Battle of the Sexes. Or Should That Be Ballet of the Sexes?

Is it any wonder that ballet is seen as a predominantly female pursuit? Still represented in the collective imagination as a flurry of girls in tutus, it is easy to forget that a stereotype takes a moment to establish and generations to allay. Take Black Swan for instance: the film has probably been seen by more people than the entire choreographic output of the last year, so a straw-poll on the street would indicate that ballet in 2011 is more closely associated with this film, than with, let’s say, the premier of Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, a major event, and what’s more, an actual one; the public perception doesn’t always match up with the reality.

I digress; the point I’m trying to get to is that the role of the male dancer in the classical ballets of centuries past still affects the perception of men in ballet today.

Balanchine proclaimed “ballet is woman”: he was moulded in the Imperial Theatre tradition of St. Petersburg, a child of Theatre Street, where the ladies were top bill; Aurora, Odette/Odile, Giselle, Raymonda and the Sugar Plum fairy. Yes, they all had their cavaliers, but in comparison, the were always playing second fiddle.

Take Raymonda for instance: she has a whopping six solos, Jean de Brienne has one. While Aurora and Odette/Odile enchant and seduce, Princes Florimund and Siegfried mope. Admittedly Albrecht is the meatiest role here, but he’s portrayed as a fickle infidel. As for our man in The Nutcracker, he doesn’t even have a real name – how’s that for equality? In comparison to the exhibition the ladies are giving, the gentlemen really are upstaged: it’s hardly an endorsement of manhood, even if they’re given the lavish title of danseur noble.

Since these ballets were choreographed the male in ballet has been better represented: mainly through personalities such as Nureyev and Baryshnikov, but also thanks to the works of choreographers like Kenneth McMillan who wasn’t afraid to employ strong male leads with depth of character. Regardless, people like to cling on to stereotypes, and once established, they’re tough to deconstruct.

Ballet has been called misogynistic, owing to its objectifying of the female. Never has it been called philogynistic for its portrayal of proud women nor misandristic for its portrayal of insipid men. (Indeed those two words are bandied about so little compared to their more common antonym that I hardly even know of their existence).

Men have always danced ballet; men danced ballet before women did. Somewhere along the timeline from Louis XIV to now, people became of the opinion that it is the preserve of the fairer sex. The men-folk will continue dancing, and hopefully someday the public opinion will catch up with what actually goes on.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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