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Leigh Witchel

Sexuality?

44 posts in this topic

Given the threads on anything goes (and a current discussion on alt.arts.ballet) this seemed like a germane time to discuss this issue.

I'm offering it broadly because many different areas of it have been touched upon. Ann mentioned that thinking elements of MacMillan's Manon are in bad taste may amount to a sort of prudery. On a.a.b. there is talk of combating the sexual stereotyping heterosexual men in ballet feel.

What do you think of overtly sexual ballet? How does it affect the ballet? Have you seen ballets where sexuality is handled effectively? What about same-sex dancing - that ranges from the male and female duets in Agon to the paean to love in a time of AIDS in Concerto No. 622 by Lar Lubovitch and many things in between.

What about the sexual stereotypes in ballet? I understand that straight men in ballet must get frustrated at people's prejudices, but as a gay man, I honestly get tired of heterosexual men that overcompensate with yet another "See, there are plenty of straight men in ballet!" article or announcement. The very implication that there needs to be straight men in ballet also implies that there are too many gay men in it. We have a hell of a lot to do with this art form. There is nothing wrong or gender-oriented with being enamored with its beauty. I am not going to act any less "gay" (whatever acting less gay means), or be less visible, so someone can feel secure about his masculinity. If anyone thinks that loving ballet for its beauty rather than its athleticism renders him suspect, that's his problem, not mine.

I'm sure that for women in ballet, straight or gay, it's an entirely different visibility issue.

So let's all jump into the fray, but keep it tolerant, and keep it relevant to ballet, please!

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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It's a broad issue. Two quick comments. We have had discussions before about the current trend to overt sexuality (gay or straight) in ballet. If a ballet has that as its subject, to me, that is one thing. The tendency to sexualize everything under the guise of being "modern" and make anything that had a subtle twinge of sexuality into something LEWD, in neon, is, to me, extremely distasteful. Implying that anyone who has that view does so because he/she is sexually repressed is as offensive as saying it's because he/she is stupid. (A friend of mine once came up with a great retort to this: I don't go to the ballet for sex. I have other outlets.) One of the man misunderstandings in pop culture in the last forty years is that "adult" means "dirty words and overt sexual content." (And it is an OLD concept, from the 1960s. There's nothing new or modern about it.)

The second comment is about a detail. I had to think for quite awhile what you meant by same-sex duets in "Agon." I have never considered those segments a male or female pas de deux. To me, they're both parts of a pas de trois. I certainly haven't seen anything sexual in them. The man's "duet" is mildly combative, or at least has suggestions of courtly dueling. I think I must just be blind to sexuality watching women -- the female "duet" is, to me, two dancers dancing. Both Bournonville and Petipa have many dances with the women -- dancing a deux or in a Rockettes line -- hold hands. I don't think that we're just "discovering" a hidden lesbian undercurrent in ballet.

I've been, not offended, but estranged by sexual political content in modern dance, by all (gay) male companies that really make me feel that, as a woman, there is no place for me in their world. There are some militant feminist companies in D.C. who can't seem to make dances about anything except child molestation and rape. Without intending to trivialize this issue at all, I find it hard to believe that every company has at least one woman who can stand there and say (our modern dancers have been talking for years) "When I was eight" [twitches head, puts knees together] "I was raped" (bends in middle) "by my FA-THER" [hits self on head three times, falls to floor, groans]. A male friend of mine said he felt a terrible compulsion during intermissions to go up to any woman and start babbling, "I've never raped anybody. I swear. I like women. I...." I do think that, whatever the intent, these dances can be alienating.

But, as always, it depends on the viewer. Ken mentioned the Joffrey's "Daedalus and Icarus." I know gay men who found that ballet extremely erotic, and affirming, at a time when it was still barely permissible to be publicly gay.

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Very interesting post, Leigh, and isn't it a shame that this kind of prejudice, like any other kind of prejudice, causes the issue of sexual stereotyping in the first place? The fact that ballet is considered (by people everywhere, probably, but perhaps more prevalent in this country?) to be something that straight men don't do, causes the ones who are straight to over react and over emphasize their straightness, places the gay men in an inferior position that they don't deserve and then they sometimes over react, and the end result is the same as that caused by racial stereotyping or any other kind of stupid prejudice. It has hurt ballet because it has kept away young male dancers, and anyone who teaches knows very well how hard it is to get boys to study ballet in the first place, and then to keep them past the age of 12 or 13.

