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Is Male Dancing Partnering?


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Ballets that are MAN do exist, as do phenomenal male dancers. And now and then I come across them. But they are few and far between compared to the rest. Even in new choreography.


By and large, ballet is about women en pointe being partnered by less-visible men behind them. Nine out of ten ballet jobs I've seen are looking for guys to stand behind their ballerinas, partnering them and lifting them. Nine out of ten ballets I've seen objectify the ballerina while putting the ballerino in the role of sexual pursuit. To have a significantly different experience as a male dancer is to avoid ballet jobs altogether (in favor of modern dance jobs). BTW: my spellchecker has a problem with "ballerino" but not "ballerina". That should be an indication of what I'm trying to say.


I've found that it doesn't much matter whether the planned choreography is Swan Lake or some newfangled dance, whether a company considers itself "classical", "neoclassical" or "cutting edge about-to-revolutionize-the-world modern ballet" (which is a cliche), and whether they wear romantic tutus, classical tutus, leotard-and-tights, or hooded unitards. In all cases, ballet is at least 90% woman. Even the terms used here to describe the ballets are woman --- had I described the ballets in terms of "prince tunic" ballets, "black-and-white tights" ballets or "hooded unitard" ballets, no one would really have known what I'm talking about.


It proves nothing to point out the small number of exceptions to the general rule when the general rule is so pervasive. The fact remains, even for those fantastic all-male, male-thing, straight-male dancers, that 90% of their time on stage is spent standing behind and wooing a ballerina. That is the state of the profession today, and that is the experience of being a male dancer.


Modern dance is less woman, but the rule can be pervasive there to. I saw a "modern dance" performance that was basically ballet without pointe shoes --- including zillions of promenades and other classical "pointe shoe" partnering moves without the shoes!


And then there's Disney and its heroines. And their Princess Collection, which they use to market it all. I don't think our society is even close to moving beyond the "ballet is woman" mindset. The gender stereotyping is not going away. It's no surprise that every 5-year-old girl wants to be a ballerina princess, but 5-year-old buys just aren't attracted to it.


We need to be more honest with ourselves. I love the art form too much, and have invested too much, to go on pretending things are any other way. Thinking about Angel Corella and the "Wild Men" show does nothing to change the day-to-day realities for the average male dancer.

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David, this is a really global topic, but I'm going to leave it here as long as it doesn't turn into an "us against them" misogynistic trail, which I think you realize, it has the potential to do.


The title of this thread rehearses a nearly forty-year-old cover quote on Newsweek magazine made during the "ballet boom" of the 60s. I felt like I was one of the original "injured parties" at the time, and still grouse about it to this day. This magazine apparently harbors and nurtures an anti-male ballet dancer editorial policy somewhere down in the deep bowels of its workings, which was manifested twenty years after the original insult in an article called "Those White Tights". Newsweek's principal market competitor was and is Time magazine, and in the 60s, its sister publication, Life. The Luce empire, Time-Life, had run some pretty silly stories about "manly male dancers" in those days. The one about Jacques d'Amboise, I recall, was particularly odious, with d'Amboise at the controls of a D4 Caterpillar bulldozer. (Manly off-job activity, you know. Shucks, I knew nuns who taught heavy machine operation in Korea.) Newsweek took off on this topic, and went anti-male. Nureyev didn't count, because he was "good copy" and an offstage superstar.


What I would advise here is not to expend fire and resources against a target that the enemy has set up. (I learned this the hard way, twice, with actual bullets.) Newsweek posed a "straw (wo)man" to be attacked, thus laying open all sorts of mischief do be done to even the most responsible writers of a contrary opinion. Those who demur at the very short "sound bite" of "Ballet is Woman" become open to charges of sexism and bigotry, which not only injures the reputation of male dancers, but ballet as a whole. I, for one, would like to know in what context Balanchine said that quote, and find out where the interview had gone previously.


