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Ballet -- Battle of the sexes?

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Some months ago BBC television devoted a whole evening to dance. The first programme of the evening "Dance Ballerina Dance", hosted by Royal Ballet principal Deborah Bull could have been an introduction to ballet, yet, surprisingly, turned out to be a lecture on feminism. Ms Bull is obviously frustrated by the fact that every woman we see in ballet is created by... a man. In the history of ballet, she argues, women are exclusively seen through men's eyes. And she names Petipa, Ashton, MacMillan, Balanchine, and Forsyth (in that order) as supreme examples. Ms Bull hopes to live to see the day when ballerinas will be created by women choreographers -- women through women's eyes... and men through women's eyes.

All of you, women ànd men, will of course remark that Ms Bull in her eagerness to make her point omits a few women choreographers, producers, and directors here and there, yet I guess her message is crystal clear: ballet is definitely not what it seems to be; it's all part of the fiendish male plot.

Part of the issue was raised again a few weeks later, in the video review section of the ballet.co.uk site. Cause of all the frustration (the reviewer is a guy, by the way) was this time the video film of well-known "Le Corsaire", as danced by the Kirov Ballet. The ballet was on that occasion described as "absurd and decadent", and... the plot as "incredibly sexist." And I always thought of this ballet as innocent fun.

Well, ladies, do you think it's really as bad as this? Do you take it as an insult as well because Medora is abducted on several occasions? And, more seriously, is the fact that Petipa and Balanchine were guys bothering you also?

And, gentlemen, no need to say that we will defend our ground if we have to.

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Marc, thanks for raising this excellent question. Do you have the attacks on Dead White Men in Europe? It's a big thing over here. It somehow doesn't occur to people that the reason the arts have been dominated by men have been sociological; when you're chained up in a kitchen preparing three sit down meals for an extended family of fifteen, or impregnated once every ten months for twelve years, one didn't have all that much leisure time, much less access to studios, training, etc. In the "private arts," i.e., writing, women have done rather well.

So it doesn't bother me at all that, except for Bronislava Nijinska, all the choreographers I've loved are men, and I loathe political correctness (I'm a proud defender of "Far From Denmark," so "Le Corsaire" doesn't outrage me. I did hear that Kofe Annan (sp?) made a speech about it last spring along the same lines you mention.

One place where I do think there is a male - well, not plot, but Old Boys Club at work is in the directorships of companies. Ninette de Valois is only the most famous of a slew of women who started a ballet company, scrubbed floors, sewed the costumes, tacked up the flyers, raised the money, trained the dancers, created the repertory - and, when the company began to stabilize and the smell of money was in the air, had it taken from her and given to a board.

The fact that the first generation of modern dance choreographers (during the days before grants) was nearly exclusively female should prove that women are capable of creating steps, floor patterns AND coherent plots (think of that!) But since the NEA, more and more men are getting into modern dance. Not that that isn't wonderful of course, but....

Back to the slave traders, I think most people today, men or women, would look at Le Corsaire as fun (although there's a virulent strain of feminists in American dance history studies now, so I can't speak for everyone).

Now, there are some 20th century male choreographers whose work seems, to me, to hold women in high contempt, and I can't divorce myself completely from that. I think content, as well as choreography, can be criticized. I don't blame all men, though, for one or two people's twisted psychology.

Great question, Marc -- hope EVERYBODY answers it!


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Alexandra, what you said about the "sociological" conditions reminded me of Virginia Woolf's "A room of one's own" (an excellent book by the way,

I wish that a few sexist idiots that I met, who seemed to think that the fact that one part of the glory of the long list of important male creators alleviated the weight of their own stupidity, had read it ;-) )

But it's interesting to see that there were so many women among the first modern dance choreographers

(Graham, Saint-Denis, Humphrey, etc.) and so few among the classical/neo-classical ones, even now. In France,

there's a rather large proportion of female choreographers among contemporary ones,

in fact I think it's one of the artistic fields (with literature)

with the highest proportion of women (really higher than in cinema or music, for example, let

alone mathematics... -oops, I forgot that some people might not view math as a branch of arts ;-) )

But I couldn't quote a female "neo-classical" choreographer. I wonder why?

[This message has been edited by Estelle (edited 03-05-99).]

[This message has been edited by Estelle (edited 03-05-99).]

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The Kofe Annan comment, as I remember, was along the lines that Tuneisa, or Morocco, or wherever Le Corsaire is set, is opposed to slavery, and to protest the "fact" that Le Corsaire wasn't an abolitionist ballet. Since there are male and female slaves in Corsaire, I didn't take it as one of the male/female complaints, but still got a good laugh out of it. It doesn't bother me that there are so few female classical choreographers, it bothers me that there are so few good ones in general! Certainly traditional ballet has glorified female dancing at the expense of male dancing (look at Paris in the late 19th century), so if anything, it's the men that should be complaining. And even in the 19th century, talented women could choreograph--look at Katti Lanner. Though of course there were far fewer of them, for the educational, sociological, cultural reasons that Alexandra gives.

