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“Fame Notions” by Gillian Walsh. Photograph by Paula Court

Beyond the Muse

Dancers setting the trend for creative agency

When asked whether she’s ever had to perform in a work she didn’t agree with or believe in, Penny Wildman’s typically bubbly and lighthearted tone grows ever so slightly vehement. “All the time,” she replies. “All the time.”

The dancer turned creative multihyphenate—she choreographs, directs, and produces music under the name Pennywild—started out her career as a Broadway dancer. After landing a role in the touring cast of “West Side Story,” Wildman found herself—instead of relishing her dance role—increasingly drawn to working as a choreographer.

“I’ve always gravitated towards making my own decisions,” Wildman says. “I would go home and rehearse the choreography that I had learned, and I would do my little changes and adjustments, thinking: “In my own fantasy, this is what it looks like.”

This is what set her in motion, pursuing her desire to have more creative license over the work in which she performed. But as she climbed the choreographic ladder, she grew more and more frustrated. While she was working on a production of a popular musical (Wildman declined to disclose the name of the production for privacy reasons) she had a moment that was—as she describes—“the last straw.”

Penny Wildman. Photograph by Quasar Media

“The choreographer basically just set a watered-down version of the original Broadway choreography,” she remembers. “I was the dance captain and the assistant choreographer and I still felt like I couldn’t make any changes, because I was just there to help fuel their vision.”

Wildman is not alone in her experience. Whether prompted by the lack of creative agency or the unfair physical demands associated with dancing professionally—or some combination of factors—many female-identifying dancers are making moves to branch out on their own.

“Dancers so often really contribute so much to the creation of the work,” says Gillian Walsh, a New York City-based choreographer who has explored these themes in her work. “The choreographer will get the credit, which is fine to a certain extent, but I think that the alienation of not being able to take any ownership of the thing that you really put your whole body and being into creating is hard.”

Though Walsh’s professional history doesn’t necessarily follow a dancer-turned-choreographer narrative, she acknowledges that the time she spent in her early career as a freelance performer was “degrading.”

“To have to put your body in all kinds of different situations at the whim of other people for quite low pay and low recognition is not particularly pleasant,” Walsh says.

And because, historically, choreographers have primarily been male and a large majority of dancers have been female, a problematic power dynamic has been created and perpetuated. It truly is a tale as old as time, or at least, a tale as old as ballet. Established in the ballet world, the standard of the male choreographer and the female muse has bled its way into other dance forms and institutions, creating a status quo that is antiquated and suppressive.

“The part of dance that lasts is the choreography,” says Ellen O’Connell Whittet, who examines these issues in her memoir, What You Become in Flight. “[Choreography] is historically almost always done by men, so then the contributions of the women are really just to be tools of expression for the men. They’re the canvases on which men paint and their contributions to dance are constant vanishing points.”

Ellen O’Connell Whittet, author of What You Become in Flight. Photograph by Leela Cyd.

Before becoming a writer, O’Connell Whittet was a serious ballet student destined for a professional company. When a major injury put her future in jeopardy, she was forced to reckon with the ways that internalizing the accepted narratives of the ballet world had been detrimental. And in doing so, she noticed the parallels between the ways she suffered as a ballerina and the ways women are silenced and violated in our larger society as a whole.

O’Connell Whittet is far from the only one to notice these issues in dance. In recent years, the dance world has been faced with harsh questions surrounding this status quo, inspired by the pressing cultural conversations regarding violence against women in our wider world.

Continuing to perpetuate the muse dynamic raises larger questions of women’s bodily autonomy in dance. Walsh elects to exercise her creative and physical self-determination in this area by being very specific about the choreographers she works with. She acknowledges that the process of creating a piece of dance is deeply intimate, involving both emotional and physical vulnerability, and often it’s an experience that she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing with male choreographers.

“The history that we’re up against, considering concert dance and ballet history and the history of the muse, for women and queer people it is particularly difficult to navigate or avoid,” she says. “I certainly don’t want to say I’ve never worked for a man or I would avoid it at all costs, but I think as a queer woman doing a lot of work with my body [I have to ask] who I am trusting to put me through that experience.”

Walsh documented the experience of dancing for someone else’s vision in her 2019 “Fame Notions,” which dissects, in her words, “the archetype of the dancer.” For the piece, Walsh began by conducting a series of interviews with dancers in which they discussed hopes, dreams, and traumas. What she uncovered became “a pessimistic anthropological project” that analyzes what it means to be a dancer.

Gillian Walsh’s “Fame Notions.” Photograph by Paula Court

Just as Walsh uncovered, there are as many stories as there are dancers. Particularly among women, there is a move to begin to tell these stories, as opposed to continuing to tell the stories of others. For Wildman, that meant pursuing a newfound passion for producing music. For Walsh, that means continuing her choreographic work and finding ways to create “dancer-focused” movement. For O’Connell Whittet, that meant pursuing a writing career, and returning to dance as a hobby and pastime.

Although it’s difficult to say whether the pursuit of creative agency on part of female-identifying dancers is new to this moment, there are elements of the current climate in both dance and politics that make the time ripe for change.

“I think in the current moment we understand a lot more about how damaging hierarchies can be,” O’Connell Whittet says. “In any hierarchy someone has to be at the top and that means that somebody else has to be at the bottom. And when we look at who is consistently at the bottom, or who’s not even invited in the room, I think we can begin to see the ways that the entire art form’s aesthetics and dynamics can be really harmful and dangerous.”

But in addition to the deeper conversations of inequality that are quickly becoming hallmarks of our time, Covid-19 and the subsequent push to embrace digital content creation have also given dancers both the time and the platform to create and discuss their own work and processes.

“Having the time of Covid, you have this time to reflect on how you were working and how it feels to not be working,” Walsh says. “You’re out of the hamster wheel for a minute. You’re taking a moment to say ‘If I’m going to come back, here’s what I need to live.’”

And to live, we all need a voice.