One of the greatest challenges—and for me, joys—of being a dance critic is navigating the not infrequent clash between contemporary values and those embraced in classical ballet, a centuries-old institution that venerates ‘tradition’ in all its old-world, patriarchal glory. How should a world increasingly concerned with racial diversity respond to an establishment that in 2015 remains overwhelmingly white? How can an art form that worships prescriptive gender roles address the growing call for LGBT inclusivity? What messages of value can women divine from stories that glorify female fragility and are primarily written and directed by men?
I’ve recently found myself preoccupied with this latter question, no doubt a fissure from a longer-running fixation on reconciling my feminist sensibilities with my love for ballet. In the past few years I’ve watched my patience for narrative ballet in particular wane, a succession of otherwise great productions—shows sparkling with terrific choreography and excellent performances—gradually chipping away at it with their continued reliance on sexist characterisations. Turns out female agency is a rare commodity in your average story ballet. Cursed princesses, helpless maidens, peasant girls struck down by broken hearts—little wonder Germaine Greer denounced ballet as “cultural cancer.” One of its prevailing images is that of the disempowered woman.
It’s easy to cast the cultural politics of the body, and specifically the physical act of a ballerina dancing, in a feminist light: the notion of a woman taking charge of her own corporeal form, a form historically bound in various figurative and literal ways (corsets, anyone?), neatly supplements the feminist fight for agency and bodily autonomy. But what of a woman dancing male-scripted choreography in a male-scripted narrative that glamorises her character’s powerlessness? Her authority to execute the choreography may be feminist, but the forum in which she’s participating is decidedly not.
This romanticisation of female subjugation is a recurring trope in narrative ballet, particularly the evening-length classics, which have a long history of trading on stock characters from fairytales, folklore and classic literature. Much attention is lavished on the ‘damsel in distress’ archetype (think “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella”) as well as that of the ‘exotic female who must be tamed’ (à la Nikiya of “La Bayadère”). Also scattered across the canon are creatures fated to suffer at the hands of the men who desire them: nymphs (“La Sylphide”), ghosts (“Giselle”), animals (“Swan Lake”). A strained romance—typically rocked by class incompatibility—frames the story of most major story ballets, and in few does the female protagonist have a direct hand in the resolution. Her suffering is typically integral to the rising action, and quite often she’s killed off at the end.
Earlier this year I attended the Royal Ballet’s performance of John Cranko’s “Onegin,” a 1965 ballet adapted from Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century verse-novel Eugene Onegin. While the production doesn’t spare its central female character turmoil—the plot centres on a provincial woman’s painful rejection by a higher-class urbanite—its resolution is exceptional in that she’s permitted to act upon her conflict instead of consigned to a future dictated by sources outside herself. A quick plot summary from my review at the time:
Onegin, a city-dwelling dandy with a serious superiority complex, travels to his friend Lensky’s house in the countryside to smirk at the provincials and reaffirm his self-perceived supremacy as a citizen of St. Petersburg. It’s here he meets the youthful, bookish, apple-cheeked Tatiana. She naively falls for his glowering get-up and writes him an impassioned love letter; he promptly takes a break from all the condescending he’s been doing to tear it up. Then, to make it crystal clear how very uninterested he is in silly, unenlightened Tatiana, Onegin makes a play for her sister, Lensky’s fiancée. The two men duel, Onegin kills Lensky, and he leaves town, returning a few years later to discover that during his do-nothing phase Tatiana married a prince and now all of the sudden looks like a pretty attractive option. In case you were still unsure of the depths of Onegin’s cluelessness, get this: he decides he’s in love with her and has the cheek to write her a letter saying so.
What happens next is what makes “Onegin” one of the more rewarding narrative ballets out there (and explains why so many ballerinas lust after the starring role): despite still harbouring burning hot feelings for her first love, Tatiana finds the strength to reject his advances and order him to leave for good—a welcome display of female agency in an art form where heroines are so often portrayed as helpless bystanders in the face of fate. That she pointedly shreds Onegin’s ill-conceived letter is icing on the cake.
Seeing “Onegin” helped me pinpoint my discomfort with the narrative ballet canon. Why doesn’t it tell more stories of female triumph? Why, when feminism is more mainstream than ever, when women occupy unprecedented (albeit still low) levels of leadership in the classical ballet establishment, are the most popular narrative ballets the ones that deny their protagonists the capacity to spearhead their fate? That the stories underlying repertory staples like “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” have few, if any, feminist proclivities comes as no surprise— their origins lie in a time when patriarchy reigned unchallenged and arguments for gender equality had yet to enter the public consciousness in an applicable form. But why do we continue to celebrate these stories instead of replacing them with ones that better respect the characters driving them?
