For much of my life, I have heard that “artsy stuff” is for girls. It is a feminine trade and that dudes who like to paint and dance (or like) are sissys. So untrue! This is one of several posts this week on gender issues in the art industry – starting with dance.
Dance has historically been one of the most gender inclusive art forms, relying heavily on collaboration and diversity in order to actualize its vision. Although seen as something that chicks do, men have important parts to play in the realization of choreography – and not just to lift up a tutu.
Ballet has its beginnings in courtly dance in the Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries and by the 17th century, was formulated into, basically, what we know today. In short, men and women dancing together, is at its roots. The first ballet company was the Paris Opera Ballet. Later, as it became an independent art form, the Royal Danish Opera and Imperial (Russian) Ballet was created in the 1740’s – in full swing by about 1850. Ballet did not arrive to the US until the 20th century with San Francisco Ballet (1933), American Ballet Theatre (1937), and New York City Ballet (1948). In ballet, men have held two primary functions – partnering with women and choreographing/directing companies.
At the same time that ballet was being developed in the US, so was modern dance – a reaction to the strict techniques of ballet whose content focused on two things: the diversity of movement and what dance could be about (not just fairies and princesses, folks!) Ruth St. Denis is considered the founder of modern dance and when she started Denishawn dance company in 1915, her partner was Ted Shawn. Their choreography included modern and ethnic dance, but, more importantly, after Denishawn disbanded, Ted Shawn started his own company of only men. This group was not only innovative from a choreographic perspective but challenged the way audiences viewed male dancers – not just as tutu lifters but dancers with a unique perspective and dancing abilities due to their body structure. Later, Shawn would create Jacob’s Pillow, a dance school and performance space in Massachusetts where dancers of all kinds could take class and perform their works. Every major dance company in the world – ballet and modern, established and emerging – has spent time at Jacob’s Pillow and it continues to be a Mecca of dance.
And this is why dance is so amazing from a diversity perspective. Dance companies are successful if they contain all types of people – men/women and jumpers/turners – so that the choreography can be stretched in many different directions. Without that diversity, dance would be less dynamic and exciting.
In my mind, there are three types of male dancers: the choreographer, the diva, and the innovator and so I have included videos and pics of some of dance’s most renowned male danseurs.
The Choreographer – George Balanchine
George Balanchine, who founded New York City Ballet, is said to have brought ballet, particularly of the Russian style, to New York and his choreography and teaching techniques are still considered the gold standard. He also changed what a dancer looked like. Prior to Mr. B, dancers were petite and dark headed. For NYCB, the dancers were tall (5’7), blonde/light brown headed, and legs to their cheek bones. Peter Martins (Artistic Director of New York City Ballet who studied directly with Balanchine) gave a workshop on male dance roles in the NYCB repertory at Vail International Dance Festival headed by Damion Woetzel, a formed NYCB principal dancer. Here is a link to Harlequinade danced by Imperial Russian Ballet.
The Divas – Nijinsky, Nuryev, and Baryshnikov
In the same way that there have been truly gifted prima ballerinas, there have been male “primas,” as well. The three most prominent being Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Rudlof Nureyev studied with the Kirov Ballet in Russia and later defected to Paris. He gained substantial fame at the Royal Ballet (London) where he danced with Margot Fonteyn – who was considerably older. Here is Nureyev dancing a solo from Swan Lake.
Vaslav Nijinsky danced with the Ballets Russe (and Anna Pavolva!) and demonstrated that male dancers could be an attraction in and of themselves. He later choreographed his own works like Rite of Spring and the video below of Afternoon of a Faun.
Mikhail Baryshnikov – the Casanova of ballet. Although he did not have perfect technique (not that any of us would notice), he was known for virtually flying through the air which this solo from Don Quixote demonstrates. I think what separates Baryshnikov from other dancers is that he left ballet and went on to pursue other projects in different genres and actively supported the work of other dancers through his group The White Oak Project.
The Innovators – Ted Shawn, Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris
There are some male dancers that have truly changed the art form. Ted Shawn broke out on his own and started his own all-male dance company, Merce Cunningham decided to look at dance in its purist form – without costume or music – to create his own vocabulary and Mark Morris turned dance upside down by questioning classic ballets like The Nutcracker and what roles men should play in dance.
Here is Ted Shawn’s Kinetic Molpai from 1935.
This is Split Sides by Merce Cunningham – set to the music of Sigur Ros. (I saw this performed in Miami). If you want more information on Merce Cunningham, here is my earlier post.
Last but not least, this is from Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut, a parody of The Nutcracker.