Exclusive: Jodie Gates on Defying Gravity — and Gender Roles


Back in November, we were jeté-ing for joy overAmerican Ballet Theatre’s Voices and Visions: The ABT/Altria Women’s Choreography Project. The launch of the program amounted to one big leap for womankind in classical ballet, a discipline in which those who wear tutus rarely make it to the top. Through the initiative, ABT annually commissions an emerging female choreographer to create a new work for its training company, ABT II, in addition to offering a series of choreographic workshops to female members of both companies.

This week, we caught up with 2009 ABT/Altria Choreography Fellow Jodie Gates, whose A Taste of Sweet Velvet premieres this weekend when ABT II performs in New York. Jaw-droppingly talented (not to mention gorgeous) Gates was a principal dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt before retiring from the stage in 2005. The second phase of her career has so far included teaching dance at UC Irvine, choreographing, and building a vibrant dance community in — gasp! — the O.C.

Below Gates talks about working as a choreographer and her obligation to help other women move beyond traditional roles.

Flavorwire: What has it been like transitioning from performing to choreographing and teaching?

Jodie Gates: It’s never easy leaving the stage. I was getting paid to do what I loved to do my entire life, since I was 16. I’m just now starting to settle in to redefining what I am doing for dance and with dance. I love teaching, but I really feel that the closest I can get to my performing career is through my choreography. It’s an artistic voice that I feel more and more comfortable with. And also, through the experience of choreographing I feel as though I’m teaching the artists and they’re teaching me. It’s a collaborative experience.

FW: Tell us about your experience working with ABT II.

JG: It happened very fast. They contacted me about rehearsing at White Oak in February, and I worked with them for about two and a half weeks for a total of maybe twelve days. Today was my first rehearsal with them since I last saw them about a month ago. The whole experience has been just delightful. They are top athletes; they’re able to do anything I ask of them. It’s like they’re all racehorses at the gate, waiting to race. The piece is exciting and they’re doing a beautiful job with it. As they perform it more and more, they’ll be wearing it like a piece of clothing.

FW: When you were performing, did you know that you would one day like to choreograph?

JG: I think it evolved more slowly — although when I was 18 and in Joffrey, on our lunch breaks and after rehearsal very often I would stay in the studio and listen to music and create pieces for myself. So I guess there was a part of me, whether I knew it or not, that had a desire to create.

FW: Did anyone encourage you to develop that?

JG: When I was growing up as a student… I wasn’t necessarily mentored to be a choreographer. I was more the muse. Back in the day we were thought of as this ethereal creature, the unattainable, the ballerina. Choreographing and being a director aren’t necessarily the number-one roles that women take on; I think you have to mentor that. And I think times are changing, that we’ll see more and more female directors and choreographers. Being a woman, it’s really important that I am out there making contemporary neoclassical ballet right now. I need to represent us women out there in the dance world. It’s not just a desire, but my obligation.

FW: Do you encourage the women you work with to pursue choreography?

JG: I encourage them to have an opinion on art, to not be afraid to be wrong. I tell them it’s OK to make mistakes, and I tell them that they don’t need to wait for my lead, that they’re all leaders. And I encourage them to take on that responsibility.