This is a subject that can be looked at from many angles, but these are the first thoughts I had when reading your post today.

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Just to clarify, I put the duets in Agon as one polarity of the scale because they aren't sexual, to me. I see a sort of goofy sisterhood in the female duet, and a sportiveness in the male one, but they are, as Alexandra said, dancers dancing.

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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As Freud is reputed to have said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:

What about the sexual stereotypes in ballet? I understand that straight men in ballet must get frustrated at people's prejudices, but as a gay man, I honestly get tired of heterosexual men that overcompensate with yet another "See, there are plenty of straight men in ballet!" article or announcement. The very implication that there needs to be straight men in ballet also implies that there are too many gay men in it.

Leigh, I don't think it implies that necessarily. Some of us straight men just don't want to be taken for gay simply because we love ballet -- we don't want to have to deal with kneejerk prejudice and we want to be seen for who we are.

As for loving ballet for its athleticism, this straight guy at least watches athletics for the athleticism and also enjoys the beauty, the grace, that's part and parcel of that. In ballet, the grace is what draws me, not the athletic achievement that I know makes it possible. And while I always enjoy male pyrotechnics, I wouldn't pay much to see an all-male troupe, except maybe the Trocks.

I've never quite understood why more straight men don't appreciate ballet anyhow, outside of the fact that it's not socially acceptable in many circles. Show me a heterosexual man who doesn't like to watch an attractive woman move! I would think that would be a good place to begin in learning to appreciate ballet.

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Thanks for talking, everybody. I find what Ken said about watching beautiful women interesting and understandable, and it brings up an interesting point. A particular irony for me is that I tend not to view male dancers (especially onstage) as "objects of desire" but as "objects of ideal". I'm not using the appropriate critical terms, I'm sure, but it's not a sexual desire that I find attractive in the dancers I love but the fact they represented an ideal in behavior or grace I wanted to achieve myself.

I'm curious - for how many of us are the dancers onstage "objects of desire" and for how many "objects of ideal?" I wonder why we choose one path or the other. (I'm not making a value judgment here. I think either is valid.)

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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I'm not sure the two are mutually exclusive, Leigh. There are dancers to whom I'm incredibly attracted, but whose dancing I don't care for, particularly; likewise, there are dancers whose dancing I adore but to whom I am not attracted. . .and there are some dancers who attract me in both ways.

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Leigh, in his original post, asked about effective specifically sexual ballets. I myself would eliminate most of Macmillan here, because he is usually so explicit that he doesn't use dance vocabulary--grab and grope is not effective choreographically for me. One of the best examples is Balanchine's Prodigal Son, when the Siren comes on carried by the goons and just snakes her hand behind her head. It is stunningly effective without being in the least vulgar. No matter how many times I have seen it, it still looks bracing. Also Tudor's Echoing of Trumpets, which ABT did a few years ago. There was such a musical imagination there, and the effect was just harrowing, but again, it was all through the choreography--no one was just slung around for effect.

I hadn't thought of the gaoler scene in Manon as a moral triumph for her. I can see that interpretation, but to me it looks like Macmillan is just gloating over her humiliation once more, and she just creeps out without any relation to her development, followed by Des Grieux doing a set of steps which say a lot about Dowell's dancing but not much about Des Grieux's character.

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Limon's Moor's Pavane. The sexual energy between the Iago character and his wife was subtle but there. A pleasure to perform.

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I agree about both of those works, and think it's telling that one is a ballet strongly influenced by the German expressionism of the time, the other is a progeny of Graham.

For better or for worse, the relationship of a man to a woman in classical ballet is a stable and idealized one. She puts out her hand, he is there to receive it. I think it's one of the most beautiful things about ballet, but it is chaste.

When we try and talk about sexuality in ballet, it seems there is no choice but to bring in additional vocabulary to depict it. Prodigal Son or Bugaku are two examples. So is the Agon pas de deux, perhaps?

