Ashley Bouder and her friend Joanna Fisher first met at a gala for the New York City Ballet gala. “We were sitting on the patio under a plastic canopy,” Bouder said. “It wasn't open air, so we were really hot. Joanna turned to me, sweating, and I leaned over and said ‘I have my dress pulled up all the way to my thighs underneath the table.’”
All of which is to say: Bouder defies a lot of what people expect from a ballerina. Although she’s petite and thin, her lissome frame hides a bullheaded determination. So it’s no surprise that Bouder has decided to take on the entrenched patriarchy of the Ballet world.
Although Ballet is often assumed to be a female-friendly art form—“Ballet is woman,” according to the famous Balanchine quote—the industry is surprisingly unwelcoming to women behind the scenes. None of the ballet companies in New York are run by women, and nearly all choreography is still done by men. And it doesn’t end there. “I can’t think of a single female composer I’ve danced to,” said Bouder.
This lack of equal representation inspired the tenacious ballerina to start her own dance company, The Ashley Bouder Project. “People talk about the lack of woman choreographers in the dance world, but it didn't seem to me like anyone was doing enough about it,” she said. “I thought I could help with that, and it became one of my focuses to put women in roles that they don't normally fill in the dance world.”
The choreography of the Ashley Bouder Project is exciting, and takes inspiration from a variety of unexpected sources. This year’s showcase features six dancers performing four pieces influenced by American contemporary techniques, the Polish Mazurka, Sufi dervishes, and Masai warriors. And it features the support of some heavy hitters—Joanna and Brian Fisher are providing financial support, and the show’s costumes are designed by William Ivey Long (“I was hoping you would ask me!” Long said to Bouder when she reached out to him).
But its biggest innovation comes from how it has made defying conventional roles so crucial to its mission. The centerpiece of this year’s showcase is a pas de deux choreographed by Liz Gerring and scored by Anna Webber between Bouder and Sara Mearns—a departure from not only male choreographers and composers but also from the pas de deux’s traditional male-female pairing.
This year’s production is also particularly important for Bouder herself; for the first time, she will publicly present her own choreography. “I thought my whole life that I just wasn't creative enough to make dance like that,” she said. But with the encouragement of friends and family Bouder worked up the courage to present her own choreography. “It's your name on the project,” Bouder’s husband Peter said to her. “If you want to encourage woman choreographers, encourage yourself!”
The Ashley Bouder Project will perform at Symphony Space in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre on Broadway and 95th Street on Friday and Saturday at 8 PM