It’s nigh impossible to have a conversation about ballet and feminism without recognising the former’s male-dominated origins. For much of its first two centuries, ballet dancing was the sole preserve of men. The art form grew steadily in popularity following its emergence in the Renaissance courts of Italy, but it wasn’t until the late seventeenth century, once the trade was roaring in France, that women began appearing on stage—a development that happily gave rise to some prominent dancers du jour, including Mademoiselle De Lafontaine and Marie-Thérèse de Subligny. From there on, women became fixtures on the stage throughout Europe, though their roles remained relatively peripheral until the rise of Romantic ballet in the nineteenth century, when the ballerina as we know her today emerged and began to dominate the spotlight (on stage, that is; men still monopolised the spheres of training and choreography, and in fact continue to do so today). Evening-length story ballets, as opposed to shortish pieces centred on technique, also experienced a surge in popularity around this time.
Spurred on by the contemporaneous wave of Romanticism sweeping literature, painting and music, ballet in nineteenth-century Europe moved away from the formal constraints of its aristocratic history and towards a lighter, softer aesthetic. Many dancemakers embraced folklore-inspired stories about enchanting ethereal creatures who capture the hearts of unwitting men, their delicate sensibilities rooted not in this world but the next. Enter two of the most famous ballets of all time: “Giselle,” the tale of a rejected maiden who’s banished to ghosthood; and “La Sylphide,” that of a winged nymph who seduces an engaged man. These productions respectively catapulted the careers of Carlotta Grisi and Marie Taglioni—whose small frames and soft figures epitomised the era’s delicate aesthetic—and introduced pointe work into the technique, where it remains a fixed component today.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, star ballet master Marius Petipa took up the reins at the Imperial Russian Ballet (today the Mariinsky) and oversaw the creation and revival of dozens of famous classical story ballets, including “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker” and “Don Quixote.” Under his influence productions throughout Europe became longer and their stories more complex, though most still featured a central female protagonist and a romance-related plot. Technique became more exacting, and tutus were raised to showcase this heightened virtuosity. Some of the most famous ballerinas of all time, including Anna Pavlova, flourished under Petipa’s directorship.
Between them, the Romantic and Russian classical eras produced a great many of the narrative ballets central to today’s classical repertory. A striking trend among these productions is the way they worship femininity in the most conservative, prescriptive interpretation of the word: pretty, fragile, submissive. La Sylphide, Giselle, Cinderella, Paquita, Raymonda, Odette of “Swan Lake,” Aurora of “The Sleeping Beauty,” Lise of “La Fille mal gardée,” Kitri of “Don Quixote,” Nikiya of “La Bayadère”—these characters are all enchanting, sweet and invariably young, qualities employed to emphasise their sexual purity. They’re flirty but not promiscuous, animated but not heated. (Nikiya is an important exception to this latter point, though it’s worth noting that her passion does not go unpunished.) Their powers of attraction intrigue but don’t threaten. The male gaze is inescapable.
This trend becomes particularly unsettling when you consider its frequent coupling with another, less conspicuous but perhaps more pernicious, one: the reliance on a narrative in which the female protagonist has virtually no power to influence the outcome of her story; instead, outside forces—typically fate, magic or a man more influential than her—swoop in to resolve the conflict. Take Kitri, whose father only lets her marry Basilio after Don Q intervenes; Aurora, cursed into a stupor until a prince smitten by her comatose form forces himself on her; Cinderella, saved from a lifetime of scrubbing toilets and spinsterhood when a fairy fixes her up with a prince; Paquita, allowed to marry her lover once her noble origins conveniently emerge; Raymonda, rescued from a would-be rapist by a heroic knight.
Those are just the ones with happy endings. There’s Odette, who dies after her lover fails to live up to the terms of a curse confining her to a swan’s body; La Sylphide, captured by a man so desperate to possess her that he crushes her to death; Nikiya, punished for falling in love with an engaged man and murdered with a venomous snake. Protagonists left and right are handed a death sentence as part of a wildly romanticised trope that posits their existence on this earth as wretchedly but necessarily ephemeral, their deaths unfortunate but tragically beautiful events that serve the moral good. One of the most iconic scenes in ballet history is Giselle’s psychological breakdown and death upon the discovery of her lover’s betrayal, her physical surrender presented as a spectacle as alluringly exquisite as it is lamentable. Again, the image of a disempowered woman—literally so—takes centre stage.
The first half of the twentieth century saw narrative ballet diversify significantly in both form and influence. Sergei Diaghilev’s European touring troupe, Ballets Russes, experimented with modernist aesthetics, looking to previously untapped source materials—ancient but little-known myths, obscure folklore, real-world events—for inspiration. George Balanchine became fascinated with Greek mythology upon moving to America and produced a trilogy of neoclassical ballets based on Apollo, Orpheus and Agon. In the UK, Frederick Ashton dabbled in works based on avant-garde poetry and Arcadian myths, while Kenneth MacMillan created several productions based on historic events. Over in France, Roland Petit explored new fictions with contemporary artists like Orson Welles.