Any comments?

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited October 06, 2000).]

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Leigh

Very quickly - I have visitors downstairs - don't get me started on the Agon pas de deux! Alexandra knows, because I've raised this before, how I feel about Balanchine's requirement for the ballerina, in the briefest of costumes, to lie on her back and split her legs open as though for a gynaecological examination. If that isn't lewd, or vulgar, I truly don't know what is. And no-one says a word.

Don't get me wrong - I still think Agon is Balanchine's greatest achievement, a work of astonishing genius, and I'll go on watching it every chance I can. But I just wish someone had spoken strongly to Mr B at the time he created it.

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Again, very quickly - I've just remembered that I was the one who accused poor Ed of suspected 'prudery' and I realise that the above message is going me make me a prime suspect of the very same sin. Hmm... make allowances for me.

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Ann -

Have you looked at earlier tapes of Agon? What is interesting is that Diana Adams in the pas (visible on a tape from 1960) is anything but "gynecological" at that moment (probably because her body was long, but didn't move into the extreme shapes of someone like Heather Watts or Wendy Whelan - or probably Kent and Farrell when they assumed the roles early on.)

Both with Agon or Manon, I wonder how much overt sexuality gets added onto a less obvious interpretation as time passes (see the previous story of Ashton's pas in The Dream)

How do other people feel about the Agon pas? Or any other area in this broad topic?

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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I'm glad Ann raised the point about Agon Lewd. Ann, I've seen it danced that way too, and I've had exactly the same reaction. I'd argue that this isn't prudery, but simply an instinctive reaction to something that doesn't fit, that seems out of place in the context of the rest of the ballet.

When Miami City Ballet did "Agon" here a few weeks ago (staged by Farrell) there was no lewdness. It's interesting -- this could be seen as part of the cleaning process, of saying, "Yes, I know you've seen this done this way, but when Mr. B taught it to me, that wasn't what he wanted."

There are also differences in dancers, I think. If Diana Adams had done exactly the same thing, it may well not have looked lewd, because she was not a lewd dancer.

(Ann, you're forgiven smile.gif. I think we all suffer from some strain of the "If I think it, it's OK; if you think it, it's prudery" -- fill in any word you want for "prudery") It all comes from a desire, I think, for other people to see the same things in a work that we do.

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This is a fascinating thread! It brought to mind a ballet choreographed by Jiri Kylian, though the name at this point eludes me (Troy maybe?) Anyway, it was a pure male spectacle, the dancers clad only in loincloths. I watched this with delight. (At the time, I had little experience with all male troupes, and the general male potency of it was new and exciting.) I of course didn't get the sense that this was a hetero- or homosexually oriented piece, and didn't think to myself "I wonder if any of them are gay (or straight)?". That people could see this piece and feel it is homosexually oriented, as there are no females in it, saddens me, as it is obviously not a piece in any way about one or the other, but rather the sexuality of man alone. A group of energetic, acrobatic males in joyous competition, it was exciting, funny, and eye-opening. I wish more people looked at a piece's sexuality this way, rather than caving to one perspective or another. smile.gif

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Ann, I was going to answer the Agon question too. I think now it is done pretty much as a hot number, but I think that approach is pretty much Heather Watts and continued. If you ever get a chance to see the tape of Diana Adams I think you will be amazed at how cool and dignified it is. Muriel Maffre at SFB is the most recent dancer I have seen that approached it cooly, and it was staggerinly good. The spread leg moment, which I absolutely hate the way it is currently done at NYCB, was just a part of a constant movement and was not held or emphasized. It was just odd shapes dispassionately danced, but the cumulative effect was oddly beautiful. So don't give up on it yet!

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Alexandra

I don't think that any of the dancers themselves are actually 'lewd', nor do I think that they deliberately set out to make this particular step look lewd. I don't believe that the way Agon is danced today can be that far away from how Balanchine choreographed the step originally; at some point, he must have said 'lie on your back, dear, and open your legs wide'. It is difficult to imagine how any dancer could have made the resultant vulgarity look respectable. The best they can do is to perform the movement as rapidly as the music permits while maintaining a bland facial expression.

