An Interview with Zoé Henrot
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Zoé Henrot is the artistic director of St. Paul Ballet, an artist-led dance company where Zoé also dances and choreographs. She reflects on the uniqueness of her artistic directorship as well as how the ballet field might adapt to promote more women in leadership roles.
As a young dancer, what was your ultimate goal? Did it extend beyond performing?
When I was younger, I didn’t think of myself as ever becoming a professional dancer. I really liked dancing, but my parents were convinced it could never be an actual career.
When I went to college, my ideas changed. As far as taking on directing and choreographing, it happened to me really suddenly. St. Paul Ballet was almost going to close its doors. The company decided to help with the business plan. We had to find a director, and the company chose me. At first I said no because I wanted to focus on dancing, but I was caught in a corner; like any professional dancer, if you don’t have a contract, you won’t have much luck dancing that season. So I decided I would need everyone else’s help to lead the group, and thus it became an artist-led organization. I still perform with the company.
Did it seem like your male colleagues were more encouraged to have aspirations beyond performance careers?
I went to a women’s college, so there weren’t a lot of men around. I think attending a women’s college was part of what made me think I could direct a company. My advisor really believed that dancers needed to know everything about dance, and that included the administrative part of it. I already had experience directing shows throughout college, so that’s how the dancers at St. Paul Ballet decided I should be the director; I was the only one with any directing experience.
Do you believe the reasons why men routinely hold positions in power in the ballet world are coincidental or endemic?
I don’t know. Many women, at some point, will have a child, and our culture tends to prioritize women taking care of children, which can get in the way of a career. Ballet takes such a toll on your body, and if you have a child after that, what I’ve noticed is that female dancers just kind of stop. I don’t know if it’s because their bodies need a break or something else.
Furthermore, the administrative staff of most companies rarely ask the dancers to do anything administrative, so if you’re never been immersed in that part of dance, you never know it’s there.
Circling back to men, it’s interesting, because at St. Paul Ballet, it’s all women who are leading. Most of our board are women too. So I haven’t really experienced this preference for men firsthand. Even my director growing up at Boulder Ballet was a woman. Your question is almost something I don’t feel like I can answer because I don’t have experience with it. I think a lot of the bigger companies have been passed down to men because they started with men. For example, with Balanchine, women were such muses to him, the thought of passing down his company to a woman didn’t make sense to him artistically. In the past couple decades, women’s equality has become much more abundant.
What might help more female dancers become interested in directing and choreographing?
It’s important to not only show students the technique of dance, but also to have choreography workshops and panel discussions about what there is beyond just dancing. Diane Colburn Bruning, for instance, has a mission of bringing more women into choreography, so she goes around the world holding choreographic workshops focused on inspiring young women to envisions themselves choreographing or being in a leadership position in a company or school. It’s about making it available.
Talent in ballet has historically been assessed through a male lens. How might a female lens change the way we approach choreography?
What I’ve noticed is that in male choreography, the movement tends to be much more man-powered. He will guide the woman this way or that, and then turn her. Female choreographers, however, approach partnering as more of a partnership. For instance, in Diane Colburn Bruning’s recent piece, the women were controlling the men as much as the men were controlling the women, which was much more interesting and aerobic. I think it’s important to consider all three lenses: the male controlling the movement, both partners controlling the movement, and the female controlling the movement.
When we clean pieces here at St. Paul Ballet, I need a man and a woman to look at it. A male rehearsal assistant will see different things than a female rehearsal assistant because they are each envisioning themselves in the work.
Last February, St. Paul put on a program featuring four women choreographers. Do you feel that programs which feature women help empower them or differentiate them from mainstream (and thus male) choreographers?
The female-only program was the result of my being selfish. We had worked with so many wonderful male choreographers, but I went to a women’s college and happen to be part of the LGBT community so, with me as the director, people were asking where the female choreographers were. I took it as a challenge, and it was a challenge to find three other women to be on a bill with me. I didn’t realize it would be such a challenge to find three other female choreographers who could make it all work within our season and be in St. Paul. We ended up finding one local choreographer, which I was really pleased about bringing in someone from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, as well as two women from different states. It was something I had wanted to do for a while. So many companies end up programming either all-male choreographers or some male/some female choreographers. If it’s a conscientious decision to have all females, I think it’s okay. A lot of our audiences were really excited to have an all-female choreography program. I would love to do it again in the future.
We’ve also been bringing in an emerging choreographer every year. This year it happens to be a young African American male. But we’re hoping that we can get more young women to participate and get their work onstage, because that’s really the hardest part. Even if a young woman is empowered through her dance school and college, getting her foot in the door with a professional company is a whole other story.
Do any of the other female dancers in the company besides yourself choreograph or have aspirations to?
Yes, in fact every summer we do a ballet-in-the-park series, and it’s open to the company to choreograph. If they’re interested, that’s their platform. One of our apprentices did it this summer. In the past, we’ve had fringe shows where it’s only the female dancers who choreograph. We also, as a school (which is predominantly young women), invite all seniors to choreograph a piece together at the end of their senior year. In my future plans, the school director and I would really love to create a student choreography evening so they understand how to hold rehearsals, talk to a lighting designer, etc.
Any other thoughts?
Going back to the second question…I grew up with a lot of boys at Boulder Ballet, and almost all of them went pro. So yes, I think there is a big push (maybe unconsciously) from schools and instructors to get their boys out there. At St. Paul Ballet, we have a boys dance class that is free. Does that start them on a favored foot already? It’s something our organization has struggled with a lot; boys get free classes but girls have to pay for classes from the time they are five years old. Some schools are mindful about scholarships; last year we gave about $20,000 in scholarships, but it depends what our budget can allow for.
Everyone knows it’s a struggle, especially for little companies, to get well-trained men on par with the women. I will be honest; when we first started, the men were not as technically skilled as the women. Every audition season, there’s one man for every ten women, and I don’t know how to tip that scale.
Zoé Henrot is the artistic director and choreographer for St. Paul Ballet. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a double major in dance and biological sciences. Zoé received most of her dance training from Boulder Ballet, and became an apprentice with the company in the 2007-2008 season. In 2011, she started choreographing ‘Becoming Undone,’ her largest work, which premiered in March 2012. In November 2012, Zoé was invited to be a guest choreographer for the Five College Dance Department in Massachusetts. ‘Gray Matter’ premiered at the Southern Theater as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival in August 2013, followed by ‘Nadine’ in 2014. ‘Locked Key,’ performed by the entire SPB company during The Work in February 2016, is her most recent work. This is Zoé’s fourth season with St. Paul Ballet serving as the artistic director.
All photos are by Lori Gleason from St. Paul Ballet’s “The Work: 4 Women in Choreography”