Last Saturday 13th October I went with much curiosity and anticipation to the newly formed Female Choreographers’ Collective (FCC) platform performance “We Face Forward” at St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden.  Formed by two enterprising choreographers Holly Noble and Jane Coulston, the FCC is asking questions about the persistent invisibility of the work of women choreographers, rarely commissioned or programmed by established mixed repertoire companies, and lacking the media profile of their fashionable male counterparts.  Ask yourself how many current male choreographers of national standing you can name – and then name female choreographers of similar status.  Harder, isn’t it?

This is not a new issue.  In 2002 the Ballet Independents’ Group BIG Forum “Invisible Women” discussed why with so many more women entering ballet so few seemed to rise through the profession to take the reins as choreographers and company directors.  In 2009 a perception that even the field of contemporary dance, traditionally the territory staked out by pioneering creative women, was increasingly being overtaken by the men, triggered a Dance Umbrella debate, “Where are the Women?”  That occasion was packed out, bearing witness to an impressive reservoir of female talent.  And yet despite these public airings of the complex issues contributing to this phenomenon, little change has come about.  By way of example, this summer the programme of new works in honour of the Royal Ballet’s outgoing director Monica Mason featured not one female in its roster of composers, choreographers and designers; ironic in the light of its thematic focus on the goddess Diana, an icon of authoritative womanhood.

Noble and Coulston have publicised their venture through social media and received an “overwhelming response”.  Their aim is to promote the work of female choreographers, and to attempt to discover why it is that, despite valuable experience honing their skills in the less glamorous areas of small scale, community and educationally focused work, these miss out on more prestigious opportunities which would support them in developing and registering an individual choreographic voice.  Anecdotes raise uncomfortable questions as to gender solidarity, and to what extent those women who wield administrative power are complicit in the pervasive tendency to select the men.  A shrinking away from anything that could be labelled political involvement suggests that even some relatively successful women choreographers are unconfident of their situation within the dance establishment.  Have decades of work from a male perspective internalised particular choreographic conventions and conditioned tastes to a certain type of physicality?  Would the FCC evening reveal a discernible female mode of dance expression?

In the event the four works on show seemed overall perhaps to reflect generational more than gender influences.  A hard-edged effortfulness and strength in much of the movement, impatient, shifting and dysfunctional relationships between the sexes, and an urgency driven by the insistent metric pulse of the recorded music chosen, suggested urban angst very much of now.  The exception to this the solo Yerma’s Nights by Lucia Piquero, danced with a smooth contemporary flow by Sara Accettura, but failing perhaps to capture much sense of poetic drama, or differentiate the moods of its four signalled sections.  How refreshing though to have the accompaniment of live musicians in the intriguing pairing of acoustic and electric guitar, giving an unexpected subtlety of musical colour and effect to a flamenco inflected idiom.

In Seven by Jane Coulston the dancers of her company Beyond Repair Dance inhabited a mechanised and futuristic language with threatening precision, incorporating deft and arcane gestures, the women’s hair coiled round their heads in tight dreadlocks and flashes of blue glimpsed in the severe black costumes.  With a mix of movement drawing on jazz, street and contemporary, Coulston has conjured up a particular world; it would be good to see where this ensemble dance, which builds suggestively in intensity, might go next.

Of the two duets, which opened and closed the evening, Anna Watkins’ Inseparable did not quite convey the relationship or emotional trajectory indicated in its programme note.  Holly Noble’s Possession was much more successful in showing the development of a relationship from a yearning opening to something more ambiguous, hinting perhaps at violence.  In an evening of committed performances, this brought out the most expressive and personally engaging.  Throughout, the dancers threw themselves literally into the works – I winced thinking of the hardness of the stone church floor, barely softened by a dance lino.

So what next?  I felt that these choreographers needed to be able to develop the structures of their work in longer pieces, to have the opportunity to explore in more depth the relationship of dance and music, to consider the influence of the performing space on what they make.   The evening showed their ability to invent, manipulate and combine a rich range of movement, and to inspire skilled performers.  Noble considers her work to be “neo-classical” – a label more usually associated with American or continental work; there is a debate to be had about whether this is an appropriate way of describing what seemed a melange of energetically physical styles reflecting the all round capabilities of today’s dancers, trained to be able to move between experimental, balletic and more commercial genres.  Where indeed does such work belong?  In adapting to their circumstances are these choreographers exemplifying a different genre of dance, outside the establishments of classical ballet and the modernist and conceptual strands of ‘contemporary” independent dance, appealing more directly to an audience coming to dance from the perspective of popular culture?  Watch this space…

Susie Crow

If you are interested in this issue and would like to read more, here are some relevant links: – Brendan McCarthy

Crow, S. and Jackson, J. (2010) Talking Point on “Where are the Women?” Part 1  Dancing Times Vol 100 No. 1194

Crow, S. and Jackson, J. (2010) Talking Point on “Where are the Women?” Part 2  Dancing Times Vol 100 No. 1195

( these two are not currently available online, please contact Susie if you would like to read a copy)