Where are the Women Leaders? Try California.

We often complain that the leadership positions in dance are occupied mostly by men. And yes, that’s true in many places. But I have come to realize, after my short visit to the Bay Area and Los Angeles last month, that the women in California are the ones who have made the dance scene there.

Anna Halprin, photo by Kent Reno

Anna Halprin, photo by Kent Reno

Let me start with the Bay Area and its three matriarchs: Anna Halprin, Brenda Way, and Margaret Jenkins. Halprin, the great forerunner of postmodern dance, settled there more than five decades ago, where her brand of improvisation, healing, and anarchy caught fire. (Click here for an update on her rituals, and here for info on the documentary on her.) She still gives classes and “performance labs” in her Mountain Home Studio, and her works have earned a flurry of popularity in Europe.

Brenda Way is the force and mastermind behind ODC Dance Commons, the buzzing hub of dance that offers a wide range of classes, plus the ODC Theater and the collaborative ODC Dance Company. Her intellectual curiosity is in evidence everywhere, from the design of the Commons, to the festival programming, to the choreography of the dance company, which she co-directs with KT Nelson and Kimi Okada.

ODC Dance Company, photo by RJ Muna

ODC Dance Company, photo by RJ Muna

Margaret Jenkins

Margaret Jenkins

Margaret Jenkins is a Cunningham disciple whose warmth and insights have encouraged many in the dance community. Her company, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, collaborates with dance artists in China and Israel. She’s developed a mentorship program, CHIME, that helps nurture the next generation of choreographers.

The beautiful, haunting site-specific works of Joanna Haigood have won acclaim on a national scale. Another inspiring presence is Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer/educator who formed Contraband, a collaborative group of interdisciplinary artists. The dance departments of colleges and universities in the area, like Stanford and Mills, are also run by strong women.

The Smuin Ballet has not only been kept afloat by Celia Fushille since Michael Smuin’s death in 2007, but has opened up to many new choreographers. And Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, a contemporary ballet company, is going strong. Her annual SKETCH series (which happens to be at ODC Theater this week) encourages experimentation and collaboration while using the ballet vocabulary.

Other choreographers who thrive in the Bay Area are Hope Mohr, Nina Haft, Randee PaufveKatie Falkner,  Abigail Hosein, and recent transplant from NYC (and an old friend of mine) Risa Jaroslow. Amelia Rudolph with Bandaloop, is a leader in the aerial dance constellation. Krissy Keefer’s Dance Brigade, still resolutely rebellious/rambunction/revolutionary, is resident at the Dance Mission Theater, which offers tons of classes from ballet to Bhangra to Voguing. Being in the Mission District, the mural on the front of its building reflects San Francisco’s appealing craze for street art.

Mural on the front of the Dance Mission Theater building

Dance Mission Theater building


Lula Washington

Lula Washington

Moving down to Los Angeles, where it’s been notoriously hard to sustain a company in the shadow of Hollywood, two longterm leaders have trained generations of dancers. Lula Washingon, emphasizes the legacy of black culture in dance, and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy embraces cultural and aesthetic diversity.

There are  other major players who have been leading their companies for about a decade: Colleen Neary, co-director of Balanchine-based Los Angeles Ballet; Ana Maria Alvarez, whose urban Latin dance theater CONTRA-TIEMPO does major outreach; Jennifer Backhaus, director of the modern dance group Backhaus Dance; Judith Helle, a former ballet dancer with aerial chops who runs the  Luminario Ballet; and Michelle Mierz and Kate Hutter, co-directors of the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company.

A handful of women-led companies have recently burst on the scene. BODYTRAFFIC is led by a team of two: Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett. Melissa Barak, one of the very few women who has ever been commissioned by New York City Ballet, recently formed Barak Ballet. (At the moment, she’s making a solo for the sublime ballerinal Hee Seo.) And Danielle Agami, who emerged from Batsheva with that famous Israeli rawness intact, has gathered a group of terrific dancers for her Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY.

Ate9 Dance Company, photo by Rebecah Goldstone

Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY, photo by Scott Simock

Then there’s the new and delightful fact that Jenifer Ringer will head the new Colburn Dance Academy, which is part of the reason I posted last month about L.A. becoming a destination for dance students.

Women as presenters or administrators have enlivened the L.A. dance scene enormously. Judy Morr at Segerstrom Center for the Arts insures that great touring companies visit Costa Mesa. (This month the blockbuster ballet duo of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev premiere their out-of-the-box contemporary program at Segerstrom.) Renae Williams is vice president of programming at the Los Angeles Music Center,  which just presented National Ballet of Canada’s production of Ratmansky’s fascinating Romeo and Juliet. The savvy curator of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Kristy Edmunds, is bringing top-level artists like Batsheva Dance Company and Kyle Abraham to Royce Hall this season.

