Austin's premiere ballet company, Ballet Austin, is honoring the women of strength and the importance and talent of female artists through a season of “Femmes de Force.”
Story by Alyssa Hiarker
In preparation of the 2018-2019 season, Austin Ballet chose a myriad of shows for the season, each with a strikingly common theme of strong women. Stephen Mills, the company's artistic director, landed on the idea of Femmes de Force while compiling the shows for the season. "While building our 2018-2019 lineup, I realized my selections had a common thread: women of strength," Mills says. "I’m surrounded by strong women. The arts world is filled with exceptional women, participating in every capacity you can imagine."
The second show of the season, “The Ugly Duckling,” premiered on Oct. 20. Jimmy Orrante, the show's choreographer, wanted to make sure the show was entertaining for younger children and that the message of acceptance was continuously present. "I wanted parts of it to be comedic and, being a father of three, I know how impactful this story can be,” Orrante says. “It has to do with being accepted in any situation that you’re in and one comes into their own at different times and different speed.”
As an art form, ballet dancers devote their lives to the pursuit of perfection in the art they are most passionate about. "The discipline you have to have, the dedication, the determination,” Orrante says. “You never have a perfect day when you’re training to dance.”
To make it to Ballet Austin, each of the dancers in the company, including Leilani Tan, have cultivated a discipline within themselves that allows them to have the ability to produce their art. Before rehearsal each day, the dancers spend an hour warming up in class, practicing movements and sequences to prepare them for their day. "When you have to give your all to it and trust in your body, that’s where all the discipline comes in,” Tan says. “All the stuff that you do every single day comes in and that’s what saves you when your body is tired and the lights are shining on your face and you can’t hear the music. Discipline creates freedom. I think it’s so beautiful and so contradictory that this freedom of movement comes from discipline."
For Leilani Tan, women artists, such as Svetlana Zakharova and Marianela Núñez, have continuously served as the source of her inspiration in dance and have pushed her to strive to do better. "I grew up watching all the famous ballerinas, like Svetlana and Marianela. I think it’s so important for artists or for anyone to stand on the shoulders of giants. And these female ballerinas are the giants. You look at them and say, ‘This is what an artist can be, this is what a dancer can be. This is what I should work to achieve.’”
Dancing alongside the rest of the Austin Ballet company, Sam Howe continues to draw inspiration from the women who share the stage with her. "As a woman in the ballet world, dancing in the corps de ballet with all the other women in the company is really empowering and inspiring," Howe says.
Over the course of his tenure in ballet, Mills has seen the lack of females in roles of power in the industry and has seen barriers begin to break down. "There have always been strong, influential women working in the field of ballet. Ten years ago there were very few women who were in leadership positions within companies and fewer female choreographers in the classical field. While the situation is still not completely equitable, there are more and more women filling those roles. I just wanted to make a more clear statement about this.”
This statement is translated through many of the works that Mills chose for this season, with prominent female artists taking on crucial roles in the creation of these shows. “Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (Pieces of Pasion) is a choreographer I admire. She’s becoming a dance maker very much in demand, and I think she has a very singular voice worth promoting. Natalie Frank is a visual artist who celebrates women and feminism in her work.”
The message of the season has given Tan the strength to trust herself in a new way. "I think the message is that little girls become women with vision,” Tan says. “And the personal message of making sure I don’t second-guess myself in anything I do. And no matter how society views women, that I’m sure that I view myself in the way I want to, in a way that is strong and meaningful."