaigns, and entertainment sectors to show the importance of recognizing women’s work. The Bay Area, with its history of presenting socially conscious work, is also home to major matriarchs of dance: Ruth Beckford, Blanche Brown, Lily Cai, Naomi Diouf, Joanna Haigood, Anna Halprin, Margaret Jenkins, Krissy Keefer, Mythili Kumar, Sara Shelton Mann, Micaya, Rosa Montoya, Judy Smith, Deborah Vaughn, and Brenda Way, to name a few. The artists’ statements that follow describe how a next generation is negotiating ways to make work in the Bay Area.

Forty years ago, Wendy Perron, former editor of Dance magazine, contributed to an article published in the March 1, 1976 issue of The Village Voice that was written with Stephanie Woodard and called “When a Woman Dances, Nobody Cares.” The title came from a high school dance teacher in California in 1963, and in their research for the essay, Perron and Woodard compiled data on students, professionals, and grant recipients to track discrepancies in opportunities and funding. Their findings showed “an obvious relationship between sex and success in dance.”

Reading the article today is illuminating in terms of how little has changed: women outnumber men in most dance classes, yet most of the top leadership positions, choreographic commissions, presenting opportunities, and funding awards go to men. In the 1970s identity-markers like “men” and “women” were not examined in conjunction with other categories. With today’s greater understanding of the importance of Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory, we can see that biological, social, and cultural markers work within systems of oppression and discrimination, so a category like “woman” must always be examined alongside other axes of identity. Crenshaw states that it’s essential to foreground these distinctions: “At this point in history a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.”(3)

Relationships between artists and access are particularly fraught in dance communities given the scarcity of resources as well as the long histories of racism and exclusion that have shaped the dance canon and dance in higher education. As theorist Doug Meyer writes, “approaches that take only one system of oppression into account sometimes provide homogenized and distorted views of marginalized groups, advancing the interests of more privileged individuals.”(4) In other words, seemingly discrete forms of oppression are shaped by one another, and defining a measurement of success as dollar amounts or numbers of grants received can overlook significant forms of exclusion that occur long before a grant is written.

In 2013, choreographer Miguel Gutierrez spoke about the disproportionate compositions of artists around him: “when I’m in a festival lineup where 75 percent of the presented artists are men and when most of those are gay men. Or when I look at a roster of a festival and out of the 25 presented artists, only 6 are women and only 1 is a person of color. I am always shocked when others don’t notice this as quickly as I do. Maybe I see the world this way because I grew up in a bicultural household as the child of Colombian immigrants, which taught me quickly that there are dominant cultures and conversations and then there are the people who are trying to get inside the door of those conversations.”(5)

Speaking with these six artists about opportunities and obstacles they’ve experienced in their careers as choreographers, dancers, and directors opened a number of perspectives and propositions that shed light on this important topic.

Anna Martine Whitehead is an artist based in Chicago who spent three years in the Bay Area and recently performed in the FRESH Festival. Whitehead highlights the need for a multi-layered understanding of access and the importance of fostering critical audiences as well as partnering across communities and institutions.

There are two layers to any conversation about access and affirmative action issues: there’s a need for people of color, trans and cis women, femme women, and genderqueer people to have access to performances and to reviews, but there’s another layer that’s about the work being made. That is: regardless of the body making it, does the work reproduce patriarchy?

Right now in the presidential campaign there’s a great example: people say, ‘wouldn’t it be great to have a female president?’ For me I don’t think she’s [Hillary Clinton] going to bring a critical lens to imperialism, incarceration, or gender liberation to the presidency. So there’s an issue about female choreographers having access, but there’s another conversation that needs to be had that isn’t just about real world access but about what’s happening in the process of making work, and what the intentions of dance-makers are in creating work. And also not just choreographers but also the whole structure: the presenters, funders, and supporting structures.