On a smaller scale, Showbox L.A. is co-directed by Meg Wolfe, a dancer/choreographer transplanted from NYC. Tonia Barber as the new executive director of Dance Camera West has added a live performance component to its programs. (It was exciting to see Jason Samuels Smith and Chitresh Das dance together after the screening of the excellent documentary about them.) Also at Dance Camera West, Bonnie Oda Homsey, whose Los Angeles Dance Foundation  carries the torch for modern dance, showed her documentary on historical figure Michio Ito.

Slews of choreographers who cross over between concert dance and commercial dance depend on Julie McDonald, founder of MSA Associates, as their agent. She guides the careers of many choreographers and dancers like Dance Magazine cover girl Tyne Stecklein.

Simone Forti, photo by Gary Leonard, Courtesy LA Library Foundation

Simone Forti, photo by Gary Leonard, Courtesy LA Library Foundation

For anchors in the postmodern community, the legendary Simone Forti still performs her touching and witty solo improvisations. Victoria Marks, whose recent work has taken on a new gravitas, teaches at UCLA. (I had the honor of sharing a program with those two last month at the L.A. Library Foundation.) Heidi Duckler has been showing her ingenious site-specific works (I saw a fun one in the Mission Bowling Alley in San Francisco in June) regularly for the last 30 years.

Local critics who advocate for dance are also mostly women: Debra Levine of artsmeme.com, Victoria Looseleaf, Sara Wolf, Laura Bleiberg. A few years ago, a group of five women got together to start an alternative publication called ITCH. Former dance critic Sasha Anawalt runs the arts journalism degree program at University of Southern California. Also at USC is former Forsythe dancer Jodie Gates, who, with the help of dance philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, is taking making USC a hotspot for dance.

The entire California dance world is bolstered by brainy feminine presences, too abundant to name, in the University of California system. That includes UCLA, UC Irvine (which hosts Molly Lynch’s National Choreographic Institute), UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, UC Long Beach, and UC Riverside.

Of course any dance scene in the U. S. has plenty of women as movers and shakers. But it strikes me that California has an unusually high proportion of them. Maybe this is not surprising—after all, the sunny state was the home of both Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham!

(Thanks to Lisa Bush and Debra Levine for filling in the gaps of my knowledge. If I’ve left out any major women leaders, please use the comments box below.)

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27 thoughts on “Where are the Women Leaders? Try California.

  1. Ann Woodhead and Nancy Lyon generated a local dance scene in Sonoma County for over 25 years, especially at Sonoma State University’s Dance Program in the Theater Arts Department. Ann runs her own dance studio on the Lost Coast in Mendocino County still.

  2. And don’t forget Yvonne Rainer has been at UC-Irvine for more than a decade, and continues to teach and has been creating new performance works.

    1. Yes, but she wasn’t in the dance department. Though she is no longer at UCI, her archive is currently on exhibit at the Getty.

  3. Thank you Kate Hutter I appreciate you mentioning me and Celebrate Dance in your response to this article. Some of us feel a bit overlooked in more ways than you can imagine especially in the dance community. Perhaps more research could be done about who we ALL are. It is a difficult task to be inclusive and usually exclusive of whom you are in contact with the most. Or what your interests are. Everything is subjective. 4 of the companies mentioned in this article were platformed at Celebrate Dance. Celebrate Dance at the Alex Theatre was the first big introduction for BODYTRAFFIC.

  4. Nice article. The non-profit organization The Wooden Floor, based in Santa Ana, was founded by Beth Burns, and is now directed by Melanie Rios-Glaser. It is a shining example of high quality dance in SoCal, and the productions are original and inspiring.

  5. I want to add a few incredible female leaders whom Ive personally worked with over my 18 year bay area tenure- judith smith, co founder & artistic director of AXIS Dance Company; Patricia Reedy & Nancy Ng – co directors of Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley.
    Thanks for sharing this article!

  6. How can Sarah Elgart be overlooked? Her decades of choreography work continues to make some of the most significant forays into the frontiers of site-specific spectacle, dance media, & social engagement including with marginalized communities e.g. transitional homeless women, prisoners, and more. In the past few years she had site performances at the The Music Center, Skirball, LACMA, and her LAX performance spectacle was compared to LA Opera’s / Frank Gehry’s La Boheme and was named one of the best dance events of 2013 by The Looseleaf Report. Her work has been commissioned by major cultural institutions & organizations including The Getty, BODYTRAFFIC, City of LA, LA World Airports, and more, and she completed a tenure as a key leader and contributor to the transformation of DCW. Plus her weekly dance film blog, ScreenDance Diaries, for Cultural Weekly in which she highlights examples of the interface of dance and camera draws over 20,000 hits a week.

