Twice the strength together - An interview with Nanine Linning and Kristina Lind on female empowerment in dance
In June and July the Bayerisches Staatsballett put on two works by female choreographers: Sacré by Yuka Oishi and Duo by Nanine Linning. According to a current statistic of the Deutscher Bühnenverein the ballet section is leading in terms of the distribution between sexes when it comes to the works of choreographers being put on stage: 7% (Quelle: Werkstatistik 2017/18 des Deutschen Bühnenvereins ) of female choreographers, definitely beat the 1% of female directors in both the music theatre and drama section. Still, 7% is not particularly much. We spoke with choreographer Nanine Lining and dancer Kristina Lind about their perceptions.
Kristina Lind was born in California. She studied at the San Francisco Ballet School and joined the Bayerisches Staatsballett in 2017 as a first soloist. She will be promoted to principal with the beginning of the 2019/20 season. Since then she has performed in several ballets including Jewels, Raymonda, Portrait Wayne McGregor, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lady of the Camellias and Taming of the Shrew.
The Dutch choreographer Nanine Linning has a long record of creating choreographies, for which she has received numerous awards and nominations. From 2012 to 2018 she was artistic director and chief choreographer of the “Dance Company Nanine Linning” at the Theatre and Orchestra Heidelberg. For the piece Bacon Nanine Linning received the Golden Swan recognizing the best dance production in the Netherlands in 2006. She has been nominated twice for the theatre prize “Der Faust”. Her latest creation Duo – For many dancers and nine musicians premiered in Munich on July 12, 2019 and is her first collaboration with the Bayerisches Staatsballett.
John Cranko, Marius Petipa, Maurice Béjart, Roland Petit. Even though these choreographers represent completely different styles and techniques, they have one thing in common: they are all male. Why do you think the director’s world as well as the choreographer’s world is usually dominated by men?
Linning: I think there are multiple reasons: It correlates with the bigger movements that we’ve seen the past centuries in western civilisation where much more men are in leadership positions than women. Second, I believe that in the tradition of the past years, dancers move into a choreographers’ career when they finish their dancing career and that’s around the same period women are in the age of founding a family. Furthermore, since there are so little female leadership role models, other females don’t have people to look up to. Of course there are figures like Mary Wigman or Pina Bausch, but especially in classical ballet it’s hard to think of any female choreographer who is still omnipresent today. But luckily it’s changing - feminism is revisited again and female leadership is more embraced by women and men.
Lind: I would say that in society in general, we are familiar with men being in charge. Every ballet company I have worked for has had a male director, but I’d be really interested to have a female director just to see how they direct from their experience as a female dancer. I think it’s very important to have more equality in leadership.
In all those years you have spent in the dance industry did you ever encounter any difficulties because you are a woman?
Linning: Nowadays it has become almost a trend for companies to also have a clear vision of female pieces which makes them look for female choreographers more often. However, I don’t want to be invited because I’m a woman, I want to be invited because people love and admire my work and believe in my creativity and talent.
Unfortunately, I have had a couple of moments in my career where I really thought I had no chances as a woman. It was in 2007 where I wanted to start directing opera but I quickly reached a limit since I wasn’t a white male over fifty. Luckily I turned it around but even today I feel like I have to work twice as hard as my male colleagues to prove that I am worth a change.
Lind: Up to this point in my career, I can’t think of any specific instances where I encountered difficulties because I am a woman. There have been moments where I have been taken advantage of for being young and naive, but never specifically because of my gender. A challenge I do foresee in the future, however, is the prospect of starting a family. Ballet is much more competitive for women than for men anyways, simply because there are more girls who want to become ballerinas. At the professional level, it’s hard to navigate when might be a good time to take a year off - when you are at the highest point of your career - have a baby, and then return with an entirely different body. Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of other younger, eager female dancers waiting for opportunities. It’s a huge decision, and I look up to the many ballerinas who make this choice, but it is definitely not something that male dancers have to think about.
Where does gender come in in your work?
Lind: In classical ballet, female roles are solidly defined. I spent years in the corps de ballet dancing with a large group of girls in ballets like La Bayadere and Giselle. These large corps scenes are iconic, and showcase the power of women dancing in unison. In general, classical ballets celebrate the stereotypically feminine aspects of women. They often fall in love with a prince, or die of a broken heart. This is not to say that the main female character in classical ballets is weak. Each ballerina can bring her own, empowered interpretation to the role. Ballet today is made of much more than these traditional archetypes. George Balanchine created many roles for tall, powerful women in his ballets, like the solo girl in Rubies. She is a powerful, solitary figure, and doesn’t dance with a man.
I recently danced Bianca in John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew. Currently, there has been discussions as to whether the portrayal of femininity in the piece is outdated or not. The ballet ends with the message that a woman needs a man to “tame” her into subservience. I believe that Shakespeare’s works are timeless and they can be transformed into any situation or modern interpretation. The Bayerisches Staatsballett has a long history of dancing John Cranko’s works, so keeping these heritage pieces in our repertoire is important, but I think that it’s also important to evaluate whether or not the telling of these stories is current with the times.
Linning: In creating DUO, gender didn’t matter. In this piece there are different sorts of pairings. We have women partnering together and men partnering together. And even when I choreograph a duet for a man and a woman, it’s not really about a man and a woman. It is about two people in conversation who are different but also share a common ground. Over all it is important to me that it is not gender based. As an audience member you should be able to project your own story to the piece. Hence, the sex of the dancers shouldn’t matter.
Lind: I agree. And dancers, too, should also bring their own characterization to different roles. I really enjoy modern works because they often break the stereotypical gender pairings, like in Portrait Wayne McGregor. For me, partnering with another person just means that you can explore so many different levels of movement between two people. You can let go more, rely on them to move a certain way, and you have twice the strength together. It is more about exploring relationships and dynamics with someone and working with the bodies in the room, no matter which gender.
You both talked about equality in partnering – what would have to change to make people equal in the institution of dance?
Linning: The choreographer’s world, is a male dominated world with only a handful of women choreographing. However, it is noticeable that more and more women start to have the courage to create and more and more directors are aware of the importance of supporting female voices and giving them opportunities. It needs gutsy directors who say “Let’s trust the women!”.
Still and most important of all, the artist has to have something to say. The artists must have a vision, that they want to bring onto the stage, an artistic desire and drive. I think directors should embrace that and not base any decision on whether a choreographer is male or female. If we give a little bit of extra attention to women in this day and age, I assume that in 10 to 15 years’ time we can get to a new balance which is driven from inside and not from numbers. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s 50-50 or not. It’s important that women feel like they have equal chances. Even if it’s them 99 to 1 because all the women of this world somehow decide not to choreograph, I’m fine with that, too.
Lind: Absolutely. I think that female empowerment is great, but it’s also important to achieve this without putting men down. It’s a delicate thing. Both men and women need access to equal opportunities, and encouragement to engage and expand their creativity to its fullest in this artform.
The interview was conducted by Lian Heüveldop.