Still, the enduring full-length narrative ballets of this era—the ones consistently performed today—cling stubbornly to classic tales, and in doing so add another handful of ineffectual female characters to the canon. Ashton’s revival of “La Fille mal gardée” hinges on a paper-thin ‘love conquers all’ deus ex machina. Together Petit’s “Carmen” and “Notre Dame de Paris” and MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Manon” gift us with four more grisly female deaths. There’s even a rape scene in the latter production, the Royal Ballet’s 2014 rendering of which the Financial Times deemed “repulsively good.”
The craze for narrative ballet receded somewhat in the final three decades of the twentieth century, when abstract productions, pioneered by Balanchine with “Jewels” and today upheld by contemporary choreographers like William Forsythe, surfed a wave of unprecedented popularity. That said, the genre hardly went out of fashion, and in fact has regained noticeable traction in recent years as a growing number of contemporary choreographers attempt to introduce new evening-length story ballets to the classical roster. Since the late 1990s dozens of such narrative productions have been staged by choreographers as stylistically diverse as Lar Lubovich (“Othello”), John Neumier (“The Little Mermaid”), Liam Scarlett (“Hansel and Gretel”), Christopher Wheeldon (“The Winter’s Tale” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”), David Nixon (“Wuthering Heights” and “Cleopatra”), Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (“A Streetcar Named Desire”), and Will Tuckett (“Elizabeth”).
As you’ll notice, my use of ‘new’ refers to the novelty of the source material in ballet form, not the material itself. Even when forging fresh works the establishment insists on old stories. Kudos to Nixon and Tuckett for choosing to focus on historical figures who at least had some triumphs amid their tribulations. Frustratingly, the others on the list are just a fraction of the narratives featuring agency-less women that abound. “Alice” and “Hansel and Gretel” each feature a little girl pushed and pulled by forces beyond her control. (Scarlett’s production inexplicably strips Gretel of the resourcefulness she uses to save herself and her brother in the original tale, and instead condemns her to a bleak future as a budding clone of her evil stepmother.) “The Winter’s Tale” and “Othello” can both be summed up stories of jealous men who ruin everything for the women around them. “The Little Mermaid” sees a desperate sea creature try and fail to find love. “Wuthering Heights” gives us yet another female death, “Streetcar” another rape.
It would be mistaken to claim the classical canon is devoid of any strong, capable female protagonists. Medora of “Le Corsaire” hatches a canny plan to trick her way out a forced marriage; Swanhilde of “Coppélia” uses her quick-wittedness to save her lover from getting his soul stolen by an evil puppetmaster; the titular creature in “The Firebird” devotes her magical powers to helping a prince rescue a princess. Still, for every empowered female lead that has survived into today’s repertoire, there are many more for which helplessness is central to her allure. It’s remarkable, and regrettable, that in an age when ballerinas are stronger, suppler and more muscular than ever before, a fixation on disenfranchised women prevails. No wonder Natalia Osipova, a principal at the Royal Ballet and one of today’s most athletic dancers, has already begun exploring contemporary dance (something ballerinas usually save until their later years)—a work like Arthur Pita’s “Facada” sees her character throttle her straying lover and dance on his grave; in “La Fille mal gardée,” meanwhile, she’s bent over and spanked by a man in drag.
Until narrative ballet lets go of its inordinate fixation on male-centric literature, Lises, Auroras, Odettes and Giselles will continue to dominate the classical landscape. An obvious explanation for contemporary dancemakers’ tendency to opt for historic source material in new productions is that the easiest way to convey a story wordlessly is to use one the general public is already familiar with. But the specific stories they insist on repurposing—ones in which female characters rarely possess a consequential role and are almost invariably penned by men—speak to a certain fondness for retrograde gender roles and an assumption that women are content with ‘happy ever after,’ no matter how it’s packaged.
To contemporary choreographers I say this: if well-trodden stories are necessary to anchor your audience’s comprehension, then have at it—but try ones that celebrate female agency instead of revel in its absence for a change. You don’t have to look that far to find recognisable narratives that honour feminist, or at least proto-feminist, sensibilities, ones that give their protagonists a fighting chance to solve their own conflicts. Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale would make an inspired and complex protagonist. So would Jane Eyre or Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, or real-life heroines like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Emmeline Pankhurst. As “Onegin” demonstrates, empowering your protagonist doesn’t mean forgoing vulnerability or tragedy or deep-seated character flaws; it means respecting her capacity as an agent in this world and giving her the tools or circumstances to tackle her issues head on. It means sympathising with her struggles and painting her suffering as ugly, not fascinating.
Audiences deserve better than fragile princesses and downtrodden maidens. We should insist on better.