Although modern dance was invented by a series of extraordinarily creative women, women have had a tough time making it as choreographers, especially lately. Martha Graham, who died in 1991 at age 96, was the last female choreographer to achieve the iconic status granted to such men as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham.
To help women break through what she sees as a "glass ceiling," Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since Ailey's death in 1989, launched the Women's Choreographic Initiative in 1994.
"I thought it was very important that women have a voice in our repertory," Jamison said recently from company studios in New York. "We needed a distinct program so that women could be seen and heard in a more intensive way and to bring public attention to emerging female choreographers as well as those more established choreographers."
The initiative is Jamison's baby; she chooses the choreographers and extends commissions when she finds dance creators she wants to work with. There is no set budget or timetable for the program. In all, Jamison and the Ailey company have sponsored six works through the initiative.
The two latest creations -- Lynne Taylor-Corbett's "Prayers From the Edge" and Francesca Harper's "Apex," which premiered in New York last year -- will be unveiled for West Coast audiences this week as part of the six-day Ailey engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Both Taylor-Corbett and Harper were associated with the company.
Taylor-Corbett danced in it for a year in the late 1960s, before hitting a choreographic homerun with her "Great Galloping Gottschalk" for American Ballet Theatre in 1982. Harper studied at the Ailey School -- her mother, Denise Robinson, directs it -- before joining Dance Theatre of Harlem for three years, then moving on to be a principal in William Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet from 1994 to 1999.
Both choreographers have created works that have political themes, although their approaches are quite different.
"I discussed choreographing something when Alvin was alive," Taylor-Corbett said in a phone interview from Long Island, N.Y. "I was disappointed that the timing didn't work out. It always felt like an incomplete in my life. It was really meaningful when Judi asked me to do this. Judi and I were dancers together. So it's really special."
Her work, a modern retelling of "Romeo and Juliet," grew out of her memories of a 1967 tour to Israel shortly after the Six Days War and a trip into war-torn Africa as well.
"It was a very exciting time," she said. "I was 19 and just thought it was remarkable. In retrospect, it was a very dangerous time.
"When Judi asked me to do something, that immediately came to mind. In ballet, people do literal stories. I thought, 'Why can't we have one of those?' It would be interesting to try. That was how this work evolved."
Her young lovers come from unspecified opposing communities. "Usually it is the young who are able to reach out because they're the least frightened," Taylor-Corbett said. "That's how the story began to evolve. It has a very spiritual ending. I hope that's not a cop-out."
The music for the half-hour work for 14 dancers is Peter Gabriel's "Passion."
"The search for music is the most traumatic thing," she said. "It took a very long time, many trips to Tower Records, begging friends for ideas. I was lucky enough to get Peter's 'Passion,' which is extraordinary music. He was generous. He didn't ask for anything for it. He loves the company and was very, very happy somebody was going to tackle it."
Although she has been successful, with works for New York City Ballet and other dance companies as well as shows on Broadway, Taylor-Corbett values the Women's Choreographic Initiative because "there are still way more men than women doing this," she said.
"I had to struggle, but I began when there were fewer people competing to do it, and I just had a lucky path in terms of my relationship to particular directors who believed in my work. I never felt 'this guy got [the work] because I was a woman.'
"Where I have felt that was in the Broadway community, until fairly recently. So you can never bring enough attention to these issues. They have to be revisited. Women go forward, then slip back. Someday it won't be an issue. But in the theater, it still is."
For Harper, whose choreographic career is in its early stages -- she has created works for the Ailey junior company, Oakland Ballet and the 2002 Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival -- the project is also a homecoming.
"I grew up around Alvin Ailey and the school," Harper said. "This is also an opportunity to apply what I learned in Europe, dancing with William Forsythe. It was just an honor to be given the commission. I do feel [making a career] is more difficult for women choreographers. The Choreographic Initiative is a wonderful opportunity."