I was looking for a sentence in Rupert Christiansen’s article in last week’s Telegraph (‘The New Recruits to Ballet’s Boot Camp’) that might serve as an example of a new kind of sexism and homophobia that I see embedded in so much journalism about ‘boys’ ballet’. I gave up, because I might as well quote the whole article, starting with the title.
The title says it all: you can talk about ballet as long as you couch it in masculine terms: discipline, boots, camps, recruits. Bye bye to all that girly stuff, ballet is for men. If you knew how hard it was, how abusive the training could be (I’m not making it up, the word ‘abuse’ is used further down in the article as a positive term), you might not worry about your son wanting to take it up. “It’s not effete, it’s not wimpy,” says Christiansen, in a paragraph which includes the words “Billy Elliot”, ” highly athletic”, “energised”, “testosterone”, “physicality”, “competitive sport” and “nifty backflippers”.
We move on, predictably, to Balletboyz. Guess what, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt are “visibly and audibly regular guys. Married with children, they radiate a likeably lippy attitude”. Oh well, that’s all right then: as long as they’re not gay or anything. I’m intrigued to know what ‘audibly regular’ means: I guess it means they don’t have a lisp, they swear a bit, and can usefully erase any trace of the plummy accents they might have picked up in Floral Street, and don’t talk about art or anything effete like that. Likeably lippy. Regular guys. Good for them. And, continues Christiansen, “they have popularised the idea of men dancing with an intense physical intimacy that doesn’t automatically radiate homoerotic overtones”. I think they have a while to go before Balletboyz could be classed as popular culture, but aside from that, what’s so wrong with homoerotic overtones? What was Stonewall for?
In any case, the point about overtones, if the metaphor is borrowed from acoustics, is that they’re overtones, not fundamentals, the things that give a note its timbre rather than its pitch: I wouldn’t mind betting that it’s the homoerotic overtones that make it interesting, otherwise you might just as well watch wrestling. In fact, I’d rather watch wrestling than watch two men dancing without any erotic overtones.
Why do I think this is sexist crap? Well, all those words that envelop male ballet with respectablity such as athletic, physicality, competitive sport and energized are equally true of female dancing, if not more so: after all, in classical ballets, men get an easy ride while the women are dancing away on pointe – it may look pretty, but it’s harder work than gesturing nobly from the side of the stage. There are at least two solos in the ballet repertoire where the music now used for male solos – big ‘butch’ and loud – was originally written for a woman.
But this is to miss the point again: we shouldn’t have to defend ballet by saying ‘don’t worry, it’s all quite masculine really’, or try to butch it up by aligning it with athletics, machismo, discipline, (sports) science and taking all the eroticism and vulnerability out. That’s an archaic model of masculinity which is as dull, oppressive and misleading as the ultra-pink and sparkly patina of ballet as seen in popular culture. Celebrating the ‘manliness’ of ballet – and this article is only one of many – is insidiously sexist and homophobic in its implicit denigration of everything conventionally regarded as ‘feminine’, or not conventionally masculine. It’s the small change of hate and violence and it leads nowhere. Oh, and it’s completely untrue, too. Ballet may be tough, it may be physical and challenging, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about men who do it, whether they’re straight or gay. That’s why they’re interesting and wonderful people.
If ballet dies as an art form, it will be this that kills it. There is a side of ballet which disrupts and challenges, offers alternatives to mainstream machismo, and celebrates the beautiful, the exotic and the unusual, femininities and masculinities. Take that away, and what’s left? Me, I’ll be watching Beautiful People, thank you very much.