  7. I work in the LA scene as a teacher, choreographer, director, producer and educator.
    There is a very strong impact by many women in the LA dance world. In addition to the women mentioned in the article, the following people have had a strong impact on dance in LA.
    The festivals: Celebrate Dance, Dance under the Starts, Sola, LA Dance Festival, Tri Arts, Mix/Match and So Cal invitational are all produced by women. The females Daisy Kim and Deborah Brockus produced the Dance in LA series between 1998-2005 that included over 50 showcases featuring work in all styles from individual choreographers, small and mid sized companies, out of town groups and high school programs . The the annual LA Dance Festival is run by a woman.
    The majority of all our dance companies are run by female director- choreographers. Summer contemporary dance intensives in LA for adults are run by the female directors of their dance companies. Summer and winter training intensives and master classes and are growing in both strength and number.

    Pre professional training in Southern California is also dominated by women with a female in the lead at LA County High School of the Arts dance department as well as the boarding schools Brockus Conservatory and Idyllwild Arts Academy. This is in addition to Colburn, USC, LA Ballet, Westside Ballet, City of Angeles, Lula Washington, Debbie Allen and the Wooden Floor and numerous public and private dance teams in high schools.

    Professional training studios and rehearsal studios have female directors: Debbie Reynolds Studios, Dance Arts, Lineage Arts, BPStudios to name a few.
    The majority of choreographers who rent my rehearsal studio are women.

    There are also a growing number of local theater booking presenters and program directors that are female. And we have a major company booking agent that is female as well as Commercial agents. Career Transitions for Dancers’ in LA is under the direction of a female.

    LA has the writers Debra Levine and Victoria Looseleaf who have great impact of in our field.

    In short, the LA dance scene has a very strong female presence. And there are many powerful woman that I missed.

  8. I have the privilege of working with two LA dance leaders at Calarts.
    Rosanna Gamson, artistic director/choreographer of Rosanna Gamson Worldwide, has been making and showing work in Los Angeles for over 15 years. She is also on faculty at the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at CalArts.

    Cynthia Young is the Artistic Director of the Pasadena Dance Theater and is the Associate Dean at the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at CalArts.

    1. Thank you for mentioning them both Stephan. I think my posting was the tip of the iceberg, and it’s wonderful to see people jumping in to recognize many more women whom I don’t know.

  9. Thank you so much for including myself, Judith FLEX Helle, and Luminario Ballet in your dance-women-in-leadership article.
    I do try to lead / nurture the dance and aerial dance scene I love so much here.
    Just to clarify my background to avoid confusion, I started my professional career as a contemporary ballet dancer at the Deutsche Opera Berlin in the 80s while inventing/experimenting with the nouveau Cirque style of aerial on single trapeze- but many thousands of miles away from Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, who I never worked for. However, MANY of the aerialists who work with Luminario Ballet are Cirque du Soleil alumni and in 2013 the head choreographer of Cirque du Soleil, Debra Lynne Brown, choreographed a dance theater piece on us, “Brace…yourself”, which was seen at our shows throughout 2013. Cirque du Soleil is currently the single largest employer of dancers in the world (not just acrobats and aerialists) and although they are not considered a “concert” dance company, I feel their performances have changed the landscape of how concert audiences view dance, and circus.

    1. Thanks for the correction on your training. I’ve changed it now, so I hope it’s more accurate.

  10. Wendy, enjoyed your comments and am glad to see California being recognized as the dance center it is and has been for decades. You omitted an important name in California Dance: Marnie Thomas, who started as her husband David Wood’s unpaid assistant at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s and progressed to become Chair of Theater & Dance at Berkeley in the 1990s & early 2000s. Yes, David and Marnie worked together, but – who else can you name with the same performance/academic trajectory with soley a BFA degree from Sarah Lawrence? – who is still teaching and sometimes performing today in New York?

    1. So glad you mentioned Marnie! I think the world of her. She was the demonstrator in my classes with David Wood many times in the 60s, and she became such a strong dance educator. Plus, she can still whip up fierce striding—on her knees!

  11. There are many women choreographers, dancers, and teachers from the Indian dance diaspora who came as immigrants, and have shared their dance, music, art, & culture. They have had a significant presence in the communities all over US for over three decades and continue to find ways to not only maintain their heritage but make their art forms accessible to mainstream America.

  12. Our local dance scene is full of talented women leaders and I’m happy to read this article and learn about more inspiring work. I’m the Executive Director for Invertigo Dance Theatre. I started in January this year and feel fortunate to be part of the Invertigo family.

    Laura Karlin, founder and Artistic Director of Invertigo Dance Theatre, is a force in the dance Los Angeles scene. She started Invertigo in 2007 and has since fostered a company culture that truly respects and celebrates diversity — not just through casting, but in all aspects of her role as AD. As I listened to conversations about diversity at this year’s Dance/USA conference, I was so proud to realize that Laura is truly a leader in how to embrace all types of diversity and, thereby, more accurately represent our Los Angeles community.

