Why the queerness, diversity, and fluidity of sexuality and gender are forbidden or ignored in ballet, even though these are essential both to its energy and attraction? Excited by the Excellence in Finland network’s accelerator organized by the Finnish National Ballet in March, we were inspired to write a blog entry on what impact does this peculiar legacy of ballet has on contemporary dance.
The bodies performing on the ballet stage are at the same time ideal and imaginary. They represent aesthetic ideals of beauty considered to be classical. “The bodies idealized by ballet are surprisingly similar to the ideals in the world of fashion; the man has a v-shaped body, the woman is very tall and delicate. Nowadays, though, women are a bit more muscular than before”, Inkeri Pohjola notes. She is a versatile professional within the performing arts who became famous in the 1970s and 1980s in, among others, Jorma Uotinen’s contemporary dance group and in the Raatikko dance theatre.
In the actual world, outside the stage, the elegantly gesturing and boldly jumping ballet bodies wouldn’t make too much sense. Even though the man in ballet has a muscular body, it leaps in the wrong surroundings and in too odd glad rags to fit into the ideals of a sombre masculinity. The body of the swan princess, on the other hand, is all too trimmed, hysterically performative and self-focused to correspond to the demands of heterofemininity, in which it is primary to have a body shape apt to childbirth and care of others.
“The world of ballet is not real: it is not humane, but sadistic. A woman’s body is emptied of everything there; the ballerinas have to be asexual and genderless. They consent to a kind of masochistic Thanatos situation, i.e. a life of living death. The man in ballet, on the other hand, is strangely hyper-masculinized, a frightening being with his terrifying codpiece. This historical legacy of ballet has had an impact on contemporary ballet. It also spreads into the wider field of contemporary dance in shady ways, as ballet, a well-funded national institution, creates certain values, attitudes and political opinions within the entire field of dance. In this way, certain attempts to cross discipline borders are often deterred – not so much dance techniques as the diversity of values”, Sanna Kekäläinen, the founder and art director of the dancing group Kekäläinen & Company, proclaims.
The bellicose history of ballet
The oddly hypersexual and at the same time forbidden bodily repertoire is linked to the history of ballet, beginning in the 17th century. “Interestingly, ballet is a formula – or formalism – created by men at that era, alongside the arrangement of soldiers into mechanical schemes in modern warfare. Ultimately, then, it is a men’s thing, and therefore it is extremely important to think about what it actually does to women”, Sanna Kekäläinen remarks.
Classical dance was considered to be a lavish vanity of the aristocracy and the upper classes, as decadent and suspect –in a similar vein to how literature was considered as the leisurely pursuit of women. Ballet has indeed often been seen as elitist excess, on which the serious-minded working-class cannot waste its men. This persistent attitude is criticized for example by the musical about Billy Elliott, the Nurejev of a redneck English miner’s village.
The voices scorning and hating elites can still be heard, especially among the politicians of the True Finns. They want art forms like ballet and opera to be seen as excessive indulgences pursued by the idle plutocrats. Their “critique” – the scorn of all kinds of high culture – is, however, fundamentally different from Pohjola’s and Kekäläinen’s. For these two long-time rebels of dance, developing the art of dance means that long-term waged work would be available also elsewhere than within one dominant institution. In this way, dance as art would gain new expression and more contemporary constellations and meanings.
According to Inkeri Pohjola, ballet carries with it plenty of historical baggage that is uninteresting, unattractive and even embarrassing. On the other hand, there are novel and regenerating elements in the field of ballet, especially within contemporary dance, that concern the distribution of roles, dramaturgy, subject matter, content, costumes, and props, but also the environment in which dance is performed. Kekäläinen is not as optimistic:
“Even though not all ballerinas are victims, ballet as a working environment is really rough, associated with a strange kind of sadism to which the dancers have to sacrifice themselves. These forms of violence may precisely be linked to a prohibition of sexual queerness in ballet; there is a denial of how queer the world of ballet is, and (for many reasons) it is not possible to say, oh my isn’t this a queer-looking activity. Still, there is also new ballet out there that has dropped female masochism.”
The twisted pedagogy of ballet
At the accelerator event in the Finnish National ballet, star dancer Michael Krčmář told how he, as an athletic child, just wanted to play ice-hockey, like the male role models he admired. But ice hockey was an expensive hobby (we wrote about this topic in a previous entry), so his mother talked him into trying a cheaper hobby: ballet classes. Krčmář exhibited exceptional talent and immediately enrolled at the dancing conservatory in Prague. Nevertheless, when being among his peers, Krčmář was ashamed of his hobby, and he did not tell his friends about it for a long time.
Ballet dancer Jouka Valkama for his part said that the number of boys at the Opera ballet schools has multiplied due to educational school visits. The visits are carried out with only the boys remaining in the classroom, and the visiting ballet dancers promote ballet for the boys by performing some impressing ballet jumps and fighting scenes.