In Chicago there’s the In Time Festival, a kind of sprawling dance and performance festival, which feels like a queer and female festival even though the director is a man — to me that’s neither here nor there honestly. The feel of it, the choreographers and artists are mostly women and there is a feminine feel to it. There’s a conversation I’ve been having with organizers of [San Francisco’s] FRESH [Festival] in terms of audiences and people participating in the workshops. The thing that’s awesome about FRESH is that it’s very queer, Bay Area, very accessible to women, a kind of feminine feel to it, and it’s also made by queer people. What I think is also very “Bay Area” is that it’s a double-edged thing where if you don’t have people of color organizing a festival, and more importantly, if the issues of people of color are not central to your mission, then that’s going to frame it. If you prioritize queer in your work, then it will feel like a queer project. If you prioritize issues addressing anti-blackness or racism in general then that will be the priority. There may be a legitimate concern for wanting bodies of color to be present in the space, but if you are not asking the question, “how can we bring the issue of eradicating racism to the center of our work?” or other issues that affect people of color, like housing justice, then the people of color are not going to be there.

Something that I feel in this historical moment in the US and the world, is that we are in this Post-Post-Black moment, where people really wanted to be Post-Black, and then it became apparent that that was not going to work and that in fact there is so much to love about being Black that we want to hold on to. It feels like this is a really challenging time of understanding how and what do we as people who understand ourselves as oppressed or impoverished people, what do we have in common with those folks we understand as our oppressors, and vice versa. The question becomes, “What’s our goal?” or “Where are we going?” Is the goal to destroy the oppressor or to figure out a way to hold the multiplicity that we all share?

Tammy Johnson, co-founder of Raks Africa with Etang Inyang, speaks about the importance of women coming together collectively from a variety of dance genres to support one another and share information. Raks Africa presents performances, workshops, and has created an educational program, Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program, that’s not only about teaching belly dancing, having fun, developing musicality and coordination, but also about creating body-positive experiences and fostering self-esteem.

What I’ve noticed, especially among women of color, is that their jobs involve both dance work and social justice work. Sometimes they intermingle, and it’s not to say men don’t have these interests, but that women carry them in a different way. I think Destiny Arts offers a great model, maybe it’s not perfect for everybody, but it shows how it can work. Again, it’s the women of color making that happen. I truly believe we’re in a historical, political moment equivalent to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, and when people look back 20 years from now, they’ll ask, “What were you doing? What did the art look like?”

How can we get together as a political collective to leverage some of these resources, both from governments and foundations, and from business, like the techies? We need to say, “if you want to be a good community member you need to sponsor this season… invest in the community.” It would be a drop in the hat to them, but somebody has to know somebody to get us in to talk to the right person. There’s also a lingering bias that something developed out of a community is “lesser than” what is performed in those theaters with subscribers. People want so-called “high end” art, but that’s not supporting itself, just look at the ballet companies that are closing or struggling. We have decided not to aspire to that audience. We put our energy into our program, our girls and the community. We are making our path by walking it.

Julia Adam joined San Francisco Ballet in 1988 and created a ballet for the company’s choreographic workshop in 1993. Since then Adam has created over 40 works for numerous companies including San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, Atlanta Ballet, Nashville Ballet and The Joffrey Ballet. Adam has created more than five works on Ballet Memphis and was their Artistic Associate from 2010 to 2013. In July, Adam presented The Woodland Project, an immersive culinary and choreographic experience, created for a wooded grove in the town of Nicasio in West Marin County.

