Abstract Classical ballet originated during a time lacking women’s rights. For many years, ballet was regarded as a platform for women to gain visibility and status. Today, one critique of classical ballet is that it is antifeminist. Through analyses of specific pieces from different periods in which some of the most famous classical repertoire was created, Giselle from the Romantic Era (1841-1890), The Sleeping Beauty from the Imperial Russian Era (1890-1909), The Rite of Spring from the Diaghilev Era (1910-1929), The Four Temperaments from the Neoclassical Ballet Era (1933-1969), and Dark Matters from the 20th Century Era, I will show how the gender roles created and perpetuated in ballet start to become more neutral over time. The role of women in ballet evolves in a manner similar to the evolution in women’s rights that takes place culturally. This progression shows how ballet, and dance in general, is reclaimed for the female dancer, breaking away from the roles and platform created by the male gaze. I will also investigate my Senior Piece titled Sister, and analyze my own choreography and purpose in creating the piece as a conclusion to my studies.
Keywords: Femininity, masculinity, cultural norms, male gaze
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” – John F. Kennedy
Art has been described as the window to the individual’s inner landscape, the reflection of the human condition, and the canvas on which history has been painted. Art is versatile in the ways it captures the evolution and progression of all social reality: for example, through music, visual art, dance, and poetry. John F. Kennedy draws attention to the importance of freeing the artist, that is, allowing the artist full agency to express the feeling and insight so as to “nourish the roots of our culture.” The human body is the vessel through which we gain experience of all aspects of life, and this justifies it as one of the most important tools in universal communication. But it is the human body that has received the most restrictions in terms of expression due to its connection to sex, the unconscious, or primal urges that are an uncomfortable topic in our society.
In classical ballet, limitations and roles were placed on men and women based on differences of gender. The distinctiveness of these limitations and roles were magnified when creating storylines and choreography, forcing men and women to portray exaggerated images of their genders. The role of women in the art of dance echoed the role they played in society: at first, they were subordinate, lacking influence or authority. Over time, these values and stereotypes started to shift, as did the roles in ballet., for dance does exactly this: it reflects culture, but it also makes, informs, and changes culture. In this thesis I will examine how the role of women in ballet evolved over the years, and how gender roles at times, in fact, were reversed, throughout ballet and partnering. Further, I will investigate the evolution of the space women occupied on stage and how the choreographer affected the feminist outcome of the choreography. By comparing Giselle from the Romantic Era, The Sleeping Beauty from the Imperial Russian Era, Rite of Spring from the Diaghilev Era, Four Temperaments from the 20th century, and Dark Matters, a contemporary piece by female choreographer Crystal Pite, I will examine the relationship of feminism in dance and how it has evolved over the years. As a conclusion to this research, I will investigate my Senior Piece titled Sister, and I will highlight how the piece itself is a result of the feminist work that has progressed throughout the dance world over time. I will show the evolution of women and feminism through dance, beginning at a pre-feminist starting point, thus significantly antifeminist, and how, with the passage of time, women moved towards equality.
Dance and Feminism
In my analysis, I will be investigating feminist and antifeminist movement. By defining feminist movement as movement that occupies a significant amount of space, commands the attention of the audience, is physically powerful, and allows the woman to be versatile in her depth as a character and dancer, I will determine the amount of feminist and antifeminist thinking within each ballet. This is not to say that small, intricate movement is antifeminist; it can indeed be very powerful and attention grabbing. How the choreographer chooses to emphasize or manipulate small movement is what can translate to the audience a feminist or antifeminist image. In a study of dance and feminism, there are three main issues to consider: the Male Gaze, the female dancers relationship to space, and body image. I will explore each of this section.
