Meet the Female Trailblazers Who Shaped Boston Ballet

Boston Ballet Staff

Helen Pickett and ChoreograpHERs

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

At Boston Ballet, we are proud to amplify female voices, both on stage and off. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we are highlighting female trailblazers of the past and present who have made an impact on Boston Ballet.

Everybody Water

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Helen Pickett and Seo Hye Han

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Everybody Water

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Helen Pickett and Seo Hye Han

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Founding Boston Ballet

E. Virginia Williams founded Boston Ballet in 1963, making it the first professional ballet company in New England. From the Company’s creation, Williams was involved in almost every task, no matter how mundane. She would teach classes for Company members and school students and then clean the studios. She chose the repertoire and choreographers for the Company, as well as choreographed, cast the performances, and sewed the costumes. She would even take tickets at the theater.

In the early 1950s, Sydney Leonard worked with E. Virginia Williams as the devoted co-founder of Boston Ballet School. She played an integral part in shaping Boston Ballet. Miss Leonard was a revered teacher who trained thousands of students in the course of more than four decades in the studio. After retiring in 2006, she received the Boston Ballet School Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. The Boston Globe wrote of Leonard, “The ballet mistress who guided generations of Greater Boston dancers through their first steps on stage, she taught well into her 80s, never losing the poise and posture of the teacher students knew as Miss Leonard.”

As a charter member of Boston Ballet and its predecessor New England Civic Ballet, Laura Young was one of the longest-serving female principal dancers at Boston Ballet. She started dancing with the Company in 1960 and retired from the stage in 1989. She toured throughout Europe and Asia with Boston Ballet, and partnered with ballet luminaries like Rudolf Nureyev and Fernando Bujones. While still dancing, and for the next 30 years, she served in many capacities for both the Company and the School, in her favorite role as a teacher. Young retired after nearly six decades with Boston Ballet in 2019.

Behind the Scenes

Co-founded by Megan Hayes and Kimberly Reilly, Everybody Water is a women-owned small business that is partnering with Boston Ballet to keep our dancers hydrated this season.  Everybody Water donates a portion of revenue to support clean water infrastructure projects so women around the world no longer have to carry water and instead can attend school, earn incomes, and thrive.

Executive Director Max Hodges joined Boston Ballet in 2014. Her leadership has been recognized by the Boston Business Journal, naming Hodges a 40 Under 40 Honoree in 2019, and by the Commonwealth Institute and The Boston Globe, naming Boston Ballet one of the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts four years in a row.

Anna-Marie Holmes was Boston Ballet’s Artistic Director from 1997–2000 and acted as Dean of Faculty of the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education. During her time with Boston Ballet, Holmes created new stagings of many ballets including Giselle, Don Quixote, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. She has appeared as a ballerina and has taught in more than 30 countries on five continents.

Theresa Ruth Howard began her professional dance career with the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company at the age of 12. She later joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem where she had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa.  In 2015, she founded Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet) which preserves, presents, and promotes the contributions and stories of Black artists in the field of Ballet, illustrating that they are an integral part of dance history at large. She has served as a diversity strategist and consultant to Boston Ballet in the Equity Project and subsequent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.

Deborah Moe helped transform Boston Ballet's digital strategy from 2012–2015 and rejoined the organization in 2020 as head of Marketing and Brand. Her career spans 20 years of developing omnichannel experiences in the technology and luxury retail industries. In 2015 she helped found a digital startup focused on engineering high performing organizational cultures and is a committed leader of Boston Ballet's diversity, equity, and inclusivity culture work.

One of the leading ballerinas of the 20th century Violette Verdy was Boston Ballet’s Artistic Director from 1980–1984. Before leading Boston Ballet, Verdy was the first female director of the Paris Opera Ballet. She danced with New York City Ballet for nearly 20 years, where George Balanchine created roles for her in a dozen ballets, including Emeralds in his Jewels, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Boston Ballet Rehearsal Director Shannon Parsley joined the Artistic staff in 2006 in her third role with Boston Ballet. She previously performed as a dancer in the Company and then went on to teach as a full-time faculty member and Children’s Ballet Mistress in Boston Ballet School. She began her dancing career with the Fort Worth Ballet, followed by Miami City Ballet where she was promoted to soloist in 2001. Parsley joined Boston Ballet in 2002 while continuing to dance as a soloist with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet.