But Leigh, I would love to have seen what Diana Adams made of Agon - wasn't it choreographed on her? Is the tape commercially available? Certainly I didn't see it in the shop at the Lincoln Centre when I was there last year.

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Ann, I think several people have described how the movement can be, has been, and is performed so that it doesn't look lewd. Whether the dancers are setting out to be lewd, or "just doing the step" or it's the result of a mechanical matter of timing, the result is the same. It's not just at NYCB. Dance Theatre of Harlem has done it that way, too. But I'm just repeating what Mary and Leigh have said, that the ballet has changed over time.

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A few observations on different points:

Ann - the 1960 tape of Agon is available at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts in the Dance Collection. It is not commercially available, however, it is open to viewing without requesting permission. The recording is from a kinescope of Canadian Broadcast Corp.'s L'Heure du Concert, and was filmed in Montreal. The members of the original cast include Adams, Arthur Mitchell, Todd Bolender, and Roy Tobias. Francia Russell was in the corps of the original cast, in this, she performs on of the two women in the first pas de trois, with a duet entirely different from the original (and choreographed on her). If there is a dance library in the UK, it's possible this tape may have made its way there. For more information on it, I wrote an article in the Fall 1997 issue of Ballet Review entitled, "Four Decades of Agon."

Back to sexuality. I think Alexandra is right that "lewdness" is more in the coloration of the performance than in the steps, but no choreographic motivation is utterly impersonal or singular. Balanchine loved, was fascinated by, was aroused by women's bodies. William Weslow has more than a few lewd things to say about Balanchine's attitude towards women in Francis Mason's "I Remember Balanchine." He basically said Balanchine liked tall women, especially in extensions, because he could then get under and sniff. All well and good for the National Enquirer, and mildly titillating for all of us, (and not documented except by oral history, by the way) but does it make me look at the famous extensions in the second movement in Symphony in C with jaundiced eyes? Nope. They are still part of a pure choreographic design, whatever might have been thought at the moment of choreography.

A personal moment of a similar sort. The most recent concert had a classical ballet in it that was as pure as I could make it - Quodlibet. I choreographed the finale using a dancer from last year who was acting as a "place marker" until I could get a permanent cast member. Abraham is the fiance of another of my dancers, endearingly heterosexual and blessed with a beautiful physique and leg lines (and he is enjoyably vain about all this, like many dancers).

In the final to Quodlibet the two women take his hands, then pose. Then he turns, then they turn and pose. It's musical, and it forms a classical design in space. It's a totally apropos series of movements. But I also knew I set that particular moment because he has a beautiful butt (to be blunt!) and he knew it too, and made jokes about it. Mary made more than one joke about "The Russian Wink" as Abraham turned to pose in pointe tendue, a term they ascribed to comments about Nureyev, and that I had never heard before. There was nothing lewd in the moment in performance, and I hadn't even thought about this story until we began this discussion, but I guess it shows that even in our most classical moments, we are sensual beings as well!

Putting aside my own moment of lewdness, I think a choreographer who ought to come up in this discussion is Hans van Manen. I think much of his output as a choreographer attempts to reconcile classicism and sensuality. Do people think he succeeds?

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Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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Part of what constitutes lewdness, sexuality and sensuality, it seems to me, is a child of the time in which it is born. Nijinsky in Le Apre Midi d'un Faun (Afternoon of a Faun) was considered terribly lewd to the Paris of 1911. When the Joffrey did it a few years ago - and it was televised no one blinked - or swooned.

I also think that almost everything we do, view and enjoy has a deal of sexuality implicit in it. There is always a certain tension between the genders. The difference is in the explicitness of it. The bedroom scene in Romeo & Juliet is certainly an example of implied sexuality. I, for one, do not go to the ballet (or most anywhere else for that matter) for explicit sexuality.

As for the matter of the assumption that any male associated with the ballet, either as a dancer or as a member of the audience, is as most assumptions often are, trite and ill informed. We are never going to banish those assumptions from the face of the earth, I am afraid. A man who is not homosexual and either dances or enjoys the ballet - does not need to defend himself or his tastes in any way. If I happened to enjoy smoking cigars ringside at a boxing match, I wouldn't bother defending it.