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I assume this thread is not meant only for the ladies. As a gentleman who agrees strongly with his wife on this one, and we've had some very long discussions about this, here's an opinion (indictment perhaps?). First off, this is not meant to disparage Balanchine's art, it is clear that Balanchine was a great choreographer and created great neo-classical ballet (did I get that right?). But it is what I interpret as Balanchine's attitude toward women that is partially responsible for there being few women choreographers of neo-classical ballet. It seems plausible that to be a choreographer one must be a dancer first. Balanchine's women dancers were just that, HIS women dancers. I believe they subjugated their own creativity too much for his vision, and even after his death, now work only to preserve IT. This attitude of male choreographers appears to be widespread and common, its just that Balanchine represents an extreme example of it. How could any woman, as a dancer for Balanchine, go up to him and say , "Mr. B, I'd like to try this little bit of choreography I've been working out in my head. Give me a few hours of time with some of the dancers and I'll show it to you". After reading about Balanchine, I can't imagine this happening, can anyone tell me I'm mis-interpreting him? I believe this is just a case of, fundamentally, men in power not believing that women can do what they (the men) do. And that women under the influence of a powerful man have few avenues to overcome this barrier. My indictment: most current choreographers and artistic directors in ballet are men, they have the power to allow women to work on choreography, and its not happening. So I guess I sympathize with the frustration of at least one women dancer (nascent choreographer?) that has been ascribed to Ms. Bull, though I haven't seen her TV show and don't actually know her entire viewpoint.

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Very interesting question/statement, Paul. I can offer a few guesses/observations.

First, Ashton once said that no one would want to be a choreographer if he could be a dancer. I'll bet most dancers would agree with that. Most ballet dancers (men and women) don't begin to choreograph until the dancing stops. Some very great ones - Fokine, Balanchine as examples -- seem to have known they wanted to be choreographers since they were two.

Second, I don't think any ballet company has a very good program to encourage or train choreographers. All have occasional choreographic workshops; I don't know the gender ratio at NYCB, but I'm not sure it's quite fair to blame the lack of neoclassical choreographers of any gender just on Balanchine. I think (and this is just opinion) that they never thought about it. Choreographers happen. That's the way it always worked.

I will say that Balanchine didn't ban female choreographers. I'm too lazy to reach for Repertory in Review, but I'm sure Ruthanna Boris had at least one ballet ("Cakewalk") in repertory. As for his ballerinas, Violette Verdy has choreographed. Farrell has done at least one, possibly two, small ballets for her student program here at the Kennedy Center. (I saw one. Very neo-c, very daughter of Balanchine; her young dancers looked terrific.)

Balanchine's attitude towards women seems to have been terribly complex. On the one hand, there were ballerinas and mothers (by today's standards, rank sexism). On the other, when he was married to Tallchief, he did the cooking, not only becuase he was a better cook but, one senses, because it seemed unholy that a ballerina should cook.

Arlene Croce wrote an essay about Balanchine and women called, if I remember correctly, "Free and More Equal Than Any Man," mostly about Farrell in "Diamonds."

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Well Alexandra, I respect your opinions greatly and defer, on the facts, to your wonderfully broad knowledge of ballet history, but I'm still not convinced to alter my initial opinion. I would like to make clear that I didn't intend to single out Balanchine and lay ALL the blame at his feet. Balanchine is just the most obvious to relate to (for me at least).

I'm perplexed however, that there does seem to be this tacit acceptance (particularly on the part of women) of the disparity in numbers of ballet choreographers by gender. When you say that "Choreographers happen" , surely you don't mean that women have never thought about being choreographers enough to make it happen (all things else being equal).

Ashton saying that "no one would want to be a choreographer if he could be a dancer" can easily be seen as an example of what I am saying. This is a nice rationalization that plays well. Obviously one would want to dance as long as possible and THEN be a choreographer. Most choreographers that I've read about (Fokine, Nijinsky, Nijinska, Balanchine) started choreography while still dancing. Being a dancer doesn't preclude being a choreographer, in fact it may be a very important necessity. And there are (if my eyes don't deceive me) usually a lot more ballerinas than ballerinos in most dance companies.

I don't see any grandiose plot here, all I'm saying is that there appears to be something preventing women from becoming choreographers which goes beyond mere opportunity. I can't believe women are just not interested! De Valois and Nijinska seem to be the examples, that I'm aware of , of women who have been interested. Nijinska's situation was perhaps unique, with her association with Diaghaleff. As I think you mentioned earlier somewhere, De Valois got the precursor to the RB going and then lost effective control to men.

Sorry to dwell on this, but there has to be more to it than dis-interest, on the part of women, to being choreographers.

[This message has been edited by Paul W (edited 03-06-99).]

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