Teaching Future Generations

An accomplished educator, performing artist, and museum professional, Alicia Greene is the Assistant Principal for Community Education with Boston Ballet School. She is a noted speaker and facilitator on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, as well as a committed advocate for social justice. Greene was a teaching artist for 10 years for BBS’s Education and Community Initiative program, which works with more than 3,000 individuals in Boston and surrounding communities to cultivate a love of dance and arts through education programs, community events, workshops, and performances.

Andrea Long-Naidu joined Boston Ballet School as a full-time faculty member in 2020. She began her training at age seven at the Pennsylvania Ballet School. Long-Naidu also attended the Dance Theatre of Harlem School and American Ballet Theatre School. At 14, she became an apprentice with the Pennsylvania Ballet company. She later joined the School of American Ballet (SAB) and after two years there, she joined the New York City Ballet. Long-Naidu began teaching in 2008 and has served on the faculty of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Sandonato School of Ballet, Collage Dance Collective, CityDance, and Dance Institute of Washington. She served as the first Ford Foundation Guest Faculty Chair at SAB, and most recently was part of the permanent faculty at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Kathleen Mitchell joined Boston Ballet School in 2003. Prior to Boston Ballet, her career spanned 20 years at San Francisco Ballet as a dancer, faculty member, and Children’s Ballet Mistress. At Boston Ballet, she choreographs original pieces every year and stages repertoire for BBS’s Next Generation performances. Mitchell has taught for Harvard University's Dance Department and is a guest teacher for Cecchetti Council of America. In addition to her position as Post Graduate Rehearsal Director, she serves as Boston Ballet’s Shoe Manager.

Tamara King became Principal of Boston Ballet School in 2020 after serving as Principal of the Newton Studio and Summer Dance Program Newton since 2004. During her tenue, Newton has become the hub of the Classical Ballet Program, which offers a carefully constructed ten-level curriculum. Her association with Boston Ballet School bean in 1981 when she studied with Violette Verdy, Helgi Tomasson, and Ivan Nagy as a Summer Dance Program Scholarship recipient. 

Margaret Tracey joined the faculty of Boston Ballet School in 2005 and was appointed Director in 2007. Tracey had a 16-year career with New York City Ballet and was a principal dancer from 1991–2002. Since retiring from NYCB in 2002, Tracey has become one of the country’s most admired and dedicated teachers and arts education advocates. Profiled in a 2009 issue of Dance Teacher Magazine and recognized by the Jerome Robbins Foundation in 2011, she has been instrumental in designing a curriculum that emphasizes comprehensive ballet training and overall excellence along with a well-rounded approach to dance study.

Alla Nikitina joined Boston Ballet School as a full-time faculty member in 2008. She began her dance training at the Donetsk School of Ballet and was later invited to attend St. Petersburg State Academy of the Arts in Russia where she studied the Vaganova method of classical ballet. She graduated from the Academy in 1979 and then embarked on a successful career with a number of Russian dance companies.

Boston Ballet in Karole Armitage's Bitches' Brew

Photo by Gene Schiavone

On Stage

Known as the “punk ballerina,” Karole Armitage created the world premiere Bitches' Brew for Boston Ballet in 2016. She was rigorously trained in classical ballet and began her professional career as a member of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Switzerland (1973–1975), a company devoted exclusively to the repertory of George Balanchine, the Artistic Director of the company at that time. In 1976, she was invited to join Merce Cunningham's company, where she remained for five years, performing leading roles in Cunningham's landmark works. Through her unique and acute knowledge of the aesthetic values of Balanchine and Cunningham, Armitage has created her own "voice" in the dichotomy of classical and modern dance and is seen by some critics as the true choreographic heir to the two masters of 20th century American dance.

During her illustrious career with the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB), Sorella Englund was known as both an extraordinary dramatic ballerina and an exceptional interpreter of the works of August Bournonville. As an expert on Bournonville ballets, Englund acted as the stager for La Sylphide when Boston Ballet last performed the work in 2018. Boston Ballet Principal Dancer John Lam told Dance Magazine “without her, I would not have had a career.”

Tai Jimenez joined Boston Ballet in 2006 and was the Company’s first Black female principal dancer. Before joining Boston Ballet, she spent 12 years as a principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The versatile Jimenez is also a teacher and choreographer. She has taught dance at the DTH School, Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, Harvard, and other institutions. She is currently on faculty at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Her choreography has been performed at the International Blacks in Dance Conference, New York City Center, and Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Open House series, among other venues.

Award-winning Dutch artist Nanine Linning launched her choreographic career in 2001 as the world's youngest resident choreographer, working for the renowned Scapino Ballet in Rotterdam. The celebrated artist will create a world premiere on Boston Ballet, showcasing her signature use of vivid imagery and strong physical movement for Boston Ballet’s first-ever virtual season BB@yourhome: Process & Progress.

Freda Locker has been the Principal/Solo Pianist at Boston Ballet since 1998 and rehearsal pianist since 1991. Born in Pittsburgh, she studied at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music and received degrees from Temple University and the Manhattan School of Music.

Helen Pickett got her choreographic start at Boston Ballet in 2005 when Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen offered her a choreographic commission titled Etesian. Since then, Pickett has created over 40 ballets in the U.S. and Europe. Dance Magazine named Pickett one of 25 to Watch for choreography and called her “one of the few prominent women choreographers in ballet today.”

Former Boston Ballet Principal Dancer and Rehearsal Director Larissa Ponomarenko danced with the Company for 18 years before joining the Artistic staff in 2011. She has a diverse repertoire and worked closely with Boston Ballet Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo, serving as a muse for many of his ballets. A fan favorite in the title role, Ponomarenko staged a new production of Giselle on the Company in 2019.

Twyla Tharp has created more than 160 works since graduating from Barnard College in 1963. Her works include 129 dances, 12 television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows, and two figure skating routines. Tharp has received many awards, including a Tony Award and two Emmy Awards. In 1994, she created Waterbaby Bagatelles for Boston Ballet.

Christine Vitale is concertmaster and a violinist with the Boston Ballet Orchestra and she regularly performs with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A native of Germany, she studied at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, with Vesselin Parashkevov, before she came to the United States in 1995.

ChoreograpHERS

Boston Ballet is proud to showcase an all-female choreographer program in an upcoming season featuring many female choreographers. Principal Dancer Lia Cirio has choreographed for both BB@home: ChoreograpHER programs. In 2018, Boston Ballet established the ChoreograpHER Initiative. This initiative establishes a model for female students and professional dancers to develop choreographic skills and invests in new, innovative works by female artists. Since being established, 12 female dancers have choreographed works for BB@home: ChoreograpHER in 2018 and 2019 and BB@yourhome: The Gift virtual programming in 2020.

Known for her signature black and white line drawings, visual artist Shantell Martin brings a playful approach to her art and inspires audiences to tap into their own creativity. Her live drawing performances and art installations have garnered international acclaim, and her appearances on the TEDx stage, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Gossip Girl have solidified her position as a cultural icon. The cross-disciplinary artist has collaborated with shoe designers, fashion brands, and even Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar. Now Martin is adding “choreographer” to her long list of accomplishments. After emcee-ing BB@home: ChoreograpHER in 2018, she will return to Boston to create her first-ever choreographic work in the main stage ChoreograpHER program.

Another ChoreograpHER, New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Tiler Peck is turning heads with her award-winning choreographic ventures. The ballet phenom has created new work for Vail International Dance Festival, choreographed scenes for the hit blockbuster John Wick 3: Parabellum, and starred in the Hulu documentary Ballet Now, a film produced by Mad Men actress Elizabeth Moss.

Praised for her distinctive choreographic voice, which fuses neoclassical technique with a contemporary vocabulary, Claudia Schreier has choreographed over 30 ballets and has been commissioned by companies and organizations including Dance Theatre of Harlem, Vail Dance Festival, American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, Juilliard Opera, New York Choreographic Institute, and Joffrey Winning Works. She will also create a new work for the ChoreograpHER program.

Award-winning dancer and choreographer Melissa Toogood will create a world premiere for Boston Ballet as part of the ChoreograpHER program. She is both dancer and rehearsal director for Pam Tanowitz Dance and has assisted Tanowitz on numerous creations, including works for New York City Ballet, Ballet Austin, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, The Martha Graham Dance Company, the Juilliard School, Rutgers University, the Fall for Dance Festival, Vail Dance Festival and others. Melissa was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and has taught Cunningham Technique internationally since 2007.

Stay tuned for the announcement of when this ground-breaking program featuring these incredible choreographic voices will be on stage.

There are many women who have impacted Boston Ballet, and this article is in no way representative of the breadth of contributions made by women to this organization.
 

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Learn more about Boston Ballet’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Boston Ballet’s ChoreograpHER Initiative establishes a model for female students and professional dancers to develop choreographic skills and invests in new, innovative works by female artists.

Dance Data Project® is committed to promoting equity in all aspects of classical ballet by providing a metrics-based analysis through their database while showcasing women led companies, festivals, competitions, venues, special programs and initiatives.

Get to know all of our amazing female dancers in the CompanyBoston Ballet II, and Boston Ballet School faculty.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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