Friday, September 15, 2017

Why ballet is boring

Classical ballet has to be one of the most technically revered art forms in the human arsenal. The fine balance between sheer athleticism and seemingly effortless poise pushes one to the outer extremities of their physical capabilities. Yet more often than not, the mere mention of it sends the unappreciative into an impulsive fit of eye-rolling. You see, ballet bores a lot of people, and even though it’s one of my passions and I’ve danced for the most part of my life, I can see why.

The pervasive stereotype of ballet undeniably stains it a baby pink. From its nascence to modern day, ballet has been deeply entrenched in Western culture as a “girl thing." Fumbling around a ballet class at the age of five has come to be viewed as quite a ‘normal’ hallmark of a girl’s childhood (at least if they’re white and middle class), and while the vast majority don’t actually end up pursuing careers in dance, ballet is undeniably dominated by women. At least at a glance.

Classical ballet is saturated with gender clichés. In terms of physique, elite dance companies such as the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, are rigorous in maintaining their dancers firmly in the clinically underweight section of the BMI index, with a 5.7ft tall girl being expected to weigh at most a mere 109.8lbs. This wafer thin female ‘ideal', is supposed to make it more aesthetically pleasing for female dancers to execute certain moves, but is in fact primarily in place for the benefit of male dancers. A large part of the male dancer’s role in classical ballet is dedicated to performing intricate lifts of their female partners in pas de deux. Vaganova has stated that girls who weigh over 110lb will have “very limited access” to partnering classes to protect boys from potential injuries. But what about protecting girls from the rampant eating disorders and unhealthy lifestyles that injure female dancers in their pursuit of these ridiculous ideals? I didn’t come across a section about that.

So female dancers must be ‘slight’, as many companies phrase it, but also significantly shorter than men to facilitate a height increase when they dance en pointe. Male dancers also aren’t immune to bodily requirements. They are to generally be tall, lean and strong, quite obviously so they can fit into the classical roles of princes and protectors of the ethereal heroines, who only exist to live and die for heterosexual love.

It’s a mystery to me how in an industry largely populated by women, a bias in favour of men manages to prevail. Yet if you peer past the pliés and pas de chats, you can see the different strata of sexism are more concrete than classical ballet's fairy tale foundations.

It’s a known fact amongst the ballet community that male dancers progress through the ranks of dance companies in an expeditious fashion in comparison to female dancers. Supply and demand, apparently. Although I admire his awe-inspiring command of the art form, I can’t help but think that Sergei Polunin, who danced to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ in a stunning video directed by David LaChapelle in 2015, would have actually grossed 21,239,206 Youtube views if he hadn’t already been dubbed the “bad boy of ballet." He’s infamous for his tattoos, tantrums and tremendous snubbing of the Royal Ballet in 2012, when he left the company shortly after being appointed its youngest ever principle dancer at the staggering age of 19. His stunning classical technique aside, he defies all expectations of how the conventional stoic ballet dancer should act. He didn’t conform, he partied, he took drugs and had even danced while high. The reason why he seemingly got away with it all? His male privilege in the industry. As a classically trained dancer, I’m acutely aware of the rigorous discipline any dancer of a high calibre, let alone the principle dancer of the Royal Ballet, would have to engage in. Which is why I can see that if a female principal dancer ever acted in any way erratic regardless of their talent, they’d quite frankly be shown the door. Female talent is easier to come by, after all.

Sexism in ballet is often subtle. However, what’s not subtle is the severe lack of female choreographers being given the opportunity to flourish. If women are the more populous sex in the industry, common sense would dictate that a wealth of talented female choreographers would showcase their work, wouldn’t it? Apparently not. Based on their 2016-17 seasons, The Paris Opera Ballet featured only Crystal Pite as their token female choreographer amongst 23 men. The Royal Ballet featured the work of Pite, and another female choreographer, along with 14 male ones. If you’re looking, the examples of gender inequalities in the context of choreography are endless and obvious.

Classical ballet with all its flaws has at least flirted with feminism, I’ll give it that. Isadora Duncan, a renowned California-born dancer of the 19th Century, rebelled against the Victorian ideal of womanhood by refusing to wear the restrictive corset or painful pointe shoes, she instead opted to perform bare foot and in a loose-fitting Grecian tunic. She paved the way for other women to rebel against the inherent inequality of classical ballet. Duncan, along with Martha Graham, another feminist of the ballet world, facilitated the rise of modern, more abstract ballet. This took hold of some of the feminist ideas of the 60’s and 70’s, such as sexual liberation, and channelled them into the art form. As a result, modern ballet and dance have been said to be truly dominated by women, yet classical ballet still isn’t quite ready to boast this feat.