Of course, it is encouraging that there are an increasing amount of boys at the ballet school. However, special attention should be directed to scrutinize the methods of how to entice boys to try ballet. If the boys are only presented with extravagant skills and fighting scenes, the methods seem to be a bit one-dimensional.
Emphasizing machismo is peculiar, with regard to the fact that classical dance is very interpretive, sensitive and beautiful while simultaneously also technically extremely demanding and finely tuned. “In ballet, the technique creates a lot of possibilities, but it also freezes things into compulsory patterns. Beyond technique and the language of movement, ballet contains other constricting elements as well, such as positions, narrational techniques, content, and traditions” Inkeri Pohjola claims.
For Sanna Kekäläinen, the technique in ballet also has the potential to liberate art. The practice of technique in ballet for a contemporary dancer who pursues top-level performance is important in similar ways as a concert pianist needs to practice scales continuously.
“I am a ‘soft’ kind of dancer myself, who got sturdier by the exercises. When I was young I studied in London at a conservative college, Contemporary Dance School. There, it was interesting to train one’s own body in this way as well, by the classical exercises of ballet. These ballet movements will probably remain in my body’s memory forever. On a technical level, it has provided me more freedom as a dancer to do my own variations – also in the form of rebellion and otherness.”
The technical assertiveness in ballet allows for expressive freedom for women. Is it then not a twisted form of pedagogy to cut the expression of feelings through bodily movement or through the beauty of dance from the dancing boys or men? This is funny because it is only by emphasizing demanding technique or achievements that – in contrast to the general scornful ways of thinking – boys are indirectly (if not even verbally head-on) told that a dancing man is not a homo in stockings but rather an athletic hetero macho.
But what does ballet needs such homophobically trained, but technically brilliant and skillful, male dancers for? “At best, the technique of ballet imbues dance with an airiness that might sometimes give a completely breathtaking impression of negating gravitation. The first time I got this kind of striking experience was from seeing Tommi Kitti’s extraordinary jumps already at a time when he was not training ballet, but jazz dance”, Inkeri Pohjola describes.
Prisoners of million-dollar pirouettes
An answer to why men’s sexuality is to be emphasized in ballet in one way or another could be found in the heroic roles of male dancers. Inkeri Pohjola stresses this: “In traditional ballet, the bodily movements are very old-fashioned and overly romantic with all its gestures. According to a conservative or backwards-striving tradition, the woman is a decorative, delicate and ethereal being who is worshiped, lifted, held up and thrown around by men. A few witches and a prostituted Carmen function as the alternatives that reinforce the norm. The most important task for a man in ballet is to be the heroic prince. In addition to lifting women, the task of the ballet man is to walk nobly and to make million-dollar pirouettes.”
In the essential works of classical ballet, the heroic men rarely dance together in a group, except if there is a fighting scene, like the ballerinas might for a long time, as for example in the Swan Lake (there are exceptions, of course, such as Jorma Uotinen’s well-known Ballet Pathetique). Close bodily contact with the female dancers nonetheless belongs to the male roles in a central way. In ballet school, boys are taught to touch the female body in an accentuated neutral way, without visible or recognized sexual connotation. Neutrality and the ridding touch of sexuality are, however, a risk for masculinity as the straight man is supposed to be automatically turned on in the presence of an ideal female body. If this does not occur, there has to be something odd or strange about the man – i.e. something homosexual.
Dancing men try to dismiss the sexual stigma associated with dance using different tactics, Chiara Bassetti, dance researcher, argues. However, these strategies work in an unsure way, especially because the stigma is also internalized among the dancers, and maintains the emphasized requirement of heterosexual masculinity. This comes forth even though a significant part of dancers do not define themselves as heterosexual.
The rhetoric of the artistic professional excellence is one of these strategies of dismissal (in an interesting way, it is linked to the context of the Excellence in Finland network’s accelerator programs focusing on top-level performance in different fields). In the world of dance, a disproportionate emphasis lies on the virtuosity of some heterosexual male dancers. The higher up in the hierarchy one goes, the bigger the share of men is among those pursuing dancing. It is among them that virtuosity, i.e. exceptional energy and power, is searched for and built up.
As dancers, women and girls are usually seen as natural objects of a gaze, and through that, they are to be judged by their aesthetic beauty. For Inkeri Pohjola this is no news: “When I was an active dancer it was always in the fall, at the beginning of an intense working period, when a stern dieting program was lying ahead. Otherwise, one would get nasty comments. The worst case was when a choreographer made a comment and requirement to my pregnant friend: “you have to do something with those boobs, they are too big.”
