“There is no such thing as equality in ballet” (as regards gender roles) — Alexei Ratmansky
“The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.” — George Balanchine
(Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/g/georgebala146229.html)
“Ballet celebrates masculine strength and feminine flexibility” — some kids’ encyclopedia, early 1960’s.
“Everyone’s looking at her anyway…” — Anthony Dowell
Gender has become a scary subject to approach; anything you say can be blasted endlessly — and will be — by total strangers who know neither you nor your circumstances. In the end you can wind up being the kid on the playground that nobody will talk to, and often you will have little idea which verbal mine you stepped on because there are so many.
However, any community needs agreed-upon realities. So let’s agree that sexuality aside, traditional ballet tends toward two physical genders. Okay? Thank you.
Now, is that right or wrong? Generally, it is right in traditional ballet. Ballet is not verbal, it is visual. The vast majority of its public doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is what in each ballet, nor do they want to. They are there for the beauty of the movement and for the story being told.
Modern ballet is different. The big thing now in ultra-modern ballets seems to be, “let’s have a nebulous situation such as “violence,” and have a bunch of bodies wobbling around and rolling on the floor when they aren’t climbing all over each other.” Everything and everyone ends up looking very much the same no matter what the subject when you approach it that way, and gender is indeed no big deal.
Back to the subject of gender in more traditional ballets: need everything be so rigid? Probably not. But the eye has to be trained, and it can’t happen overnight.
That said, I don’t support Ratmansky’s statement totally, nor do I support Balanchine’s. Balanchine’s attitude was born of a millennia of sexism and misogyny. Should he be blasted for this? Yes and no; it was all he knew, but it must also be pointed out that he may have saved the ballerina during the 1960’s through early 1980’s rise in male dominance in ballet — an era in which Nureyev had the temerity to try to make Swan Lake entirely about Prince Sigfried (leading to perhaps the most spare and boring production of Swan Lake in history, even though the POB continues to worship it), and Baryshnikov tried to focus The Nutcracker almost entirely on the Nutcracker Prince (stamping out that ballet’s signature character, the Sugar Plum Fairy, in the process; if I remember correctly, her centerpiece variation is danced by Clara, who is wearing a glittery nightgown rather than an elegant tutu).
What happened to Giselle? Nothing that I remember, since the entire point of the story is Giselle’s forgiveness saving Albrecht’s life. Both of the main characters are transformed in the plot — one can’t dominate the other in that regard no matter how hard you try to change things around. The ballet may be called “Giselle,” but it’s a two-person show. It’s the same with “La Bayadere,” which is essentially the same story.
No one tried to tamper with The Sleeping Beauty, either — thank goodness, because that could have gotten ugly. That story seems sexist at its base; however, the Prince who saves the day in that story is not really an active player and can’t have any dominance in the ballet no matter how you might try to rearrange things. He just saves the day because he’s a guy. I say this while recognizing the power of the Lilac Fairy in the narrative, since she’s the one cast that spell to begin with.
As for Ratmansky, he’s right as far as the classical ballets as performed by your usual ballet company are concerned. I’ve seen Swan Lake performed entirely by men, but one went into those performances knowing that this would be the case. Makes a difference.
I guess the question here is whether traditional gender roles need to be continued, should a major modern narrative ballet ever be created. I’m not talking about new productions, I’m talking about entirely new ballets (Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, but I’m thinking more of a brand-new ballet based on a modern story). Again we go back to the visual cues thing because it is a consideration. Do the girls need to be ethereal and the boys strong? Maybe not. Hard to tell, not knowing the story.
Which kind of brings me to the subject of very tall dancers. When I was dancing decades ago, girls had to be small and light — otherwise they would not be hired. There was a huge worry that skyscraper-tall women, especially when on pointe, would out-height their shorter partners and it would look funny because, you know, girls have to be shorter than guys. At the time the attitude of society toward tall women was harsh; it was felt that they were neurotic, should not wear high heels, and their marriage prospects were limited because they could not be taller than their husbands, etc. There was also this theory that it was very hard to find tall male dancers, as shorter men danced better. The truth was that there were (and are) very few boys in ballet schools and companies had to take what they could get.
5’5″ was the female height limit in most U.S. companies; the only exceptions were the New York City Ballet and Ballet West, where some of the women were nearly six feet tall. A comment by a reader long ago on this blog mentioned that her daughter, a ballet dancer, was very tall and was having trouble finding a job in the U.S. I remember being shocked at this; I was under the impression that the last push for tiny dancers had been during Baryshnikov’s reign as AD of American Ballet Theater. During Baryshnikov’s tenure I remember passing outside the stage door after an ABT performance in Chicago, and being struck by the numbers of minuscule dancers waddling out the door past me, tossing disdainful looks behind them. I had honestly never seen so many tiny adult humans in my life, not even in ballet class. (In fact, when Baryshnikov briefly joined the NYCB, Balanchine went out of his way to put him in his short-guy place; there was no remolding the company to make the women shorter.)
Then the other day I happened across a story about one Sara Murawski, a very tall dancer whose height apparently cost her a job (and for some reason she was told about it as she was heading out on stage to give a performance). She’s now one of two principal dancers of a brand-new company, the American National Ballet, which says that it will celebrate diversity among its dancers. As they only have two right now, it’s a bit hard to tell where they’re going with this — but I’m guessing Murawski’s height got her in, as well as her dancing.
This pushed the point home to me that the height problem is still a big one in U.S. companies (and in the U.K.’s Royal Ballet). I guess since my first exposure upon my return to ballet-fandom had been to the Russian companies, where height, height, and more height is worshiped, I hadn’t realized that tall female ballet dancers in the U.S. still face obstacles.
But yet they do. And yes, it all ties back to gender roles and just plain old sexism in those old ballets.
Like I said, should that be carried over into modern-day stories? Probably not. But is it necessary in the old stories? Certainly the Russians have inadvertently proven that the height issue is not an issue (unless you cast a 5’10” dancer as Clara/Maria in the Nutcracker). But the sexism/gender rigidity? It’s right there in the stories. Not much you can do about it.
P.S. — when I was first exposed to traditional tarot cards, I was shocked by the sexism they displayed. Men depicted in the cards did, and still do, represent one set of characteristics and women quite another. Not surprisingly, women’s roles tend to be slightly negative, as are the cards associated with femininity (such as The Moon). So you see that this is a deeply-ingrained prejudice that ballet is not equipped to tackle by itself. Tarot cards are centuries old; these attitudes have been in place even longer. Our entire society needs to decide that there is a problem and then address it.