“Ballet is woman” claimed the legendary New York choreographer George Balanchine. But “where are all the women ballet choreographers?” asked researchers Oellen A. Meglin and Lynn Matluck Brooks in 2012. They found only 23 articles on women ballet choreographers in the New York Times’ 171-year history.
In Australia, even the keenest ballet fan will struggle to recall a dozen ballets by women in The Australian Ballet company’s 60-year history.
While men make up a very small proportion of those dancing in this country, the 2018 Turning Pointe report found that in Australia’s major dance companies from 2011 to 2017 only 25% of choreographic commissions were women.
Choreographers are dance’s cultural leaders and storytellers. They are dance’s voice.
Supporting and celebrating today’s women choreographers is vital to encouraging a new generation of women to follow, giving women in dance a voice into the future.
So where are the Australian women choreographers of today? Here are five to get you started.
1. Frances Rings
In 2023, Frances Rings will step into the role of artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre. A descendant of the Wirangu and Mirning peoples from the west coast of South Australia, Rings made her choreographic debut with Bangarra in 2002 with the work Rations.
She has since created and co-created another seven works for the company. Rings fuses contemporary movement with ancient Indigenous heritage to produce organic works deeply rooted in the natural world. Her works reflect critically on the past, celebrate survival in the present and offer hope for the future.
Her works share with the audience the feeling of connecting with the sacred on Country and are a First Nation’s ode to the power, beauty and spirit of the earth.
2. Alice Topp
A former dancer with The Australian Ballet, Alice Topp’s works are known for their humanity. She creates contemporary ballets that evoke both vulnerability and strength. Topp is celebrated for her fluid, acrobatic duets, and she often takes on themes about damage and repair, durability and fragility, falling and recovering.
But she is anything but predictable. Her recent work Annealing saw a mass of noisy bright metallic gold bodies contrasted with a quiet, dimly-lit duet. She is also passionate about homegrown and inter-generational collaborations promoting local dancers, composers and designers.
Her first mainstage work, Aurum, won her the Helpmann Award for best ballet in 2019 and she has since created four other major works. She is currently resident choreographer with The Australian Ballet and creative director of independent collective Project Animo.
3. Stephanie Lake
Stephanie Lake describes her work as “obsessed with groups and communal action […] that sense of shared experience”.
This obsession results in large celebratory works, like the 60-dancer Colossus and 200-plus cast Multiply. These works see masses of individual moving bodies imperfectly colliding and uniting, forming patterns reminiscent of flocks of birds or opening flowers.
Lake is not afraid to take on darker themes. Her work has looked at death, personal demons, underground monsters and pandemic lockdowns.
Performed on bare stages in simple attire with minimal lighting, Lake’s works draw us into the intimacy and vulnerability of the interacting bodies.
Her breakthrough work was Mix Tape in 2010. Since then, she has had works commissioned by Sydney Dance Company, Dancenorth and Tasdance, among many others, and she is currently artistic director of her own company, The Stephanie Lake Company.
4. Claire Marshall
Claire Marshall began her professional career in Brisbane as a contemporary dance choreographer. In 2013, she shifted to dance film and choreographing with the camera with her work Pulse, followed by the award-winning Ward of State in 2014.
Since then, she has created seven other film works, won multiple awards and has been part of film festivals across the world.
In her choreographic process, Marshall allows objects and surfaces in the location to dictate movement choice. Using different lenses and angles, she creates often surreal worlds for her dancers to occupy.
Many of her works are psychological thrillers and have a distinctive 20th century flavour with vibrant vintage costumes and mid-century interiors.
Marshall leaves the meaning of her works open to interpretation. They are often interactive in a choose-your-own-adventure style, using split or multiple screens, giving each viewer a different experience.
In 2023, you can see Claire Marshall’s adapted version of Permutations online in April.
5. Annette Carmichael
Most recently, Carmichael has been creating large-scale regional pieces co-created with community dancers. The works combine natural movement with a gestural language developed by the performers. They are multi-art productions exploring themes such as war, domestic violence and global terror.
Whether in theatres, huge outdoor arenas or on Zoom, Carmichael’s works take us on both personal and collective journeys sharing honest and often raw emotion.
In 2023, The Stars Descend will be the culmination of a three-year program which explored ways of connecting people with the natural world. It will unfold in five chapters along an area of rich biodiversity currently undergoing restoration. You can watch single performances or join the 15-day odyssey along the trail and see them unfold one by one.
See Annette Carmichael’s work in 2023 across Western Australia.
Images: Stephanie Lake Company’s Manifesto – photo by Daniel Boud | Frances Rings – photo by Daniel Boud | Alice Topp (supplied) | Stephanie Pedro Greig | Claire Marshall (supplied) | Nic Duncan