These women’s Work: Female choreographers lead Dayton Ballet’s ‘The Female Factor’

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: Scott Kimmins


The month of March strides out like a woman on the Dayton Ballet’s final program of the season, “The Female Factor.” It features a new work by artistic director Karen Russo Burke and reprises of three ballets already in its repertory: “From Foreign Lands and People” by Jessica Lang; “You Are Here” by Gina Patterson; and “Dreams of Flight” by Susanne Payne. The distinctly female choreographic worldview is an exception in the professional ballet universe in which there are more male choreographers, and, thus, more work shown by men. As it stands, male choreographers are more often seen as prescribers of ballet.

Despite the larger dance world’s praxis, gender parity appears to be the order for the Dayton Ballet. It has programmed the work of female choreographers more times than not this season. In addition to its upcoming “The Female Factor” program, March 30–April 2 at the Victoria Theatre, Burke choreographed its season opener, “Dracula,” and “The Nutcracker.” In the course of her career as a dancer with the American Repertory Ballet, she danced leading roles by some of America’s best known, male choreographers: Gerald Arpino, George Balanchine, John Butler, José Limon, Antony Tudor, and Septime Webre. Yet, she has selected an all-female cast for her new dance on the upcoming program. The single-gender cast underscores her deep knowledge of how women move as dancers, while bringing to fruition her vision to program choreography by women. It also puts to good use her position as artistic director and choreographer, bearing the legacy of the company’s founders, Josephine and Hermene Schwarz.

Female leadership in dance was more practical than it was trailblazing in 1927, when the Schwarz sisters founded the Schwarz School of the Dance in Dayton. Josephine Schwarz had studied and danced in New York and abroad before sustaining the injury that brought her back to her hometown. At the time, women were well defined as students, dancers, and teachers, so a dance school was a pragmatic next step. It was the sisters’ undertaking of less pervasive roles for women—as artistic directors, founders, choreographers, and costume designers—that gave rise to “the female factor” in the Dayton Ballet’s founding.

In retrospect, those women were exceptional in their leadership. Yet, it stands that a program that celebrates women as high-end, intellectual creatives—choreographers—is not quite an extension of George Balanchine’s oft-quoted “ballet is woman.” It is more of a disruption of the idea that charm, style, and allure are limited to movement put on a woman by a man. The Dayton Ballet’s “The Female Factor” can shape the public’s awareness and, hopefully, desire to see a woman as an initiator of movement, someone who starts with her own thoughts about how ideas are shaped on dancers.

Choreography is Woman

The female factor, as propagated by the Schwarz sisters, continues to influence generations of forward thinking, dancing women here in Dayton. Susanne Payne, a native of Dayton and winner of Dayton Ballet’s “New Music for New Dance” competition in 2009, is also a former dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. She names Debbie Blunden-Diggs, Shonna Hickman-Matlock, and DeShona Pepper Robertson as women who inspired her as a dancer. They were students and dancers led by Jeraldyne Blunden, Dayton Contemporary’s founder, once a student of Josephine Schwarz. After Payne graduated from Wright State University and danced for Dayton Contemporary II, she became a professional dancer with the company. She was privy to and inspired by women in leadership positions. As she took opportunities to choreograph, she gave no thought to the male presence in choreography. “Dancing is female-dominated and choreography is male-dominated. I never thought about it until after I started to choreograph,” she says. “I started getting jobs and followed through.”

A modern and contemporary dance orientation is evident in her 2014 Dayton Ballet work entitled “Dreams of Flight” for a cast of nine men. “At DCDC, the women were powerful, strong movers who went in and out of the floor easily. Our bodies showed athleticism and strength,” Payne recalls. Her outlook and experience influence the work and so do the process and ballet-trained men dancing it. She brought her ideas to a method that required the dancers to elaborate on movement assignments. Doing so struck a balance between authority and gathering input in a process that is traditionally directive. Over time, work in the studio becomes seasoned with a collaborative “modus operandi” that is hard to relinquish. She credits choreographer Donald Byrd with such an alternative, give-and-take technique. She recalled his method when she was a dancer and worked with him. “He had the dancers manipulate the initial, set combination to help do the choreography,” she says. “I liked the way his process activated different parts of the brain.”