The trajectory of my career has been interesting: being a mother has made me less driven, less focused on professional tasks. When I had young children, and people hired me to choreograph, part of my contract was to come down in the rate I received so I could have an apartment to be with my kids. I don’t know how that impacted my hiring because it brought a certain complexity. It has been a beautiful thing for me to retire from a career as a dancer and to move into a choreographic career and to have my kids close to me. It’s interesting because I’m Canadian and I think it’s different there. It’s more open to female input. The National Ballet of Canada, both the school and company, were founded by women [Celia Franca and Betty Oliphant], and you have Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally who founded The Royal Winnipeg. Now Emily Molnar runs Ballet British Columbia, and Aszure Barton was trained at the National school. Crystal Pite was also trained in Canada, and then danced for Billy Forsythe. He’s a director who wants dancers to create. You are allowed to. In a traditional ballet company you’re a swan queen or a muse. As a person and dancer, I developed a love of creative process, and that’s similar to Forsythe’s dancers’ experiences. Even as a student at the National school, I would spend a good hour figuring out how to stay within the parameters of my uniform, but change it so I didn’t look like everyone else. I’m now making projects where there’s this whole experience of an environment. On my website I show these cultural experiences that are more than traditional dance projects. I would love to see a shift happen in dancers’ training where they are encouraged to make work and not all look the same but do something different. I hope we can open up places, especially for women and girls, where they can be themselves. I think a feminine aesthetic is a different perspective, but with men running a company, do they see this? Can they embrace this? It requires an evolved point of view. Does a company director have a great sense of art, see the whole spectrum of choreographic approaches, and balance these ideas with a business sense? My conundrum is that I view the world in my own way, I walk the world as a woman, mother, Canadian, classically trained dancer and more, therefore it is sometimes difficult for me to stand in a man’s shoes and understand their perspective. My interest is developing and nurturing the art form not driving to establish corporate success. I am more of an independent filmmaker than a Hollywood blockbuster type.

Monique Jenkinson (Fauxnique) is a multi-genre performing artist (dance, drag, theater, video) whose work uses drag to consider the performance of femininity as a forceful, vulnerable and subversive act. Jenkinson and her drag queen alter ego Fauxnique have created and performed in such varied venues as the Stud Bar, City Hall, YBCA and the de Young Museum in San Francisco; the New Museum, Judson Church and the Stonewall in New York; and in New Orleans, Seattle, Provincetown, Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, London, Rome, Catania and Zu?rich.

Have I ever been denied something because I am a woman? I am sure all the time in ways I never knew. I moved here specifically to work with a particular company whose work kind of changed my life and I went to that company’s class twice a week and took workshops and was in love with the teaching and saw boy after boy after boy run past me and get into the company and get better. I had to find my voice another way. Maybe, if I had been in that company, I may not have found my voice as an artist, but I wanted it so badly and that was when I realized this dance world is really different for boys. In college you see it, but in the professional world, it’s really different. Young men right out of college find work right away. Their biggest problem is figuring out their schedule because they are dancing with four companies. Then they have bargaining power because they are wanted so badly. At 22 they are probably making more money than senior women.

I needed to be angry for a while around the issue of gender and dance, and not getting stuff and seeing the way women dancers are taken for granted. Women are never going to get what the men get in this concert dance or contemporary scene. I went away from that world to dig into drag. That choreographer I so wanted to dance for has since told me, “I really admire you for taking time away and building your own path.” Because I forged my own path, I can be at peace and heartily congratulate stuff that people earn.

Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, a kathak soloist who has performed throughout the U.S. and India, is the artistic director and choreographer of The Twentieth Wife, a multidisciplinary production that was commissioned by San Francisco’s Z Space. During this 2-hour performance, Shaikh performs the role of all of the characters in the story of Empress Noor Jahan, and presented the production in March in San Jose, a fitting event for Women’s History Month:(6) Shaikh, like the empress, steps beyond the bounds of convention.

To me it comes down to opportunity. I don’t think I’m alone in claiming that we still live in a male dominated world—in just about every industry. And, even in those industries where on the surface it may appear that there is plenty (totally subjective in what plenty means) of female representation, we also have to take a deeper look of how women are involved versus men.

I’m reminded of a recent interview I saw of actress Viola Davis, after she became the first African-American to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama. She clearly stated, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

I see this to be the same in dance. So yes, it’s imperative that we create opportunities for women choreographers. In a very basic search of some prominent performing arts venues, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the companies being presented (not self-presenting) are run by men. And though this may be a topic for another article, it is definitely worth mentioning that the majority of the support and opportunities (funding, performances at prestigious venues) more often than not are still going to “mainstream” dance—ballet, contemporary, modern. For artists outside of these forms, we are still seeking some balance in that way as well.

