Les Grands Ballets Canadiens changes name of Femmes ballet after criticism

The artistic director of Les Grands Ballets, Ivan Cavallari, said his intention was not to objectify women in a new ballet, choreographed by three men, set for May 2019. The ballet's name has been changed to Parlami d'Amore, Italian for "talk to me about love."

May 2019 production now to be called Parlami d'Amore, 'talk to me about love'

This is the promotional photo for the ballet Femmes, featuring dancers James Lyttle, Matthew Duff and Ruben Julliard. The new ballet, now to be called Parlami d'Amore, has been criticized over its marketing language and because its three choreographers are all men. (Sasha Onyshchenko)

The Montreal-based Grands Ballets Canadiens has changed the name and theme of its show Femmes, after women criticized the company for commissioning a ballet touted as a tribute to women but choreographed by three men.

The Grands Ballets was also criticized for the way it promoted Femmes, which included online ads with a picture of three male dancers trapped in ice, as well as language that promised the performance was a way for three "distinguished" European choreographers to "explore one of our culture's most generous symbols: woman." 

The ballet's name has been changed to Parlami d'Amore, Italian for "talk to me about love," and will feature explorations of "this universal theme" of love, according to a release from the company. 

It will be performed in May 2019.

Kathleen Rea, a former dancer with the National Ballet Company and now a Toronto-based choreographer, launched a petition Sunday to get the Grands Ballets to add a female choreographer to the mix and to change the marketing language. The petition garnered over 2,600 signatures in two days.

"Many women are standing up and saying, 'Hey, I'm not a symbol. I'm an actual person with stories to tell, and I have my own voice,'" Rea told CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Tuesday.

This is the original language used to promote the Femmes ballet on the Grands Ballets Canadiens website, grandsballets.com. (Submitted by Kathleen Rae )

The artistic director of Les Grands Ballets, Ivan Cavallari — who left the Ballet de l'Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg, France, to join the company last April — said his intention was not to objectify women.

"Exactly the contrary, that is where I wanted to lead," he told CBC News in an interview. He said he wants to portray "woman as a model of the world and not woman as an object."

"In that sense, I've been completely misunderstood, because my intention has been honest," said Cavallari. 

Of the criticism, he said, "It's legitimate: it's possible that I've done a mistake, but it was not my intention."

Instead, Cavallari said, his goal was to open a dialogue and explore how art can portray women. 

Seeking more women choreographers

Rea said that in the 50 or so ballets she danced, only a single one was choreographed by a woman.

A lifelong fan of the art form, she said she thought the industry was changing and was dismayed when she saw the marketing campaign for Femmes.

Rea said Natalie Dion, the head of public relations for Les Grands Ballets, reached out to her and arranged her to meet Cavallari on Monday. It's a gesture she called a "positive sign," one that indicates he is willing to listen to critics' concerns.
Toronto-based choreographer Kathleen Rea started a petition asking Les Grands Ballets Canadiens to rethink Femmes. She will sit down with artistic director Ivan Cavallari next week. (Submitted by Kathleen Rea)

She said she will ask for a female choreographer to work on the show formerly called Femmes and discuss "appropriate marketing language."

Rea said lasting changes have to begin at the level of ballet companies' boards of directors, because that is where the homogeneity begins — white men on the board hire white male artistic directors, who then hire while male choreographers, she said.

Women at Les Grands Ballets

Cavallari said he has been working to bring more women into powerful roles at Les Grands Ballets, including choreographers.

He said the company brought in three women choreographers, including Bridget Breiner and  Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, for the 2017-2018 season, and Cathy Marston, who is opening the 2018-2019 season with an adaption of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Cavallari also noted he pushed for a female conductor — a woman conducted the Nutcracker, and will return to do the same this year, he said - and a ballet mistress, instead of a ballet master.

Cavallari said that when he originally conceived of the program, he envisioned a piece with three men choreographers, and then the following season, 2019-2020, a piece with three female choreographers.

It echoed language in what seems to be a form letter sent to friends of Rea, who complained directly to the Grands Ballets. Rae shared the letter with CBC.  

It says that in the "near future," it's possible the company will create a new production, enlisting three female choreographers to be inspired by man.

Cavallari said plans are going ahead to include a show with three women for that season, but that the show won't necessarily focus on the theme of men.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak