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Stoner Winslett: A Truly Rare Specimen

Women in the Arts


It's less than two weeks until the premiere of Stoner Winslett's ballet "Windows," her most ambitious work in 20 years as artistic director of Richmond Ballet, and she still has two sections left to choreograph. There's a board meeting going on downstairs, former New York City ballerina Suzanne Farrell is in town for a performance at the Modlin Center and Winslett is on the phone with Malcolm Burns, her assistant, asking him to start the rehearsal she's supposed to be leading right at this very minute. Needless to say, she wasn't able to make it to Style's round-table discussion.

Still, as she sits in her office with her long legs crossed and slippers on her dancer's feet, Winslett is as cool as a cucumber. After 20 years in this position she's gotten used to the juggling act that is her life.

When Winslett came to Richmond in 1980 to assist with the artistic direction of the then-student company she had no idea what she was getting into. When artistic director Barbara Rassel left the ballet after having a disagreement with the board of directors shortly after Winslett arrived, Winslett took over the reins at the tender age of 21. "I put on 'The Nutcracker,' and the rest is history," she says.

Not only was Winslett, at 21, one of the youngest artistic directors of a ballet in the country, she was also one of very few women. Although she finally has caught up to the others in terms of age, she is still one of the few female artistic directors of major ballet companies in the United States. As the vice-chairwoman of the board of Dance USA, a national service organization, she is obviously well-respected. She is the only female artistic director who also produces her own choreography — a surprising fact when you consider that ballet is often thought of as a feminine art form.

Winslett, who has had 20 years to think about this, has a few theories on the subject: "I think it's due to a combination of a lot of things," she says. "It is a very hard job to do with a family because of the schedule." As the mother of a 10-year-old son and 17- and 21-year-old stepchildren, she knows this all too well.

"How many men are really sitting in their meeting at 3:30 and wondering if their car pool worked OK and if their kid got home?" she asks. "Even the most devoted fathers are not worrying about that. I think women are different."

In addition, she says, "I think that maybe the ballet world is also somewhat to blame [for the lack of female artistic directors]. Girls [in ballet] are treated like they're a dime a dozen. Men are treated more specially ... they are made to feel important because there are fewer male dancers." This, she believes, leads to more men going further in dance. In modern dance, however, she points out, it is not at all unusual to have a female artistic director of a company.

Even though she belongs to a minority in the dance world, Winslett says she has never felt any discrimination because of her gender. "I think for some — not all — men in Richmond, it's easier to accept a woman in the arts than a man in the arts," she says. "I think some men ... were raised to believe that the career opportunities for men were doctor, lawyer, stockbroker and maybe policeman."

That relates back to fewer men taking up dance, something that is still a problem in 1999. In fact, says Winslett, "If I had to guess, [fewer] boys and girls are studying dance now. Everybody [is] so interested in their child being computer literate — which they're going to be anyway — that they are cutting back on things like dance. It's worrisome to me."

Winslett, who began dancing at 4, may have been a professional dancer herself had a knee injury not curtailed her career at 21. "If I didn't dance I knew I wanted to choreograph and direct, but I didn't think I would go into the world of professional ballet," she admits. And when she came to Richmond the ballet was not a professional company — it is through Winslett's efforts that today Richmond Ballet is one of the top regional professional companies in the country.

Winslett says she never expected to spend 20 years — half her life — at the helm of Richmond Ballet — but she plans to stay as long as she is an effective leader. She is already looking forward to the future — not just to the upcoming premiere of her "Windows" — but to the a new chapter in the ballet's history: the move into a new headquarters downtown. The new facility will allow the ballet to expand its reach and invite more people in by greatly expanding its studio and rehearsal spaces. Winslett is greatly looking forward to the opportunity of sharing the joys of dance with even more Richmonders. "My life is my family and the ballet, there's not a lot of time for me," she confesses. "This is

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