Posted on December 4, 2019
Back in January 2017 I wrote an article for Dancing Times about Project B, the initiative developed by the Royal Academy of Dance to bring focus on increasing the number of boys who are exposed to ballet. It aims to bring dance to more people in more places for their centenary celebrations in 2020. I found learning about the scheme and meeting the people connected with it informative. Iain Mackay, a dance ambassador for Project B, former principal of Birmingham Royal Ballet and current director of the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School, spoke resolutely about how one shouldn’t “put [up] any barriers” when encouraging boys to stay dancing since there will be “enough of them later on”.
Two years later and in the light of a very public misspeaking on the part of journalist Lara Spencer on Good Morning America, one of the US’ most widely watched breakfast television shows, my perspective has changed. I’m disappointed. I wrote in my article that the ballet industry had a duty to work hard to show people into our esoteric world, but now feel the emphasis on change should actually be on some parts of our wider social culture.
Spencer spoke on the “pop news” segment of the morning show on August 22, referring to Prince George’s study of ballet. Her comments and tone of voice made it clear the journalist was ridiculing the young prince’s choice of hobby. Gia Kourlas, dance critic of the New York Times, rightly described Spencer as: “perpetuating a tired, homophobic stereotype: that ballet is not a suitable profession for men”. Though the work to improve and open up our world is never done, my training and work as a practitioner has seemingly always focused on proving classical ballet’s worth and relevancy. Whilst I know Spencer’s views are not reflected by the vast majority, it’s unnerving that outdated ideas surrounding who should dance persists under the surface, ready to slip out in a moment of indiscreet, “un-PR-ed” thought.
It was positive to see the online reaction from the dance community towards Spencer’s off-the-cuff comment, with male dancers all over the world posting videos and photographs talking about the struggles they faced growing up and learning to dance in a culture that identifies ballet as a female pursuit. Some of our industry’s most influential male figures wrote cogently and thoughtfully about the values that a life in dance had taught them. I’m hoping it helps people realise ballet, like other art forms, teaches us about our own humanity. This educative tone was evident in Spencer’s on screen apology and panel discussion on August 26 with Robbie Fairchild, former principal of New York City Ballet and star of Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris, Travis Wall of the US version of So You Think You Can Dance and Fabric Calmels, principal of The Joffrey Ballet. The four positioned the discussion around engendering a more empathetic environment for children to experience what they wished; stopping outmoded ideas impinging on someone’s desire “to follow their dreams”. It’s a positive message, but is it perhaps a little too simplistic and saccharine for 2019? Did Spencer truly change her mind, or was a producer thinking about damage limitation?
George Williamson, a choreographer from the UK, made illuminating comments on the topic in The Independent on the August 31, highlighting issues I’ve thought about a lot as a male dancer. Williamson wrote about the defence of men in ballet and how we are generally swift to assert how male dancers display strength and athletic prowess. Classical ballet is an art form that pivots of the contrast between masculine and feminine, but what does that mean when it’s starting to feel like we should question the message this sends out? Williamson and colleagues of mine talk about ballet propagating a heteronormative view of the human experience: “We are taught that there is nothing worse than being compared to a girl.” Williamson’s comment is obviously part of a wider discussions concerning how women are viewed in our society, but how feminism and patriarchal ideas tinge the ballet stage is significant. For me, it’s the effect on the men who operate within the industry that hasn’t been looked at in great enough depth.
Though Spencer’s comments weren’t obviously connected with discussions of sexuality within ballet, I see it as a gateway to examine why people are still uncomfortable thinking about queerness and dance. The headline on the cover of the Dancing Times’ October issue (“Ballet and Gay Men”) is emboldening and should form part of a discussion of what ballet means to us today. Ballet and dance has the potential to reflect our humanity in all its tones. Ballets like Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon or Mayerling look at human desire – sexual, romantic and material – with an uncompromising and visceral scope. I’m left wondering whether a ballet on a queer theme would be as engaging? I can’t wait to sit in a theatre and think about the answer.
Pictured: James Whiteside, an openly gay man who is also a principal with American Ballet Theatre, in Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations. Photograph by Marty Sohl/American Ballet Theatre.