Craft and a Hand

Early in her choreographic career, Jessica Lang managed to acquire credits making work for Hubbard Street II and American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company in the late 1990s.  However, she realized she was suited for the craft in 2000 with a commission from Pennsylvania Ballet, a major ballet company in Philadelphia that Lang had watched as a child. Since then, Her company JDL (Jessica Lang Dance) she has made dances for such noteworthy venues, like Jacob’s Pillow Festival Theatre and the Joyce Theater, and for opera, symphony, and ballet companies around the country and abroad.

As a former dancer with Twyla Tharp, one of the field’s eminent choreographers, Lang is acquainted with how a choreographer can have a certain “look,” something the audience can identify and attribute to her. Lang’s own niche has become her use of objects as part of the ambiance and design—objects that interject the unusual while becoming part of the landscape. They have changed in different ballets: a dress, a tutu, textiles, video projections, or architectural pieces. “‘From Foreign Lands and People’ is my first work for a professional company with objects,” Lang says. “Objects change the environment and can be just as poetic as the body.”

It is choreographed to a piano solo by Robert Schumann—a quietly fluid composition that changes its intensity while it maintains gentleness. Lang’s dance adheres closely to the ebb and flow of the music’s soft power in the face of the five, looming rectangle boxes that represent the black keys of the piano. They are manipulated and partnered by eight dancers, four men and four women, yet never appear obtrusive, despite their size. No gendered relationship is featured between the dancers and boxes; however, only the men lift and move them. This implies no obvious fragility on the women’s parts; they dance with the verve of the music.

More importantly, Lang achieves her goal of environmental change that is sensible yet unique for its infusion of the unexpected, which ups the inventiveness ante. “I wanted to move the boxes around as gracefully as the dancers move,” she says, “to the point that the audience didn’t know the space was changing as the dance progressed.”

If the five rectangle boxes were dancers, they would be light on their feet. They serve as partners, backdrops, leaning posts, supports and covers, but never as obstacles. In instances when they could be obstacles, the choreography integrates them for a more artistic presence. Meanwhile, the dancers’ movements are simple and measured, in the beginning. They walk, run, and lunge; there are simple shapes and traditional partnering.

As dancer combinations change, so do the combinations of the rectangular boxes, and therein lies a bounty of multi-level tableaux, both static and mobile often at the same time. Two rectangles may be vertical while three are horizontal with dancers sitting still. Moving lifts fill the height difference to add depth. Though opposites, the stillness and movement do not display contrast; the dance is well proportioned and blended.

The Female Factor?

Strength and athleticism, proportion and measure, stillness and movement infiltrate choreography by men and women; however, it is a challenge to assess the degree or quality of craft based, exclusively, on gender. According to Lang, craft, not gender, has to be the significant measure when looking at dances to present or who practices and tends the craft well.

“When you start to choreograph, you start over,” she says. “Choreographer and dancer are two separate things. It’s a skill to be able to make a dance. It goes beyond the studio to deadlines, communication, and whole other levels as a career.”

Those other levels and the details named by Lang can be prohibitive to dancers considering a career in choreography. The dance world is not known for its substantial remuneration, and there are few places that offer commissions. In order to make a living, choreographers often have to begin their careers while still dancing or accept multiple residency positions that entail periods of travel, frequent and extended time with companies, contact with funders, and a social life that is related to the business of dance. Choreography does not always blend well with other elements of professionalism. Phone calls, emails, and travel distract from the creative process. Moving from the protection of the studio as a dancer, to to open oneself to the daunting variables of building a choreography practice. To do so as a woman, look around, and notice that fewer women as choreographers adds a factor. That may be the female factor.

The way to survive, artistically, is to develop one’s craft, contribute to an aesthetic, and build value.

“I want quality of craft to be the judging point,” Lang says. “I want commissions based on quality.” That quality, as offered by Burke, Lang, Patterson, and Payne, is infused with the worldview of women whose dance experiences are varied in their interpretation of the Dayton Ballet’s “The Female Factor.”


Dayton Ballet presents ‘The Female Factor’ Thursday, March 30 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 2 at 3 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Karen Russo Burke presents ‘The First Step,’ an in-depth look at the performance and the ballet company, in the Burnell Roberts Room at 126 N. Main St., 45 minutes before each performance. Following the performance in the theatre, ‘Behind the Ballet’ presents a Q&A with dancers. Both talks are free with ticket. Tickets for ‘The Female Factor’ are $21–72. For tickets or more information, please call 937.228.3630 or visit Senior, teacher, and student discounts are available.

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Arnecia Patterson
Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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