Dancers across the globe have said that they feel empowered by knowing they have the physical, mental, and emotional ability and stamina to complete classical roles. Though scholar Ann Daly refers to a section of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, as an “example of a man manipulating a powerless and vulnerable woman” (qtd. in Johnson 7), , Christina Johnson of the Dance Theater of Harlem, who has danced the very role Daly refers to, has a different experience. She states:
My experience of dancing the role never felt submissive or disempowering, and the level of physical and emotional surrendering that was needed required a trust and an intention that felt exactly the opposite of what Daly argues: it felt empowering and liberating. (7)
Though Daly critiques The Four Temperaments as being antifeminist, we see that for Johnson, the choreography emboldened her by reminding her of her own strength, agency as an artist, and her ability to connect and transmit human feeling through movement to her audience. The important distinctions in these analyses lie in the difference between the ballerina as an artist versus the ballerina in the context of the ballet and its cultural significance. The role itself is different from the artist who is portraying the role. The critique, such as that offered by Daly, is not of the artist’s experience, but rather of the significance the role plays in a specific cultural, political, and societal context.
I suggest that the critique of the difference between role and artist applies not only to one critique of one certain era, but also to the entire history of classical ballet. The notion of the “male gaze” is a term stemming from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Gaze Theory. Lacan’s theory asserts that there is a relationship between the subject that is seen and the subject that is “gazing.” In many critiques of film, dance, and theater, the gaze threatens or removes the subject’s autonomy, which results in the subject becoming a product of what the gazer wishes to see. Daly notes that the “male gaze” is, however, slightly different in the sense that it asserts gender roles:
In modern Western culture, the one who sees and the one who is seen are gendered positions. The possessive gaze is “male,” while the passive object of the gaze is “female”- regardless of the dancer’s or spectator’s sex.” (296)
In ballet especially, the idea of the “male gaze” has deconstructed classical ballets and opinions of social progress throughout various eras. For example, Romantic Ballet (1841-1890) has been considered to be the era of the ballerina, appointing the majority of the lead roles to female dancers. Scholar Ann Daly, however, argues otherwise. She writes that, although both “Giselle and La Sylphide have leading female roles, the real heroes are in fact, Albrecht and James,” the leading male roles, because “they bear the problems, and they make the choices: they act, while the heroines are acted upon” (282). Daly comments on the fact that this idea of acting and being acted upon is not exclusive to the world of ballet:
The “feminine” passivity that marks this display is a low-status activity in American culture; action is valued as “masculine” for its strength and self-assertiveness. In paintings, in films, in beauty pageants, in advertisements women are constructed as to-be-looked at; the men are the lookers, the voyeurs…the possessors. Men, on the other hand, are constructed as the doers in films, in television commercials, in sports, in politics, in business. That’s why men who model are often seen as ‘effeminate’. As John Berger wrote, ‘ men act and women appear.’ (282)
This idea of the appearance of women has other social constraints as well. Because ballet is critiqued with such strict technical and artistic standards, the general and overall aesthetic of the ballerina is something that receives a good deal of attention. The most prevalent issue that ballerinas face is one of weight. Ballerinas’ thin bodies can be whittled down to their general level of fitness, but this issue of weight is deeper than an issue of fitness. The level of perfection ballerinas strive for in their art form is, as asserted by many professional dancers, unattainable. The amount of pressure - whether created internally or externally - to perfect a step also translates into perfecting the body. The ideal female body in most cultures today is one of thinness, with long limbs and even proportions. This image of the female body is portrayed everywhere in media: through films, commercials, and advertisements, and this image socially conditions men and women to believe that this is ideal, and that this is attainable. Women are, in fact, praised for smaller, thinner bodies, while men are praised for bigger, bulkier musculature. This perpetuates many of the stereotypes related to each gender; this is to say that femininity means small, delicate, light, and unassuming, whereas masculine means big, strong, commanding, and confident. We see this unrealistic body image of women throughout the media just as much as we see it for men, although in a different way. The ideal body type for men is not to shrink one’s body weight; instead, the muscles become more bulky, taking up more space, projecting a very specific image of masculinity. These two opposing ideas of ideal body types for male and female teach us, subconsciously, to place value in the space we occupy, and to be aware of how much space we should occupy. Slam poet Lily Myers speaks to the issue of space and gender in her poem entitled “Shrinking Women.” She writes:
Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s
As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.
