Imagine you are watching a pas de deux in a ballet. The female dancer does a beautiful arabesque and does a seemingly effortless En dedans turn as the male dancer holds on to her waist. Then, the male dancer lifts the female dancer over their heads as she does a grand jeté. But now, imagine if the positions of the male dancer and female dancer are switched. Does something feel off? Is this an implicit bias that we have, reinforcing conventional ideas about masculinity and femininity?
Ballet is a considered a traditional art form, and that contains certain portrayals of men and women in ballets. Women have been placed on a pedestal of beauty and grace delicately on pointe and men have been urged to exhibit their athleticism and strength through large jumps and fast turns. The stereotype of women being complacent and weak, and men being dominant and strong are also widespread in productions. These gender roles and stereotypes limit dancers to express themselves both physically and emotionally. It also reinforces the stereotype that women are dependent and men must always be strong and are never allowed to show emotion, both of which are no longer supported by modern society. In addition, the traditional gender roles of ballet also influence the type of dancing and movement patterns that male and female dancers each perform. This can begin to restrict the type of motions that dancers can create, making them less versatile.
Nevertheless, now all choreographers see the need to reform the gender roles in dance. Alexei Ratmasky is an extremely talented classical ballet choreographer who works at the American Ballet Theater. Yet, Ratmansky takes a controversial stance on the issue of gender in ballet. In a 2017 Facebook post alongside a photoshopped image of a female dancer in a tutu lifting a male dancer, he commented “sorry there is no such thing as equality in ballet: women dance on point, men lift and support women. women receive flowers, men escort women off stage. not the other way around (I know there are a couple of exceptions). and I am very comfortable with that.” It is true that physiologically, there are differences between males and females that contribute to the unequal choreography between the genders (one of the examples being most females are not able to lift a male above their heads). However, apart from that, it is highly reasonable for females to escort a male from stage or a man to dance on pointe. Modern society has abandoned the stereotypes that Ratmasky mentions, so is it suitable to continue to depict ideas that further reinforces gender stereotypes on stage?
These stereotypes are now being challenged as dancers ponder why their gender should decide or control how they should dance. George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet, paved the way, asking women to do what was thought impossible for their physiques in the 20th century. People who were so traditionally used to the old image of ballet as an art form didn’t consider these dancers “ballerinas” because of their radically athletic dancing. Now, as women jump higher and complete more turns that have been associated traditionally male dancers, men are training to integrate stretch and finesse which has been a standard for female dancers.
Ashley Bouder, a New York City Ballet principal, says “They didn’t see why I couldn’t do what the guys were doing,” about her teachers. She goes whenever she can to men’s classes that helps her with her amazing jumps that defy gravity. And she is also not alone. A lot of other female dancers go to men’s class that gives them a new scope and range in the studio, and the continuing discussion about gender has led them to rethink what they can do with their bodies. Katherine Williams, ABT soloist said “It has made me feel free, less confined to a certain look I need to maintain as a woman onstage.” about attending men’s class.
Male dancers are now also extending ideas about their physical capabilities for their flexibility and the aesthetic of their lines. Male dancers were never pressured as much as female dancers to reach the flexibility of the latter, but that is now all changing. Keith Roberts, a ballet master at ABT is now insisting that men strive for higher extensions and challenge the refined movements and explore the emotional depth of their roles. Mr. Roberts says it has “become standard that men’s feet are just as arched and beautiful as women’s, sometimes better,” Mr. Roberts said. “They have to be more refined than ever before.”
There is progress being made. In 2017, Justin Peck, the New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer included gender-neutral roles in “The Times Are Racing,” showing that male and female dancers could swap roles. He incorporated a pas de deux, but without the usual romance, exploring things like “teamwork, construction, opposition, physical tension and compromise.”
For a long time, gender roles in ballet were traditional. Dancers are beginning to reject the idea of strictly binary roles that have been established in ballet that no longer reflect modern society’s belief about gender. This also includes the types of movement that each gender can perform. In a world that is constantly changing, allowing dancers novel freedom in their movements and roles can establish a powerful statement.
April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez in Christopher Wheeldon's "Liturgy" at the Joffrey Ballet