Ballet Independents' Group (BIG) Forum: Men
Emma Pegler represented Critical Dance at the most recent forum hosted by the Ballet Independents’ Group (BIG), an organisation founded by Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson which organises regular discussions on topics relating to ballet, and feeds back her account of the session.
The panel assembled to discuss the topic, Men in Tights, consisted of: William Trevitt, former Royal Ballet dancer, who, with Michael Nunn, the other half of the duo known as Ballet Boyz, co-founded George Piper Dances; Mavin Khoo, Bharatha Natyam dancer and independent choreographer; and Dr. Theresa Buckland, dance anthropologist and Research Professor at De Montfort University, currently researching masculinity in Morris dancing.
Jennifer Jackson opened the discussion, asking the panel: what attracts men to dance and what does it give them? How are men represented in dance performance and in specific dance forms, and how may this have changed? To what extent is the construction of gender in dance linked to sexual orientation and to what extent do perceived characteristics of male and female dancing relate to a social order? Ms. Jackson referred to anecdotal stories about young boys facing the horrors of wearing tights for the first time. Such stories, on a light level, highlighted the passions surrounding the topic. She then invited the panel to consider the issue more profoundly with reference to personal experience.
William Trevitt, who started dancing aged six when a friend of the family needed an extra fireman for a ballet based on the children’s programme Trumpton, has never been teased for his choice of career, could not recall ever having had an issue with wearing tights, and had actually found that other boys had been curious to come to class with him. More relevant were his experiences of working in Japan with six male ballet dancers, a company formed with other former Royal Ballet dancers which had audiences of what he felt must have comprised 97% women. Furthermore, through his latest venture, George Piper Dances, he has developed a whole new way of working with Michael Nunn by dancing ‘with’ him: their duet by Russell Maliphant is one of the most rewarding works Mr. Trevitt has performed, because of the possibilities of evolving the dance when pitted against a physical equal.
Mavin Khoo was taken to dance classes at the age of five as a means of releasing surplus energy. He knew from an early age that he wanted to dance professionally. Aged ten, he went to India, where he received teaching from a sixty-year-old master. Aged fourteen, he saw a video of the ballet Don Quixote, danced by Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It changed his life. Rather than idolising Baryshnikov, it was Kirkland’s awareness of her body – how she extended her foot, looked at it and then extended it a further inch – that impressed him. He studied with Merce Cunningham in New York and then attended ballet school. In a class of men only, dealing exclusively with ‘male technique’, the ballet master made him turn more times than the musical phrase seemed to allow. This finally prompted him to leave and pursue a different path in dance.
Mr. Khoo told the forum: “I never thought of me being a ‘man’ dancing; I am a body excited by space and who I dance with.” He could never understand why in ballet class the men were given specific instructions about posture that were different from the women. Why the difference? In studying Indian dance, notwithstanding its strong classical traditions, he was unaware of gender, form being all-important. Mr. Khoo always resists defining dance by gender: [dance] class is class and dancers should work on their technique in the dance without being told that the men should do one thing and the women another. Further, most of his role models in the dance have been women: Kirkland, Cynthia Gregory and Sylvie Guillem. Their appeal is the juxtaposition of strength and sensitivity; in other words, the integration of qualities seen as typically male and the typically female. The expression of emotion is the most essential element of dance, and to be fully achieved it requires experience of emotion, which, he believes, is more likely to come from a woman.
Dr. Buckland drew on her studies of Morris dancing. It is a dance form unusual for the fact that it is danced almost exclusively by men, who come to the dance as adults. In the northwest of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, men, dressed in ribbons by their sweethearts, were out on parade to be admired by the other women of the village. By the end of the century girls were brought in and gradually the dance as a male activity dwindled. There followed a revival of interest when the form was taught in schools, mainly by women. In the 1930s the men wanted to reclaim their dance and began to dominate it again. They expressed what they were doing, however, less as enthusiasm for dancing, and more as the performance of a ritual and preservation of a tradition. Dr. Buckland believes that in this way Morris dancers continue to distance themselves from anything that may intimate that their activity is feminine or effeminate. Which is why they insist that the garment worn over their breeches is a kilt and quite definitely not a skirt. Mr. Trevitt has performed Morris dancing and was intrigued by the juxtaposition of strength and delicacy. He recalled that certain members of the group of men had hit the stick hard as if to remind the audience of their masculinity, in contrast with the light use of handkerchiefs.
William Trevitt explained that dancing a duet with a man had opened his eyes to a whole new world of possibilities: a whole new repertoire potentially exists through movement with a physical equal, since he can now be lifted rather than doing all the lifting. In addition, coming from a classical ballet tradition, he commented ironically that the strength of his performance was judged by how little he was seen and how much he showed off the ballerina. With another man, this is clearly anathema. Mavin Khoo has also danced duets with men and believes that the decision as to who lifts who is a question of aesthetics when both dancers are men. He is aware, however, that the audience brings its own social and cultural references to such a performance. An Asian lady one told him that she enjoyed the male duet as two dancing bodies that happened to be male, whereas an American lady, congratulating him on the same performance, described it as homo-erotic. Theresa Buckland cited Turkish male dancers at Sidmouth Folk Festival whose movement was viewed as effeminate from a British cultural standpoint.