She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round
With wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was
Overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s
‘Crazy about fruit’. (Myers, “Shrinking Women”)
While Myers touches on an issue that exists in all ages and in all areas of life, the issues of gender and space, and femininity and masculinity are particularly painful and obvious in none other than classical ballet. How much space women occupy on stage compared to men, and how they occupy it, are vastly different. These gender roles and stereotypes created by social pressures and perpetuated in classical ballet are a critique of the influence of the male gaze.
Throughout the Romantic and Imperial Russian Ballet Eras (1841-1909), this is easy to see. As women’s rights start to progress throughout the Diaghilev Era (1910-1929), we might assume gender ideals would slowly begin to evolve away from stereotypical roles over time. Yet with George Balanchine, who claims to have “dedicated (his) art to her,” the woman, these same ideals apply. Balanchine’s basic line of thinking is riddled with traditional gender stereotypes and norms:
Man is a better cook, a better painter, a better musician, composer. Everything is man- everything. Man is stronger, faster. Why? Because we have muscles and we’re made that way. And woman accepts this. It is her business to know what’s beautiful. Men are great poets because they have to write beautiful poetry for women- odes to a beautiful woman. Woman accepts the beautiful poetry. You see, man is the servant - a good servant. In ballet, however, woman is first. Everywhere else man is first. But in ballet, it’s the woman. (qtd. in Daly 280)
Many would say that Balanchine transformed American ballet, and created his own technique. Needless to say, he was a man of great influence and visibility. The importance of his thinking affected a large population, simply for the following he accrued. As Daly states,
As much as Twiggy or Marilyn Monroe, she (the Balanchine Ballerina) is an American icon. When, as in these cases, an artificial construction takes on a “natural” appearance, ideal representations (Woman) instead of realities (women) set standards for everyday life. (279)
The ballerina contributes to, and is affected by, the ideal female image just as much as in film, theater, and advertising. These supposedly separate entities of the individual woman and cultural expectations of the ideal woman are, in fact, not separate. They directly affect the other, placing immense importance on the subliminal values embedded in social discourse.
This is not to say that women and the general public were blind to such manipulation; attention and action for women’s rights began as early as 1830 in Paris, France with a utopian socialist group called the Saint-Simonians, “who offered a new vision of social regeneration in which woman was to figure prominently” (Meglin 69). The fight for women’s rights and equality only grew stronger over the years, and remains a prevalent issue today. The definitions of femininity and masculinity place restrictions on men and women of all ages, emotionally, physically, and mentally. This issue is of great interest to me because it is present in the world of dance as well. In my Senior Piece titled Sister, I wanted to explore this issue further by creating a setting in which my dancers, all women, could break down these cultural restrictions and move freely. The process of creation and the piece itself seemed possible because of the feminist work done in the dance world, as well as outside of it.
I will analyze each ballet in three sections: first, the effect of gender roles on the personal relationships between the characters, their movement and they space they occupy; second, the dynamic of traditional gender roles in relationships amongst the characters, and last, the sociopolitical context of each ballet. By beginning with Giselle, and ending with an analysis of my piece, I will investigate how dance has been reclaimed by the female dancer, and for the female dancer.
Giselle Historical Background and Plot Giselle premiered on June 18th, 1841 in the Salle Le Peletier Theater in Paris. Choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, Giselle was a huge success. As one of the most popular Romantic Era ballets, Giselle was recognized for its use of pointe work, romantic tutus, and a storyline that became definitive of, and specific to, the Romantic Era. This storyline includes the use of magic, supernatural beings, and the depiction of women as fragile and passive. Theophile Gautier and Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges, the librettists of Giselle, took inspiration for the storyline from two different works: a poem titled Fantomes by Victor Hugo, and from Heinrich Heine’s description of supernatural beings called the “Wilis” in his work De l’Allemagne.