As it stands, I agree that there is a prejudice against male ballet dancers in American society. But we must pick and choose our objectives carefully in campaigning against the bigotry. The problem is deep in American culture, and goes back into a young society founded on rather straitlaced values, and which came of age during the Victorian period. If society could only get rid of Victorian standards, and be more like Victoria herself (she was far more sophisticated and accepting than those around her), we could go far to enhancing the dignity of our positions within our profession and art.

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I am a girl so Mr. Johnson, please feel free to delete this post.




Back in the seventeenth century, ballets were only performed by men because it was considered indecent for women to dance in public. That was when ballet was part of a evening of singing, acting, and dancing. King Louis XIV brought ballet special attention with his Academie Royale de Danse. But women still didn't perform then. Men would dress up as women using masks to fulfill the females roles. The first women appeared in ballet in 1681 in Le Triomphe de l'Amour. Then women finally began to appear on stage but men still had the upperhand in ballet. The women clothing (sometimes up to 30 or 40 pounds) kept there movements small.

In 1832, women stole ballet from the men with the invention of pointe shoes for La Sylphide. In the early 1900s, Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were well known artists. Nijinsky had a lightness and strength that coexisted inside of him that made him a perfect base for male dancers.


But Nureyev, Bujones, and Baryshnikov brought male dancing back to the center. They are ballet legends. Now with Jose Carreno, Angel Corella, and Nikolai Tsiskardize, male ballet stars are back on top.


As for men always chasing women in ballets, look at the time period that the classics were created and what audience they were created for. That is why modern ballets aren't the same as the classics.

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That's what I mean about a global topic. Valid and important observations on it are not dependent upon sex. I think I'm going to open THIS PARTICULAR THREAD to all commentors, male and female alike. If necessary, I'll move it to a different forum as the discussion develops.

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If you are interested in doing some reading in this field: look up Susan Foster's "Ballerina's Phallic Pointe" (and related critical texts). Having each academic year at least 5 or 6 students (predominantly male - here you go), who want to write their BA (hons) dissertation about exactly this topic, I feel the that the whole debate about gender/representation in ballet has been discussed zillions of times in the last decade. But good to hear that the discussion still goes on... :-)


You might also be interested reading Ramsey Burt's views on masculinity in dance

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I'm actually discussing something maybe much simpler than the topic would imply. Maybe the topic really should have been, "is male ballet dancing partnering" or "does anyone REALLY want the men to be looked at". From time to time, I've observed small segments in which the answers to these questions are "no" and "yes". But there are also large segments in which, basically, it's about a heroine who is partnered by a semi-invisible man behind her.


If you don't believe me, start counting things quantitatively, you will see. Look at pictures in promotional material. Start counting them. How many pictures do you see women dancing alone? How many do you see men dancing alone? How many do you see men partnering women, behind them? Or do timings and scene counts in the ballets. Or measure the stage time given to the female corps, versus the men.


Experience is so crucial, and in my observation, male dancers are just not getting the experience dancing with their own bodies on stage that's really needed to do that art well. In contrast, male dancers get plenty of partnering experience. If you measure time the men spend on stage partnering, versus time they spend on stage dancing on their own, you will see what I mean.


And in my experience, choreographers today aren't doing things very differently either. It doesn't seem matter so much how old the ballet is. The pointe shoe as a basic ballet technology has a lot to do with this. The most "manly" ballet I can think of is Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, but that really fits in the modern dance genre due to its footwear and movement vocabulary.


In my observation, ability as a partner ranks above almost anything else in determing a man's hireability in a company. Time and time again, I have seen that the man who can partner well is cast in the leading men's roles over the man who can dance better (on his own) --- because the role requires mostly partnering and only a little dancing.


For the man who really likes lots of women and likes partnering, this is not a problem. For the man who would rather dance with his own body, it is a big problem.


OK, so this is not about "is ballet woman", but rather "is male dancing partnering".