Mavin Khoo acknowledged that two men dancing together who, unlike Trevitt and Nunn, are not close friends, presents certain difficulties for the dancers, since there are no traditional roles to fall back on. Each dancer has a mix of power and vulnerability based on physical size and strength. It is rare to find absolute power-sharing harmony with another male in which each shares dominance in leading ‘and’ lifting and is able to give ‘and’ receive. It requires two men to be open in allowing the power base to shift and alter. Trevitt agreed that the traditional boy/girl roles portrayed in dance – I love you/hate you/chase you – cannot be applied to two men dancing together: the psychological contexts are different and do not translate. That means that the vocabulary of dance has to develop to encompass these newly portrayed relationships. After all mother and son and brother and sister are rarely accommodated in dance portrayal, and as Balanchine pointed out: “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” The subtleties of some human relationships are too hard to portray.
One member of the forum cited the example of Matthew Bourne’s all male ‘corps’ in his version of Swan Lake, which challenged the portrayal of male and female in the dance. Mr. Trevitt thought that the challenge was less about creating an all male ‘corps’, and more about making it ‘not’ female.
The forum acknowledged that in certain cultures dancing ‘is’ completely accepted as a male pastime. For example, in Argentina at the beginning of the last century, men were at pains to learn to dance so as to impress the women, of which there were very few, because immigration into the country was predominantly male. This tradition continues – a man meets women through the dance and therefore wishes to excel. In tango, the man shows off to the woman. He leads the steps and therefore experiences the greater agony in becoming proficient in the dance.
The forum widened the debate to consider gender in folk traditions generally: is it more to do with contest between villages, embodying a sense of community, than about gender? Gender roles become defined, preserving the stereotypes, men the bell ringers, women the sandwich makers, their respective territories being jealously guarded against interference.
Reverting specifically to the subject of men in tights, the forum recalled that Nijinsky was the first ballet dancer to appear in just tights on stage, shocking the Tsarina of Russia by having abandoned his over-knickers. Audiences are still confused by the messages signalled by men in tights: for the uninitiated, the spectacle of an adult male wearing just tights can indicate sex – think of the tight-fitting clothes of the sex symbol Elvis Presley – or can be construed as effeminate and generate embarrassed laughter.
Mavin Khoo considered the role reversal in certain Southern Indian communities where traditionally women were the breadwinners and, as an indication of their dominance in a matriarchal society, the only dancers. This then changed – men emerged and assumed the dancing roles. New dancing roles associated with spirituality were created for men, men being considered closer to God. As a man aged, he would move on to the traditional female repertoire. Yet in different social contexts, dance is unquestionably a male activity: in maori and aboriginal societies men dance from childhood, and fewer of the issues of doubtful masculinity ever arise.
Conversely, there have been situations in history where dance was questionable even as a female activity. In Europe women were not allowed on the stage for many years after the development of stage performances of plays and dancing. Up to the turn of the twentieth century, girls who did go on stage were considered little more than prostitutes. Again, that resides in the social expectations of the audience.
Ms. Jackson turned back to the present and asked Mr. Khoo and Mr. Trevitt, as exponents of progress in their respective dance forms, where this would take them? Mr. Trevitt said he is using his body differently now and will continue to develop that. Until two years ago he was growing into a model of the male ballet principal, developing the list of things that a successful male dancer is required to do, such as the ability to carry a woman above his head. Ms. Jackson remarked that abandoning the standard male list invites a different engagement with the audience, throwing the artist back on his own dance and encouraging a deeper reflection on the use of his own body.
Mr. Khoo knew from a young age that he had chosen a direction very different from other dancers. At first he thought everyone felt like him – that dance is dance. Knowing differently now, he wants to break down the misconceptions surrounding classical forms of dance, believing that because classical dance is steeped in tradition, audiences make their judgements based on preconceived ideas as to what classical dance ‘is’.
But is it the institution that dictates what the dancer does, or the dance form? Swan Lake is not the only manifestation of classical ballet – think of the contributions of Forsythe, Balanchine and Robbins. Mr. Trevitt believes that the established ballet companies have left Swan Lake frozen in time; they have not allowed the classics to evolve through new interpretations. Swan Lake as performed by such companies, was acknowledged to be frozen in an aesthetic of how it should look and be performed. This rigidity, Trevitt believes, is caused by a mixture of laziness (Swan Lake is successful with audiences as it is) and economics (what if it goes wrong?) Besides, innovative works are supported financially by the staple works in a company’s repertoire.
This does not mean that the phenomenon of men dancing together is completely absent from the big national ballet companies. Witness San Francisco Ballet’s season in London this year. The floor discussed various experiences of men dancing on stage in a way that subverts the normal order of our expectations. One dance production of Lorca’s play House of Bernada Alba brought a man on stage, whereas Lorca had only women on stage. Another production was danced exclusively by men.
Experiences from the floor of working with children in dance showed that as boys reach puberty they become aware of the supposed male role at the same time as of their sexuality, and shy away from anything that might oppose this new-found masculinity, even though it would only be acting and assuming a role. Nevertheless, young men previously uninitiated in ballet had thrown themselves into workshops at English National Ballet, remarking that they were surprised at the lack of tights and tutus.
Still, tutus sell ballets because there is a prevalent audience expectation that ballet productions will feature ballerinas dressed in the way traditionally associated with femininity. Hence the “Barbie” sponsorship of ENB’s Nutcracker this season. As Mr. Trevitt pointed out, to make something work commercially your publicity has to reflect audience expectations. Hence his discussion with his own publicists – two ballet dancers looking like ballet dancers, he concedes, sell more tickets than two men getting up off the floor (his own preference), however arresting an image.
Mavin Khoo’s closing thoughts for the future presentation of his dance form brought the forum to a close. Get rid of the exotica. The Miss India look has to go.
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