The ballet opens with some of the villagers of Rhineland dancing in front of Giselle’s house. Gamekeeper and forest ranger Hilarion, and Albrecht Duke of Silesia are both in love with Giselle and have come to see her. Albrecht is already betrothed (to Bathilde) and he doesn’t want Giselle to know his real identity, so he hides his cloak and sword, and introduces himself as Loys. Hilarion is jealous of Giselle’s affections for Albrecht. Hilarion discovers Albrecht’s real identity and when the royal hunting party comes to their village with Albrecht’s betrothed, he reveals Albrecht’s identity. Giselle, who already has poor health due to a week heart, cannot take the betrayal from her true love, Albrecht, and dies in her mother’s arms from heartbreak.
Act Two takes place at Giselle’s foggy, moonlit grave. “The Wilis,” ruled by their cold-hearted queen Myrtha, are the spirits of women who died of a broken heart. At night they haunt the forest, led by Myrtha, seeking revenge on men who have caused their demise. They force any man they encounter to dance himself to death.
The Wilis and their Queen capture Hilarion and force him to dance to death. In the meantime, Albrecht has come to Giselle’s grave to grieve. He is completely undone at the loss of Giselle because it was she whom he loved most. Giselle’s spirit finds him, and he begs for forgiveness. Her love for him conquers her heartbreak and she forgives him. However, Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, finds them and is not as forgiving. She wants Albrecht to dance himself to death as well, but it is Giselle’s eternal love for him that protects him from the mercilessness of Myrtha and her Wilis that saves Albrecht’s life and Giselle’s soul. At daybreak, the spirits return to their graves, and Giselle and Albrecht bid farewell. Giselle returns to her grave, no longer forced to haunt men for the rest of her afterlife because she avenged her demise through the act of forgiving her lover. The ballet ends with Albrecht, clearly shaken from the experience of the night before, heartsick for Giselle and changed forever.
Gender Roles in Movement and Space
Throughout Giselle, the choreography given to each character is not surprising. In fact, it is what is expected with most ballets; the women are elegant, light on their feet, gentle and graceful, while the men display big jumps, difficult turns and powerful movement. In Act One, when Albrecht declares his love for Giselle, we see the relationship of gender and space very clearly. Albrecht declares his love for Giselle with expansive, sweeping gestures of his arms, a wide stance, and a broad chest. He is not apologetic of the space he occupies; rather, he commands it. Giselle, on the other hand, sits daintily on a bench, legs crossed, balancing on the tips of her toes, picking at a flower, with her gaze cast downward. The space she occupies is much less than Albrecht, and her movement is passive.
In Act Two, the Wilis, Myrtha, and Giselle all appear weightless. They are supernatural, ethereal spirits that glide across the stage on the tips of their toes with speed. The Wilis’ movement is delicate and beautiful; the long lines of their legs in arabesque create the image that their limbs are floating. This weightlessness - this ethereal portrayal - of women places the ballerina on a pedestal for being something out of this world, intangible, as well as in a box, unrealistic and unattainable as a woman.
The only time we see a man perform any movement with a quality of femininity is when Albrecht and Giselle dance together in Act Two. Giselle begins their Pas de Deux by standing in the center of the stage, her head turned down towards the earth, her arms crossed over her chest with her palms facing together; this melancholic, stoic pose sets the tone for the rest of the duet. Albrecht responds to this movement with a similarly elegant use of his upper body; when dancing with Giselle, he lets her melt into his chest gently and does so passionately. Although he is responsible for manipulating Giselle’s movements, he is completely tuned into her emotions, emulating the same quality of movement. Through movement that is delicate and felt, the sadness and pain he is feeling is almost tangible.
There is also a strong correlation between music and movement, which, in this instance, works to reinforce gender images. The music often matches the dancer in choreography, and is sometimes used to announce the presence of a specific character. Whenever the women dance, windpipes and other airy musical instruments play light, staccato, melodies, matching in small, flitting jumps, or quick movements on the tops of the toes propelling them across stage, known as bourrees. When the men dance, drums, horns, and deeper brass instruments play tunes that are louder and stronger, resulting in exciting jumps and multiple turns, all of which command the attention of the audience and occupy the entire stage.
