• Zoe Phillips

Women's Rights and Ballet Tights

Updated: Dec 29, 2019

FEMINISM ONSTAGE

Yuhui Choe in "La Bayadere" (photo: ROH YouTube)

In a world hungry for female representation, women protagonists are instrumental to ballet. Just try staging Coppélia without Swanhilda, La Bayadère without Nikiya, or Giselle without Giselle.

I recognize, however, that this perspective ignores why these women are there in the first place; the entirety of Coppélia's story happens because a man can't tell a woman apart from a doll. Nikiya's whole existence is defined by her tumultuous relationship with male lovers, and Giselle dies of heartbreak after the man she fell in love with fifteen minutes prior reveals he was lying to her.

The list goes on. Le Corsaire involves a literal harem, and we all know that The Sleeping Beauty may not be the strongest role model out there. Plenty of dance critics have used this and more to argue against these classic works saying it's time we push forward into pieces that are less feminine and more feminist.


I disagree. In fact, I argue that ballet has been instrumental in reminding our world that we can be both all within the same count of eight.

Rewind all the way back to the 18th century. Marie Camargo was a ballerina with the Paris Opera Ballet when female dancers still wore floor length hoop skirts and heeled shoes. Camargo was the first dancer to raise her skirt and show audiences her feet. While she was at it, she took the heels off of her shoes. Both acts, though horrifically scandalous, allowed her to move at full potential (which the history books tell us was very high). Her dazzling footwork eventually silenced her critics and now she is remembered for her impressive speed and agility. Can we name any other woman from the 1700s who is remembered for their athleticism? After all, this was 200 years before the first women would be admitted to the Olympics.

Fast forward to the 1830s and we have the beginning of pointe, the physical difficulty of which needs little explanation. From pointe was born the ballerina's race to push boundaries and test limits, giving way to some of the most impressive physical feats in ballet's repertoire: the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by Marius Petipa in the late 1800s, tests every muscle in the ballerina's body. The 32 fouettés from Act III of Swan Lake, also choreographed by Petipa and supposedly inspired by Pierina Legnani, are another display of pure athletic prowess.


I ask again — where else in the 19th century were women allowed, even encouraged, to perform and master physical feats?

Notably, this physical power was not meant to replace the grace and beauty that ballet has always represented. Rather, ballerinas were expected to be multifaceted creatures, capable of seamlessly intertwining delicate artistry with brute athleticism. Sure, the characters they were portraying may have possessed traditionally passive plotlines, but the manner in which such performances took place was not passive at all. Even today, our society struggles with the complexity of allowing women to be both delicate and powerful. Ballet has been there all along.

Many ballet fans wrongfully assume that these complex expectations for women were founded by George Balanchine in the 20th century, but this history tells us otherwise.

Nevertheless, Balanchine's neoclassical aesthetic, which he developed upon his arrival to the American ballet scene in the 1930s, definitely expedited this evolution. Trained at the Imperial Ballet School (well known as the Vaganova method), Balanchine melded his ultra-classical training with his experiences in Hollywood and Broadway to create the 20th century aesthetic upon which all elite American companies are founded. Today, his approach to choreography and technique is a universal baseline summed up rather perfectly in his famous quote "ballet is woman."

The beauty of this statement lies in its ambiguity. Through commercialization, ballet is woman because that's what sits in our music boxes and on our emoji keyboards. After performances, ballet is woman because the ballerina gets the flowers (if she's nice, she'll pull out a rose and hand it to her male counterpart).

In our 19th century story ballets, ballet is woman because the plot revolves around a female protagonist. In 20th century non-narrative works, ballet is woman because most choreography works to highlight and feature the female dancer.


In a world focused on men's achievements, athletic or otherwise, the stages of ballet offer a refreshing alternative. Not only do women take center stage, but they continue to be encouraged to display their prowess unapologetically; in comparison to other areas of female athletics, we have never told ballerinas to scale back their strength.

Despite this, some dance critics have questioned the validity of Balanchine's quote. A 2017 article from the New York Times asked if we should qualify "ballet is woman," by shifting it, "as the choreographer Pam Tanowitz (born in 1969) has recently done," to say "that ballet is a man’s idea of woman." I understand Tanowitz's perspective. These centuries of ballet choreography and story-making were predominately created by men and this means that there is an argument for those men's use of the male gaze.

The male gaze is a term originally from film theory in which, according to journalist Janice Loreck, the woman "is visually positioned as an 'object' of heterosexual male desire." In ballet, the chance to perform, or display oneself, is both why and how dancers make it through grueling twelve hour days. I can therefore understand why critics would argue that this attitude, coupled with misogynistic male choreographers, might encourage a specific type of display.

However, I just don't see the evidence for that. When Aurora steps up to complete her balances in the Rose Adagio, it's true she is displaying herself for the four male suitors in front of her. But she is also displaying her inconceivable strength, impressive strong-will, and marvelous grace for the entire audience. At the 19th century premier, that audience would have been predominately male, but now that women are welcomed and encouraged inside the theater, are they not allowed to appreciate the feat as well? In other words, how is this type of display specific to the enjoyment of men?

Often, these types of subtle perspective changes are all we need to uncover a reasonably feminist understanding of these classics; in Giselle's second act, the kingdom of female willis band together and force Albrecht to dance to his death after learning that he disrespected Giselle's trust. What a power play. Swan Lake's domain of titular birds spend all of Act II and IV trying to support and save Odette from the evil Von Rothbart. If that isn't #womensupportingwomen, we're not sure what is.


All of this to say: the ballerina is beautiful, but she is not an object. She is a fluid, active, human piece of art who deserves to be treated with such depth.

In a 2018 article from Dance Magazine, principal ballerina Ashley Bouder offered her thoughts on this through the lens of a 21st century piece by leading choreographer Alexei Ratmansky: parts of the dance, she says, are "degrading: I am literally pulled by my hair and thrown to the ground several times, giving the illusion of a woman being abused by an angry man. It beats me up and leaves me with bruises. It's also exhilarating to dance."

In these words, Bouder twirls on the importance of acknowledging these blurred lines when evaluating art. Ballet, especially traditional ballet, can often seem full of barriers. Women wear different shoes, dance different steps, and play different roles. During the day, they sometimes even take different classes. Much like any other sport, the worlds of men and women can seem completely separate, yet in our case those worlds collide every night.

Onstage, men and women create one microcosm of art, athleticism, and history. Consequently, these barriers are seriously complicated when the curtain rises. Dismissing a dance or a ballet because it seems sexist on one level, be it the story or choreography, seriously disrespects the piece's whole story. Those stories are rich in history, art, and guess what? Feminism and female empowerment.


This article first appeared on Medium.com on Sep. 7 2019

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page! 

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