Mel, your experience in the 1960's sounds really interesting.

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David, I think I see where you're going with this, and I think I like it! :shrug:


About the 60s, you just hadda be there. There's a good reason why they started using "unreal" to describe situations in that decade. We should talk about Life Among the Dinosaurs sometime, but on a different thread. :P

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I'm not really getting this at all. All of the GREAT male dancers that I have seen in a rather long lifetime in ballet have all been known for their dancing, not their partnering. While most were also fine partners, they were famous because they were wonderful dancers. Nijinsky (no, I haven't been around THAT long!), Youskevitch, Bruhn, Nureyev, Villella, Baryshnikov, Acosta, Dowell, Corella, Bujones, Carreno, etc., etc.

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I think that a part of the travail suffered by male dancers not only in America, but all over, has to do with the historic structure of the classical ballets which evolved during the Victorian era, but not in England - in Second Empire France and in Russia. Look at a grand pas like "Paquita" or the pas de dix in the last act of Raymonda. In the former, there is no male dancer in the entree. At least in the latter, the forces are equal in number. Pressures in France during the Second Empire placed economic stress on the Opera and other ballet companies to give the wealthy patrons a better look at their mistresses, thus many women's variations, not much material for male dancing. Ballet had become a girly show, and less about art. During the Imperial era in Russia, this force was not so powerful, but still present; Petipa took it and abstracted it so that the formal structure of the grand pas and other divertissements still featured women much more than the men, but standards for male dancers remained high. When the Russians reappeared in the west after the long Soviet isolation, audiences were stunned at the strength, power and technical prowess of the Bolshoi and Kirov men. Even behind the Iron Curtain, forces were at work to give men more to do. Vakhtang Chabukiani took the "Shades" scene from Bayadere and placed a male variation into it, which occurred AFTER the ballerina's variation! The classical structure had required that the male dancer danced before her, thus giving her pride of place. He also added another repeat of the triple-meter coda so that the man had his own pre-finale, again last, after the corps and the soloists.


Post-classic structure, in ballets like Romeo and Juliet helped a bit too. I have reference in particular the to mandolin dance, which is all male. MacMillan's version of this entree was really quite brilliant in that the soloist did some bravura sequence, then the male corps did just the same behind him alternately. Audiences were flummoxed! They wanted to applaud the soloist, but all of a sudden here were the rest of the men doing exactly as difficult work, immediately. It was both technically and politically a very canny thing to do. For years, English male dancers had languished in disrepute as the "Not-Terribly-Good Club of Great Britain". MacMillan demonstrated a breakout. Other choreographers have followed, but the structure of the evening-long ballet is no longer as formally set off, as were the nineteenth-century classics.


One place where male dancing stayed very strong in the west was Denmark. American audiences were astonished to see Royal Danes, as their tradition had preserved form as evidenced BEFORE Second Empire France. Male and female work was far more integrated. Even in the simple (well not so simple) pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano, the man's dancing is on an equal technical footing with the woman's, and he is much more than a simple porteur. They dance with one another, and the man is not simply a support for displaying the ballerina.


Now, this is not to disparage partnering! It's a very important part of ballet, but I think that today's ballet masters and choreographers have to break away from the late-nineteenth century formalism, and re-integrate the dancers as coequal partners in a realer sense of the word!

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In recent years, I just don't see the division that David brings up. But I've subscribed to PNB for 25 years, and certainly in the early years the male dancers were few and did not do the most challenging dancing. I've always assumed that reflected the comparitive rarity of male dancers at any given level of excellence. In fact, it was not hard to see that the best women were better dancers than the best men. But that has not been true for a long time now, and when I reflect on what I've seen over the last decade it seems pretty well balanced in numbers, talent, onstage time, and solo opportunities. I assume that reflects the growth of this company, and their ability to attract the (still relatively few) best male dancers in the numbers they would like to have.