I find it remarkable that in one of the most widely perceived “female” spheres, there’s still ample room for sexism. It’s surprising and generally covert, yet unmistakably there. Which is why I no longer get irritated when people roll their eyes and say classical ballet is boring. Although the art form itself formed a huge part of my life and will always be dear to me, the sexism that classical ballet represents bores me too.





4 comments:

Aoife Mee said...

Suzanne,

I loved reading your perspective on classical ballet. I have never been much of a dancer myself, but last Christmas I went to the ballet for the first time to see the Nutcracker and I couldn't help but be amazed by the skill and poise of the dancers, both male and female. I can only imagine amount of training and hard-work that goes in to such performances.

Your description of the different manifestations of sexism in ballet was, for me, in some ways analogous to women in other spheres of society. The requirement by the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet that their female ballet dancers maintain a BMI that is clinically underweight so that they can be easily lifted by male dancers effectively forces female dancers to sacrifice their health for that of male dancers. Likewise, in the home, gender stereotyping pressurises women to sacrifice their careers, and often their happiness, to maintain a clean and pleasant home for their breadwinning husbands.

However, I was inspired by the "Big Ballet", a dance troupe for plus-sized ballet dancers. The troupe was founded in 1994 by renowned choreographer Evgeny Panfilov. The aim of the troupe is to challenge the traditional stereotypes in ballet that require female dancers to be worryingly underweight by celebrating talented dancers whose bodies don't quite "fit the mould" of classical ballet.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-433787/Sugar-plump-fairies--super-sized-Russian-ballerinas.html#ixzz4syiLgbFW

While this is a positive step towards challenging the restrictive gender stereotypes in ballet, I recognise that it will take a great deal more than one "big" troupe to change the sexist culture of classical ballet that has existed for centuries.

Omar de la Cruz said...

Suzanne,

I found your blog post really interesting! I don't know much about ballet but I did take a basic dance history course once and I can see how much of what you said reflected in that course. The way sexism pervades ballet is so demoralizing considering, like you say, how it's an industry dominated by women and that seems to celebrate the amazing physical feats of women.

Your mention of supply and demand is interesting, especially considering the example you cited of Sergei Polunin. I'm sure that the dearth of male dancers certain helps to prop men up in the industry but I wonder how often supply and demand is used as an excuse for what is really male privilege. I guess my question is, is it more male privilege or supply and demand? I'm sure it's quite a bit of both.

Omar de la Cruz said...

Suzanne,

I found your blog post really interesting! I don't know much about ballet but I did take a basic dance history course once and I can see how much of what you said reflected in that course. The way sexism pervades ballet is so demoralizing considering, like you say, how it's an industry dominated by women and that seems to celebrate the amazing physical feats of women.

Your mention of supply and demand is interesting, especially considering the example you cited of Sergei Polunin. I'm sure that the dearth of male dancers certainly helps to prop men up in the industry but I wonder how often supply and demand is used as an excuse for what is really male privilege. I guess my question is, is it more male privilege or supply and demand? I'm sure it's quite a bit of both.

B. Williams said...

Suzanne,

I so enjoyed this post. I can honestly say I know next to nothing about classical ballet... but I am very familiar with the concept of double standards as applied to men and women. It seems that the standards applied to female and male dancers are a "classic" example of that trope. It's often said that women competing in any sphere have to work twice as hard and be twice as talented as a man to stand out/excel. Additionally, any mistakes made by a woman seem to be punished more harshly.

I don't think that supply and demand is the only rationale at play here. When the gender numbers are reversed, women aren't suddenly more prized or given greater latitude/allowances than men in other industries. Take, for example, an issue that has been prominent in the news recently... the treatment of women in tech. As statistics make pretty clear, there is a huge supply gap for women in tech. Only 28% of computer science degrees are awarded to women. Yet, women still struggle to be hired, promoted, and retained within technology companies, make significantly less money than their male counterparts, and make up a less-than-proportionate number of leadership positions in these companies. Meanwhile, tech bros (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/opinion/sunday/jerks-and-the-start-ups-they-ruin.html), pervasive and ubiquitous, survive and thrive within the industry.

Obviously, classical ballet and tech are not a perfect comparison, but it seems that women in both industries are held to a different (higher) standard than men, regardless of numerosity/gender representation.