Ironically, up until the advent of the pointe shoe, dance including ballet, was the purview of the male. Women were excluded from the ballet early in its history. Certainly in folk dance, men are predominant - women mostly filling secondary roles. Basheva

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And a brief return to the "Icarus" ballet from the 70s Joffrey rep - the work was an exhausting pas de deux between two men, putatively father and son, in the midst of a huge mirrored construction. The title of the work was "The Relativity of Icarus", and I never figured out what the hell that meant, but there was another character in the work - The Sun - danced by Ann Marie de Angelo, a most mystical and mysterious part, near acrobatics, indeed, sometimes over the line into it. Her character was both hot and cool at the same time, but unmistakably female, providing a contrast to the two men, usually danced by Ted Nelson and Russell Sultzbach. The homoerotic element was there, of course, but it was muted by the strangeness of the sets and music, which was by José Serebrier. It was disturbing, but not, I think, because of its portrayal of a sort of sexuality, but by the nearly Brechtian Verfremdungheit (foreignness).

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I've just joined this group. It's a pleasure to see so much thoughtful writing in it.

I think Agon is a very sexy ballet and I like sexy ballets. I like when the ballerina parts her legs on the floor. I don't accept categories like "bad taste" as being relevent. I don't think "lewdness" is any more to be avoided than "wholesomeness" is. I think Balanchine was unburdened by the desire to flatter middle class moralities. I'm glad about that.

The central pas de deux in Agon seems to me to be about a complicated, adult, urban relationship. Sex is part of such relationships. Balanchine made ballet expressive of contemporary psycho-sexual concerns at the same time that he was inventing his own neo classicism. This is partly why Agon is thrilling. The other thing that is so sexy about Agon is its rhythm. The syncopations and suspensions in the actual phrases are just plain hot.

David

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I was going to avoid getting in to this discussion - it's way too big and complex for me - but Leigh wrote something which caught my attention; so I thought I'd drop in anyway.

"Objects of ideal" - I like that expression, Leigh, and the way that you distinguish between "ideal" and "desire". I'm sure psychologists could tell me with great enthusiasm that the dividing line between the two is very thin, or perhaps non-existent - to which I would simply reply, 'rubbish'. I don't intend to get roped in to a discussion about the deep recesses of the human mind; but I do think the two sentiments are quite separate. Why is this important?

Well, I think part of the reason many 'normal'/macho men feel alienated by ballet is that they're affected by seeing the male performers, as well as the women, and that frightens them. With the women, it's sexual attraction - all well and good. But seeing men...? It's a somewhat different sensation, but they don't stop for long enough to realise that. Defensive mode cuts in.

But notice that sporting events are usually split in to two very clear categories - Men's events and Women's events. So in this field the same 'normal' men aren't confronted with the confusing coincidence of the two sentiments they experience when seeing dance. When it's the men's relays, and they're watching guys running (in tights, most likely) - well, it's OK, the sportsmen are impressive athletes, and the (male) spectators are happy to acknowledge their envy of the athletes. When they're whistling at the women athletes, it's for a different reason, and no-one doubts that.

I'm quite happy to admit that when I watch ballet, I'm (often) attracted to the women, but that I'm also green with envy at the guys. I wish I could do what they do, and I wish I had the physique. But I do know the difference between wanting to be like someone, and wanting to take someone home with me. wink.gif

I've said enough here - I'm not going to get involved with the 'sexy ballets' discussion, I think that boils down to a matter of taste. Perhaps I'm not entirely liberated, whatever that is, but I do find overtly sexual dance a bit tacky. For me, dance and music belong in a very special category of their own, that resides somewhat above sexuality. Other people are entitled to their own opinions.

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Leigh, I'm sorry if you get hacked off at guys who overdo the "I'm straight, honest!" routine. I can understand how annoying it is, particularly since they're trying to distance themselves from being gay as if there's something wrong with it. In an ideal world, men shouldn't be dissuaded from taking an interest in dance for fear of being branded 'gay' - but then, in an ideal world, being gay shouldn't itself be a stigma.

A.

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