Makes me think of the old saw, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, pretty soon every problem looks like a nail" - if a company has adequate depth of talent, they will and do schedule choreography that is well balanced.

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I think I get what davidg is talking about. And I think it starts when boys are young. Teachers and directors both, I think, seem to have problems choreographing parts for guys that aren't either short trick-laden bits or are partner-related, and if some existing piece of choreography is done, it's predominantly the same. I know boys that would absolutely looooove to be dancing more, but short of a seismic shift in how choreographers use men, and until there enough guys to do all the ensemble work that girls/women get to do (accompanied with the increased training, time, etc. that demands, I might add...lucky girls), or teachers/directors starting to get it that a lot of guys really want to be as much a 'dancer' as any girl/woman out there, I don't see it changing. It's very frustrating and somewhat disappointing for some guys, I think, though it seems there are also a lot that are happy with the status quo.


Oh, and Mel, thanks so much for letting an outsider (woman) comment here. This is definitely a valid, and vitally important!, discussion.

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I agree, and there's a lot of reasons why male dancers in many companies are really underused. And now for a return to the days when we had to kick the Woolly Mammoths out of the studios so that we could rehearse:


The late Harkness Ballet was in a very odd position. Its male members were, on the whole, better technical dancers than its female members. The dancers really weren't the major concern of the artistic directors, who came and went with startling rapidity. The problem was the company owner herself, Mrs. Harkness, who, I think, wanted to be Lucia Chase, and dance onstage with her company. But whereas Lucia had been a pretty good dancer, Rebekah was not. The artistic staff was up to HERE in keeping her offstage, except on foreign tours to Greece or Turkey or such, so the excellent men in the company didn't get to do much of anything, because their directorate was so distracted.

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Guest mic31

This is a really interesting thread.

I wonder what the futrue will hold. It seems to me like some of the larger organizations like the RAD are making male and female training alot more similar. Developments in their syllabus, with the acception of pointe, seem to be bringing the genders together onto a similar plain.

It probably seems a little simplistic, I know, but it's just something that I have noticed after learning all of the current levels and then comparing them to some of the older ways of doing things.

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Ok, here's another girl's perspective: I think at least one of the questions you guys are asking, about the lack of male corps de ballet dancing, just has to do with the numbers game - there are always far more female dancers than male dancers available. If you're in a large company like ABT, then ok, male dancers are not in short supply, but in smaller companies there are tons of women trying to get in, but very few strong male dancers are available. That's why choreographing a 12-member male corps de ballet section would often be logistical suicide!! And while the new male dancer may be annoyed that he "just" gets to do a pas de deux, the new female dancer might be equally annoyed that she is on stage for only 30 seconds in the back of the corps where no one notices her at all! Or the female dancer might not make it on stage at all!!


Also, even in the most traditional classical ballet, all the pas de deux's do have the male variations, which tend to be short but action-packed and major crowd pleasers. :D The female variations may be just as hard technically, but they just don't have the same effect of the crowd as all those high jumps and crazy turns...

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I used to call them u-haul ballets first the guy hauled her here then he hauled her there. I always love to watch men dance and it used to really irk me when I would go to an evening and there would be no break outs for the men. But now there are ballets like Troy games where the men really get to shine. I also have seen several Nutcrackers where they have 8 men 8 women for flowers with partners and corp work for both groups.


I think as the men get better so do the opportunities. I don't think they had the depth of men 20 - 40 years ago that they do now. As they say in sports there's a lot more bench strength. But even in Don Q there are male dominated sections as well as in Cosaire (sp) well pirates and bull fighters. On the reality side, it is hard to get experience as a young male that isn't experienced enough for the big roles but still needs to get some stage time. I'm just speaking to what my son is telling me. Their stage time is much more limited than the girls and that hurts them in the early years. That learning lots of corp roles really helps the girls with the memory and performing skills that the men don't get.

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