Gender Roles and Interpersonal Relationships Throughout this ballet, the audience is struck by traditional gender roles and relationships amongst the characters. Albrecht and Hilarion, both strong men with presence that dominates the stage, command the attention of the audience. When interacting with Giselle, their passions and actions are strong. Their demeanors are consistent with the idea of “action” as masculine, men as “doers” (Daly 282). They await Giselle’s reaction because theirs are unfaltering. Although Giselle rejects Hilarion in the end, he is never shy, passive, or forgiving in his actions. For the majority of the ballet Hilarion is portrayed as angry, jealous, conniving, and self-involved. The point at which he deviates from his hyper-masculinized, jealousy-crazed image is when he breaks down and grieves at Giselle’s grave.
This is similar to Albrecht. Albrecht is characterized as to be preferred over Hilarion. He is charming and strong, yet lies to Giselle and manipulates her into thinking he is someone other than who he really is. He occupies the role of hero and villain (Bruner 107). He decides for her what she is allowed to know, and takes advantage of her trust. However, he is different from Hilarion because Giselle does not reject him. Giselle grants him forgiveness because his actions show that he loves her most. Here again, the idea of the male gaze controls the outcome of Giselle’s reactions to her active male counterpart. Daly writes,
No matter what the specific steps, no matter what the choreographic style, the interaction structure, pointe work, and movement style, classical ballet portrays women as objects of male desire rather than as agents of their own desire. (286)
The idea of forgiving Albrecht is introduced as a choice for Giselle, but through the male gaze of the choreographer, spectator, and partner, we see once again Albrecht is acting, whereas Giselle is being acted upon (Daly 282). Her choice is being made for her.
Giselle is the picture of innocence. She is angelic, weak, naïve, passive, and forgiving. Throughout the first half of the ballet, we see her playfulness and shyness when she sees Albrecht. She is perfectly sweet, endearing and intriguing to her male counterparts, perfecting this stereotypical image of what a woman was expected to be. Her ability to forgive Albrecht can be seen either as something that makes her weak (yet again an object of the male gaze and devoid of her own agency) but also seen as something that makes her strong and admirable. It is ironic, then, that her character would be allowed this strength and moral aptitude to forgive in death, rather than when she was still alive. She is not allowed to be both at the same time; it is only after she dies from being destroyed by heartbreak that she becomes strong, loving, purposeful and admirable.
The leading female roles, such as Giselle, Bathilde, and Giselle’s mother, with the important exception of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, are weak, passive, unknowing, easily manipulated, and angelic. Myrtha, however, is the exact opposite: she is ruthless, harsh, bitter, angry, and unforgiving. The most powerful woman in the ballet is the leader of the most powerless women: the Wilis. Although they now have the ability to avenge their deaths and haunt men out of bitterness, they are powerless because their reason for existence in life and death revolves around an external source. It does not revolve around their own autonomy as women but how they were once treated and manipulated by men. They are ruled by a queen who thinks for them; they are unable to act for themselves or by themselves; they are ruined by man and ruled by a woman who lives only for revenge and bitterness.
These roles clearly stem from traditional gender role thought, specific to the time era (1841-1890) in which Giselle was generated. It wasn’t until the 1840’s that women’s subservience to men was really starting to be questioned. Women were completely subordinate in almost all areas of life at that time, and these cultural values were funneled directly into art. Many have said that the Romantic Ballet Era was the era of the ballerina; ballets with lead female roles such as Giselle were critiqued as empowering the ballerina and women as a whole. It is important to recognize that male thought dominated the scene at this point in time. As Daly writes,
By arranging and rearranging the ballerina’s body, the man (first the choreographer, then the partner, then the voyeuristically male-constructed spectator) creates the beauty he longs for. (284)
The supernatural, nymph-like, fairy-like, ethereal role given to these lead ballerinas formulated an ideal picture of what women were expected to be: weightless, passive, gentle and weak. Placed in a box lacking authority, power, and strength, women were given the chance to be visible but only in a certain frame molded by male choreographers and cultural norms. As argued by Erik Aschengreen, “…only superficially…did Romantic ballet in France belong to ballerinas; rather, Romantic ballet was the expression of a masculine society’s desires” (qtd. in Daly 282).