Ashley Bouder, 35, a prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet, is both a world-famous dancer and an outspoken feminist. She talks about equality, bullying and being a professional dancer as well as a mom.
Ms. Bouder, How would you describe your style of dance to someone who has never seen you perform?
Athletic, strong, confident. I’ve always been very confident on stage and know exactly what I want. And I was already like that as a child. From the start, the first movements in ballet class felt normal and natural to me. My first ballet teacher told me: You will be a principal dancer one day. I don’t know whether he meant it seriously, but I just believed him … (grins)
Back in Pennsylvania, where you’re from, you joined a junior ballet group when you were six years old. Isn’t that too early?
It is. I was usually two or three years younger than the other people in my class. When you are a small girl, you tend to get pushed around a lot. That also happened to me when I joined the New York City Ballet at 17 and immediately got huge principal roles. Looking back now, I have been bullied quite often in my career. I once had my pointe shoes stolen in the middle of a performance and had to wear someone else’s shoes in the second act. Can you imagine that?
Maybe that’s why you’re not just a famous prima ballerina, but also a committed activist. It’s very rare in the world of arts or professional sports to hold such a strong political position – why you?
I was a political science major in school, that maybe explains it. I was already interested in what was going on around me in my world, in my country, my city and in my profession. And I want to intervene if I have the power to do so. I want to be strong, loud and clear, and not stand by helplessly and let things happen to me. Especially in these days of #MeToo and #TimesUp, ballet has the chance to reinvent itself and leap onto the stage of a modern society. That’s something we urgently need.
Your Instagram tag is: Ballerina. Feminist. Equality seeker …
Yes, the deeper I got into thinking about gender equality and doing something about it, I realized there were a lot of other inequalities in ballet that I wanted to change – but not just for me. I’ve been lucky in my dancing career to have had a lot of opportunities but I’ve also felt the repercussions of being a woman choreographer and a leader in the arts world, which is chiefly run by men. I founded the Ashley Bouder Project because I wanted to become a director of a major ballet company one day, and I was laughed at by a male ballet director, treated like a little girl, got the pat on the shoulder and an “OK honey, good for you. If that’s what you wanna do,” in a condescending tone of voice that really got under my skin.
What do you want to achieve?
I want equality, that’s all. People always think that women want to redefine the world or eat up all the men. That’s garbage. Let’s put women on the same level. Equal pay, equal work, equal opportunities. We’re a long way from that right now. Do you know Osiel Gouneo?
You mean the principal dancer of the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich? Why?
We danced the second act of George Balanchine’s ballet Jewels together in Munich in April. It’s not a classical, man-protects-woman pas de deux, but an expressionist dance for two strong, independent characters, interpreted by a fantastic, dark-skinned dancer from Cuba and an American feminist. That’s contemporary ballet.
Do you earn the same amount of money as your male colleagues?
I hope so, but I don’t know. Nobody talks about money in ballet. Dancers certainly don’t earn as much as sports stars, that’s all part of the inequality.
You describe ballet as the last non-verbal art form in which artists are expected to dance beautifully but otherwise keep their mouth shut. Is that such a bad thing?
In the traditional world of ballet, the patriarchal system is still in place. Most companies are run by men, the choreographers are mostly men, the music we dance to is composed by men. The stereotypes society is gradually breaking down are still intact in ballet. It’s pretty shocking that I have been at the New York City Ballet for 20 years and have never danced to music by a female composer. There are only two pieces in our entire repertoire that have music composed by women and we don’t do them anymore because the choreographies weren’t very good. So we literally don’t have anything to dance to by a woman.
On stage, a princess; in life a feminist. The two are not mutually exclusive
Is that also why you started your own project?
If I want to dance to new music by a woman, I have to do find it myself. Without us or without the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, say, which explicitly gives money to female composers and choreographers, women don’t get commissioned to compose pieces, and we often don’t even know their music exists. I don’t think I will ever choreograph to a man’s music anymore. Male composers don’t need me to choreograph to their music, but women do.
Peter Martins, the long-standing ballet master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, resigned in 2018 following allegations of sexual harassment, but he’s still working as a choreographer and early this year removed you from the opening-night cast of Sleeping Beauty after almost ten years in the role. Was that the system hitting back?
You could call it retaliation, an attempt to browbeat a self-confident woman and dancer. And that kind of thing happens all the time. I’ve certainly stepped on a lot of people’s toes …
Don’t you worry about how that could affect your career?
I don’t want to work with those kinds of people. I’ve been on the stage for so long now, I don’t care anymore if someone wants to punish me. I can’t take back what I’ve said. It may be naive, but I think that by putting my finger in the wound, by making things like that public, they will stop. I simply feel too strongly that things need to change.
What kind of feedback do you get from other dancers?
I get mixed responses. I get a lot of younger dancers, who I mentor, and who are thankful for what I’m doing. I want them to see that if I can perform all over the world without being afraid, they can do it too. But I’ve come also across some women who don’t have a problem with the patriarchal society. Maybe they like their roles within that system, see only themselves and their career and aren’t interested in change. I have no time for such close-mindedness.
Is it possible to change deeply entrenched structures?
Change is already happening, you can tell. There are efforts to bring in female choreographers and initiatives for issues like diversity and gender equality. It’s a beginning, but more is needed to achieve equality. Here’s an example: I’m rehearsing in the studio and a choreographer asks me to perform a certain lift. I tell him it’s really dangerous and that I don’t want to do it. He’s frustrated and upset. But how can a man know what’s possible in pointe shoes and what isn’t? For that, he needs to know more about the mechanics of the human body. It would be wonderful if we dancers had more say during rehearsals.
One thing that’s changed is that top dancers can now start a family without giving up their career. Three years ago, your daughter, Violet Storm, was born. How has that affected you?
I’m on social media and I’m always posting things about my kid and my career. The message is: You can do both, you can be a hands-on, attentive mother and a top-level dancer. Your body can do it and your mind can do it, you might just get a little less sleep (laughs). Having a little daughter made me even more determined to fight for women’s rights. I don’t want my daughter to experience the terrible things I did. I don’t want her to have to put off her ambitions just because that’s what men want – no matter where, in the ballet world or in life.
It must be exhausting being the mouthpiece of a silent art.
No, it gives me energy, a reason to dance. I’m a feminist, but I love tutus, tiaras and sequins. This doesn’t mean I want to be taken care of or have the door opened for me. I make my own money, have my own thoughts. In my marriage, we are equals. On stage, I’m a princess; in life, a feminist. The two are not mutually exclusive. I’m a modern princess, that’s all.