    Invertigo is trying to address one of the major challenges in LA, which is accessibility of venues–especially for mid-size companies. We produced the LA Dance Showcase at the WAA conference in 2013, and this October we will build our own sprung floor in a local theatre. (After It Happened, Oct. 3-19 at the Odyssey Theatre) I think there’s a lot of potential for dance and theatre to work more closely and I hope this investment will lead to new ideas and partnerships for presenting dance.

  13. I just had the opportunity to read your informative article on “Where are the woman Leaders in CA”, and although I enjoyed seeing the selections, I didn’t see my own name, Louise Reichlin. Our company, Louise Reichlin & Dancers/Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers (www.LAChoreographersAndDancers.org) was founded in 1979, and was part of all the major festivals. Until the late 80’s we produced the work of 24 choreographers (besides myself and Alfred Desio, my late husband) by our own company, until advised by our local LA Times critic that I needed to serve my own choreography with enough time. My own works include “The Tennis Dances”, “Urban and Tribal Dances”, media works beginning in the mid 90’s with “The E-mail Dances” and more recently “The Patchwork Girl of Oz”.

    For four years I produced about 20 more companies at the Dance At Brand series. Besides working with my own company, I presently am Producer and Dance Director for the free outside SP ♥ TriArt Festival, again presenting 19 companies (13 professional and 6 pre-professional) at the beautiful Ports O’Call (you can see this year’s and former years at http://www.triartSP.com. As one of the primary dance companies to partner with LA County Arts For All programs, we are fortunate that this educational area of our work has expanded. As the only dance company part of the REACH Demonstration Project through the Community Health Councils new grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (part of the US Department of Health and Human Services) we are expanding into the lives of more by combining our art with the effort to bring more health, something that dance does by its very nature.

  14. What a wonderful list! I do feel that Josie Walsh deserves mention for her innovative choreography with her new company Ballet RED. Josie danced with Joffrey Ballet and Zurich Ballet and was named 25 to watch by Dance Magazine and featured in the Los Angeles Times as “Faces to watch 2014″ She also serves as the Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet School San Francisco summer program.

  15. Julia Adam is keeping dance alive and strong in the Bay Area! Her Boat House Project in July was unique and innovative. Definitely an important voice in dance in CA!!!!!

  16. california has always produced women leaders in the dance profession from isadora duncan, on to ruth st denis (naturally producing in their los angeles school important figures in the contempory dance field as martha graham and doris humphrey). not to forget carmelita maracci, mia slavenska and bella lewitsky and of course madame nijinska, who gave los angeles during the 40s and 50s a special creative and education center of great importance. later a native of los angeles crystine lawson brought back to the southern california area her vast knowledge as she ran the dance dept of CalArts. these are just some of the female dance leaders of california during the last century whose input in the dance profession is of great importance

  17. Thank you Wendy for writing this article, it is clear from the responses and comments that your article is really important to us California based artists. Female leadership has been the backbone of dance on the West Coast, I am happy that you are bringing this to our attention. I can sympathize with how challenging it must have been to research all the powerhouse female artists that exist in our region. There are many…and each one of them has earned acknowledgement and recognition. I have to admit I was tickled as I read through the list of additional artists included the comments. I have been lucky enough to work with so many of them over my two decades as a West Coast/Southern California based dance artist. My company LEDGES AND BONES was born in Los Angeles and has been adopted by the SF region, I call both places home. I am proud to know many of the women who are listed here, as well as to know many women who are missing from the list…perhaps this just means that MORE articles like yours need to be written!!! Thank you for highlighting this very important subject. Let’s continue to support female leadership here in CA, it is a foundational part of our history, it is also a necessary part of our future…and it is the reality we are living now.

  18. In SF – Jo Kreiter’s amazing, surprising site-specific and aerial works, the incredible visceral-ness of Kathleen Hermesdorf, and the lineage of Keriac, a leader in offering trainings and dance performance events in SF at Danceground and in her yearly trainings she did in Germany.

  19. Wendy,

    Another name that has helped to define dance in Southern California is Glorya Kaufman. She single handedly brought dance back to the Music Center in Los Angles after years of absence with “Glorya Kaufman presents Dance at the Music Center”. And now, with the brand new USC Kaufman School of Dance, created a new institute that puts DANCE on the map in capital letters in terms of research and the training of next generation of artists. Not to mention that the Vice Dean is Jodie Gates – creator of the Laguna Beach Dance Festival and former principal ballerina with the Joffrey Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. (Oh, and as for history – Twyla Tharp grew up in San Bernardino, California….)

    Great article.


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