BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Editor’s Note: Big, bold plans have never scared off Chicagoans with a vision. This New Year series profiles people we should listen to—and celebrate—in 2019 and beyond
At January’s end, vibrant Liza Yntema will roll out the Dance Data Project™ (DDP), which could not only transform the ballet community and impact the national and international arts environment but also change philanthropy for women.
Using over 2,000 records of choreographic works in DDP’s database on this online platform, Liza will promote dance equity by providing data analysis, advocacy, and programming. In addition, she will showcase women-led companies, festivals, venues, and special programs. Her work will undoubtedly have bottom line results with the development of grants to female choreographers and women in leadership positions as well as to women composers; costume, set and light designers; and photographers.
Soon to set out soon on a listening tour of the top 50 dance companies in the country from Sacramento to Philadelphia, whose stories will be featured on DDP’s website, Liza paused to tell us:
“Gender equality in relationship to major companies is a topic that is barely breached in the dance world. I feel a moral obligation to lead the charge. What we see on the ballet stage is, for the most part, a male’s vision, even if the story is supposed to be from a woman’s point of view.
“I have commissioned ballet works that come from a woman’s perspective, but I have also wanted to do much more. On my fact-finding tour I will be looking at the number of male versus female artistic and executive directors at the top U.S. dance companies and which companies pay the most versus the least—and where women fall on that spectrum.”
A former dancer who serves on the board of the Joffrey Ballet and works closely with the Hubbard Street and its Artistic Director, Glenn Edgerton, Liza applauds the inclusive nature of both Chicago companies and nods to the Harris Theater and their current production of Written in Water, which she has underwritten.
She looked back to the leadership training in the Junior League of Chicago while working off the principle that a handful of women can make a life-changing difference, asking herself What do I need to do this and where do I look for answers?
“The Dance Data Project™ is a small example of the power of women in philanthropy. We saw the #MeToo impact at a global level. Women everywhere became resolute and energized, acting as a collective and transformative force and speaking out for justice, equality, and change in our country and the world.
“Influence and power come at the time women pull out their checkbooks and pens. Right now, 43 percent of the top wealth in the country belongs to women. A recent statistic said that of the 41 trillion dollars of intergenerational wealth to be passed along, 70 percent will go to women. Women, who make up the majority of the audiences at most ballets, don’t know their potential impact.
“With the changing nature of journalism, fewer dance critics like Alistair Maccaulay are full time employees with travel budgets. For that reason, unless a ballet is presented at a festival, or comes to a venue such as the Joyce Theater in New York, much of the great work being produced is a ‘one and done,’ danced once and never seen again. Meanwhile, women in dance are working 16 hours a day and are fighting for resources. Most aren’t making a sustainable wage.
“DDP will link new talent, whether in the US or abroad, not only with journalists but also with potential and individual donors. We will serve as a resource to smaller company leaders who are so busy running their companies that they are unable, whether with time or financial restraints, to travel to see new works and talent. One of my dreams is to offer a ballet boot camp where we train smaller company leaders in grantsmanship, budgeting, and other business skills. The new website will also have a catalogue of interviews from my listening tour, postings of notable articles on dance and a video library of new works.”
Isabelle Vail, who serves as director of research on the small DDP team, came to Chicago, the home of several of her family members, to take on a part time Joffrey internship in 2017. She met Liza and DDP sounded like the perfect opportunity.
“As a former ballet dancer, who had planned to dance professionally until I fell out of love with ballet around the age of 17 and decided to minor in dance instead while getting a liberal arts education at Wake Forest University, I thought I knew everything about the ballet world until I met Liza. What I have learned from her about the development world and how it fuels American dance and so much more gives me such great satisfaction. It is really cool that I am learning the profound intellectual side of ballet.
“Even as a young dancer, I noticed the lack of equity. The dance directors were all male as I was growing up, but my teachers were female because when women dancers retire, teaching is their option. A man might become a choreographer and then have instant commissions or be funneled into a school directorship.
It is troubling. Girls should know they have options to lead and DDP will make this apparent. And, of course, this applies to the world beyond dance.”
Isabelle’s work began with studying the websites of many companies and making cold calls for further information including fiscal and personnel statistics:
“We now have a list of 80 questions on our survey, including What is the percentage of female dancers? To whom are the company’s scholarships given (if they offer them)? And what are the company’s initiatives? As Liza travels on her listening tour, we will gain much more information. By the end of 2019, we hope to have responses from all the top 50 companies. When people ask us how do we know that something is true, we can share the statistics.”
In our conversation Liza cited New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay’s recent piece written upon his retirement after 40 years as a dance critic. In it he laments that equity has long been overlooked, noting that dance is all about change and too many companies adhere to bygone practices in gender presentations. He commends Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theater, whom he describes as “the greatest dance magnet,” and her work in promoting women.
Liza says, “I am delighted, as we move into 2019, that my small organization is joining the bandwagon,” adding, “I feel that our template could be used in other artistic areas such as theater, music, and film.”
DDP will be updating their website at the end of this month. In the meantime, visit them at dancedataproject.com to learn more.