Another way to dismiss especially the queer stigma among male dancers is a much-emphasized comparison between dance and sport. This strategy may be in question when school children are presented with impressive jumps that show off the athletics of a dancer. The masculine, athletic dancer’s body expresses control, target-orientation, and skills that are precisely the merits of a disciplined man – not caring about feelings in the way associated with women, or being made into the object of a gaze. However, all dancers are displayed on the stage and in front of the audience. There are languages, senses, disguises and revelations in bodily movements, through which the choreography of gender and sexuality are constructed – usually both in a conscious and in a concealed way.
The dying swan character was created by the legendary Maya Plisetskaya. After her, ballerinas began to develop their own immortal dying scenes. They were also being assessed on the basis of how satisfactorily they died. Plisetskaya would perhaps be too hefty and emotional if she were a contemporary ballerina. Here, she takes a leap in Sergei Prokofyev’s ballet Romeo and Julia at the Soviet Bolshoi Theater (which is now the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of Russia).
The odd sexual politics of ballet
One strategy used to neutralize the sexual suspicion surrounding especially male dancers is to build the choreography emphasizing movements considered to be particularly masculine. Nowadays, according to Inkeri Pohjola, queer perspectives on sexuality are often conveyed openly by choreographers, especially by those working in contemporary dance. “In ballet, the phenomenon is, however, slighter and harder to discern (the homo choreographers’ hetero ballet). My own experience of sexuality and gender in my dancing profession is that as a queer feminist it is easier for me to do pas de deux types of scenes with a gay man than with a straight one. On the other hand, it is partly about personal chemistry in general. Sometimes, not always, there was obvious heterosexism both in the air and in the grips of the men”, Pohjola ponders.
The normative performance of bodily movement can also be controlled by means of costumes. A pirouette can look remarkably more acceptable if the male dancer wears jeans instead of tricots. Also, the kind of dance makes a difference. If one thinks about hip-hop and classical ballet as two ends of a line segment, the meanings associated with dancing men fluctuate from acceptance to restriction. For regardless of all the protection strategies, male ballet dancers are still surrounded by bewilderment and suspicion.
There are, on the other hand, dancers and dancing groups who flagrantly and purposefully look for and utilize the queer legacy of the art of dancing. In Finland, for example, Sanna Kekäläinen and her group Kekäläinen & company have been inspired by queer research and feminist theory in their dancing elegies and genre-bending experimental studies. Plenty of female nudity is seen in Kekäläinen’s performances, but also other nude bodies, for example, non-athletic male dancers and short women. Their relation to the cultural imagery of dance has been performed from many surprising perspectives.
Sanna Kekäläinen emphasizes that throughout her dancer/choreographer career of three decades, she has wanted to resist ballet’s extreme hierarchy and violent schooling. “As a dancer, I have not agreed to offer my body as a means to be defined by the male gaze; I have wanted to show the female body as ugly, embarrassing and weird. I have wanted to bring the spectacle of the female body to the private sphere through nakedness. This queer resistance, by showing that being rejected generates energy, and that negativity breeds power, makes the performance itself into an object of study. Resistance is tailor-made to bring new meanings into dance but it is also physically and psychologically risky; as continuously swimming against the stream can damage the artists’ careers and even their health” Kekäläinen remarks.
Is there a future for ballet?
Towards what direction should the legacy of ballet and dance be stretched? For Inkeri Pohjola, the answer is clear. “From an aesthetic point of view, as a former dancer, as somebody who is nowadays actually a spectator of dance, and as just being myself; more than traditional formulas of ballet, I am enchanted by women who play masculine parts and who have muscles clearly produced by the job – not the kind of puffy muscles that are pumped up in a gym. For me, the idioms of dance need strong bodily expressions, instead of unnecessary and empty mannerisms, and unnecessary “acting” and face-making. For example, Katri Soini has done groundbreaking work in creating this kind of a female dancer character that subverts boundaries.”
As for Sanna Kekäläinen, she would rather dismantle the National Ballet and other national art institutions entirely. “When one institution has been given an incredible amount of resources, flawed and skewed proportions emerge. It would be more interesting to try which concepts of art would appear if the welfare -baloney of national art institutions were given up. Even now, art offers wellbeing in the margins as it produces situations where identification and seeing queerness are made possible. Stuff happens on the edge, some of which feed back into the mainstream.”
Sanna Kekäläinen sums up the problems related to the development of the sphere of Finnish dance: “The sphere of free dance field should not be left in the quandary that it is stuck in now. Choreographers and dancers learn how to make grant applications, but they do not learn how to create performances and how to dance in them. In Finland, the policy is to educate too many dancers, while there are not exactly jobs anywhere else than at the National Opera, which very rarely hires new people. Ballet as a form of art could stagnate into a historical form of art, but it should be able to change with its times, as for example the visual arts and theatre have succeeded in doing. The ossification of ballet is a result of ballet denying its own fundamental queerness.
* The opening image: Liliana Cosi and Rudolf Nureyev. Nureyev is a classic example of paradoxical male figures, who jumped higher than anyone else but who also moved gracefully and wore delicate make-up.