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Representing Gender for Ballet’s Next Generation

Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet in Orpheus Becomes Eurydice. Photo by Don Lee. Courtesy of The Banff Centre.

Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet in Orpheus Becomes Eurydice. Photo by Don Lee. Courtesy of The Banff Centre.

Ballet is perhaps the most gendered of all art forms. Male and female dancers are trained differently from an early age and are expected to emerge in the profession with very different abilities. This divide between the genders, both in training and in how we see them represented on stage, is what delivers so many of the sublime moments in ballet, but it also brings the art form’s relevance into question.

Ballet today is an art form full of timeless vitality and vigorous invention. What frequently prevents a new generation of potential ballet-lovers from becoming totally engrossed in a live performance is the way men and women relate to one another. Women are trained to be supple and light, so that they may be supported, maneuvered, and lifted by men. Men are trained to move with great strength and force. In the stories of traditional ballets, the female characters are almost always rescued or destroyed by authoritative male characters, or controlled by supernatural beings (as in Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty). The art form gravitates toward stories from times when men had unquestioned power over women because these stories naturally lend themselves to the classical ballet technique. This has led the partnering technique – even in modern, abstract ballets – to develop in a way that so often involves the man controlling the women’s movements. This approach does not always lend itself to accurately describing a healthy relationship between men and women.

The author in rehearsal with Rebecca Krohn and Preston Chamblee,
New York City Ballet. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Not all men subscribe to the narrow view of a brave and powerful masculinity that traditional ballets offers. Male dancers could portray broken or fragile men with very moving results. Female characters in ballet could be far more complex and relatable if they were given the autonomy to make choices or even mistakes.

There are a handful of examples of empowered female characters in the ballet repertoire. I think the most brilliant one is Tatiana in the choreographer John Cranko’s 1965 adaption of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Tatiana and her sister make daring choices as they grow up, and in the final scene, we see Tatiana as a mature woman painfully choosing what she believes to be the future that will bring her the greatest happiness. It is no surprise that this is one of the most sought after roles by ballerinas all over the world.

Emma Hawes and Félix Paquet in Orpheus Becomes Eurydice. Photo by Don Lee. Courtesy of The Banff Centre.

Stepping beyond this, where the art form must progress or risk irrelevance is in the depiction of homosexual relationships. In much of the work being created today, homosexual relationships are explored using the same partnering vocabulary, with the simple shift of one man performing the woman’s typical role, or vice versa. This creates awkward tension as a dancer attempts to take on a role for which their body is not suited or trained. We must work to find new ways for men to physically interact with men, and for women to physically interact with women, that embody balletic ideals but aren’t mere translations of heterosexual ballet-partnering techniques. Men need not lose the physical bravura that comes naturally to their physique in order to react sensitively to other men, and women need not lose their suppleness and dexterity in order to support other women. The world has changed, and ballet cannot continue to only depict cisgender and heterosexual relationships.

Emma Hawes and Félix Paquet in Orpheus Becomes Eurydice. Photo by Don Lee. Courtesy of The Banff Centre.

Reaching the point at which a homosexual duet provides the same heart-stopping dramatic climax that traditional duets in ballet are famous for will take a great deal of exploration and effort. However, ballet was born of formal court rituals and evolved to effectively tell stories of extreme passion and pain, so it is clearly very capable of adapting to new ideas. Choreographers and dancers must push the capabilities of the art form and not allow the technique to dictate the types of stories we tell. Instead, our experiences in contemporary life and art must dictate the types of stories we tell, and the technique must adapt.

For more on the subject, watch the TEDx Talk that inspired this article:

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