Now nobody should receive opportunities simply because they fit a category, and to make that assumption is actually quite offensive. As a Kathak (Indian classical dance) artist, I am well aware of what it means to be exoticized, and of course it pisses me off. My skills are not based on my looks, and it is my duty to ensure that my artistry speaks louder than my genetics. And yet, you better believe that I am going to tout the fact that I am Pakistani-American-Muslim woman that is a professional dancer. I do what I do with pride, and know that I represent a small percentage of women who fit my profile. But please know, I’m not your token anything, and definitely don’t give me handouts, I will earn them on my own. And for anyone who is not able to see that there is still such a huge disparity, all we ask is to create the opportunities for me and the many women who are just as deserving.

Abby Crain presented SNAKE TALK, made in collaboration with Mara Poliak and Maryanna Lachman, at CounterPulse in San Francisco in April. Crain is an Oakland based artist who has presented work and taught nationally and internationally. Her curatorial projects include working with the FRESH Festival and organizing the NO THANK YOU SHOW, which asked artists to represent or stage work that has been rejected by granting organizations, theaters, collaborators, or the artists themselves. She is the mother of two children.

Being an artist and a mother is complicated. I was working primarily as a performer when I had my first child, and didn’t see many role models for dancers in the United States who were mothers. I’m a stubborn person, and it didn’t make sense to me that having a child meant leaving dancing, so when I decided to have children I was determined not to do that. I felt pretty alone in this. Being a dancing mother is a little closeted, so even though there were people around me with kids, I often didn’t find that out until much later. People have complicated relationships to women and to mothering and all the things that entails, so one becomes strategic about when and where one acknowledges that they are a parent.

I remember I was working with Miguel Gutierrez during this time and I had to explain to him that every time I was in rehearsal, I had to give a babysitter $15 an hour, and that this meant I now needed to be paid hourly. I imagine this was hard for Miguel. Luckily, he was at a place in his career where he could say yes, but if he hadn’t been, I think things would have been very different.

I like to think I did some of my best dancing after having my first child. It was like, after giving birth and nursing, things didn’t seem so precious anymore. My entire relationship to art making shifted. In a lot of ways I didn’t give a shit. I couldn’t. It was so obvious that a lady with floppy boobs and a flabby belly could not be the image of a perfect dance robot—that I was somehow freed. My aesthetic range broadened, my dancing got wilder, messier and less identifiable.

I also had to fight for it more. In the US, there is little or no governmental financial support for having children. Self-employed people, myself included, don’t even get paid maternity leave. There is little to no state funded childcare. So if you have a child, you find yourself suddenly doing more work than you ever thought possible. My first seven years of being a parent were an enormous struggle. I left dancing, I came back to it, I left again. I rehearsed at 6 am before my husband had to leave for work and at 10 pm after I finished work and after everyone had gone to sleep. I nursed a baby with one hand and read art theory with the other. I put my kids in my dances. The work changed, but it survived. I would like to think it got better…


1 – Georgia Snow (2016) “Akram Khan: ‘Don’t have more female choreographers for the sake of it,’” The Stage, www.thestage. co.uk/news/2016/akram-khan-dont-have-more-female-choreographers-for-the-sake-of-it/

2 – “Writing from Silence,” by a Transnational Collective of Dance Scholars and Artists of Colour. Published February 15, 2016. londondance.com/articles/features/writing-from-silence-transnational-collective/

3 – Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” In Martha Albertson Fineman, Rixanne Mykitiuk, Eds. The Public Nature of Private Violence. (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 93-118. www.racialequitytools.org/resourceles/mapping-margins.pdf

4 – Doug Meyer (2012) “A intersectional analysis of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People’s Evaluations of Anti-Queer Violence,” Gender and Society 26 (6): 850.

5 – “Trends in Performance” Talk, May 2013, Williams College, by Miguel Gutierrez. miguelgutierrez.org/words/trends-in-performance-/

6 – womenshistorymonth.gov/about.html

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.