If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have noticed that the ballet world has been getting a rather large amount of negative press. And for good reason. Ballet and dance writ large are built on a foundation of toxic masculinity and that has, both historically and presently, manifested in an incredibly violent rape culture. Of course, rape culture exists outside of ballet. But ballet is a female-dominated industry that is run almost entirely by men, which has allowed toxic masculinity and a culture of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse to fester. The professional world has received a lot of press: for example, Peter Martins of NYCB and Marcelo Gomes of ABT. However, this neither begins nor ends in the professional world. Big name ballet companies get a lot of press, but this doesn’t come out of nowhere. From the time kids enter the ballet world, they are aggressively interpolated into the gender binary with antiquated gender roles enforced both by practices in ballet class and by roles they play in performed ballets.
Ballets tell stories about ethereal women being rescued by strong, powerful men. It’s a trope that feeds and informs the culture of toxic masculinity that allows people like Alexei Ratmansky to say things like, “There is no such thing as equality in ballet,” and still remain a highly acclaimed choreographer in residence at ABT. Ratmansky is only one of many powerful white men in the ballet community who could have said this and who decidedly think this. The stories that ballet tells are built on a foundation of misogyny and violence against women, white supremacy, and a gender binary and the roles that come with it. Ballet has empowered the preexisting patriarchal societal structure. It has fostered a culture of emotional abuse that becomes a culture of sexual abuse that further feeds the emotional abuse and the cycle is endless. We’ve seen the sexual assault charges come forward, and for every one story that is told there are many more that cannot be for whatever reason. And for every sexual assault charge there are dozens of stories of emotional abuse that go right along with it.
Every dancer that I know who grew up in the ballet world has a story. I know I do. Not long ago some friends and I sat around casually discussing the ways in which our time in the preprofessional ballet world mangled our body images. We compared stories of teachers who told us we were too tall, too short, too fat, too heavy, you name it. The specifics were different for all of us but the constant was that the scrutiny on our bodies was a mechanism of control. The specific scrutiny of female bodies is a mechanism of perpetuating male power over female bodies. It’s re-telling the same stories that are already told in ballets performed on stage. It’s re-telling the story of the gender binary, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy. And it’s re-telling it without criticism.
So what do we do when the works of art that are called “the greats” aren’t so great? When the people who created them, like Ratmansky, hold oppressive views that maintain a culture of white male supremacy in ballet? What do we do when what we present on stage objectifies women, and we call that “great”? I often feel inclined to just discard all of it, to say that we should stop producing these shows entirely. Culturally appropriative and racist “classics” such as The Nutcracker and Le Corsaire are produced almost universally across ballet companies and almost universally uncritically as well. And I find that abhorrent. And it’s made me ask frequently, what’s the point of reproducing the classics? Why recreate and relive oppression on a stage? And I firmly believe that to do so uncritically is to perpetuate violence and oppression, and it shouldn’t be done. But I also don’t believe we should just stop producing these entirely, as they are a part of a violent history that needs to be told in order to be reformed.
What does it mean to mask the history of ballet? To pretend like we’ve escaped racism and sexism just by no longer performing certain ballets? To pretend like rape culture is gone from the ballet world because Peter Martins no longer works for NYCB? It’s like a band-aid on a bullet hole; it’s an attempt at a solution that doesn’t address the root of the problem. Concrete change takes more than this. It takes addressing the systematic issues at hand, and not just one manifestation of them. It takes acknowledging the history that neither began nor ended with Peter Martins, neither began nor ended with American ballet. And it requires taking that history and finding its counterhistories, all of the histories and perspectives that did not get to be written into the perspective that we tell every day, which is the perspective that has allowed white cishet men to claim power and control of the ballet world, and the world writ large.
Obviously this sounds nice in theory and is harder in practice. I’m not pretending like we can solve all of the problematics of ballet in one fell swoop. In fact, I’m proposing the opposite. I’m saying we have to stop pretending that a revolution can rest on symbols and that a reckoning can be had in metaphors. So what do we do, then? I certainly do not propose to have all of the answers, but I have some thoughts. Namely, that we need to acknowledge that this system has many levels. So maybe change begins on the local scale, in hometown studios, where kids learn patriarchy, heteronormativity, and rape culture in ballet class. It takes making space for non heterosexual narratives and nonbinary gender identities both in class and on stage. It means saying men do not always have to lift women, all duets do not have to be between a man and a woman, and you do not have to be either man or woman to participate in ballet. It’s making space for new works that don’t center around love stories where a man heroically saves a woman, and when we perform the “classics” to tell the history of ballet, either using them to have a conversation about a history that we should work to constantly change or to turn that history on its head and twist the representations in the “classics.” Make what was originally a heterosexual love story non heterosexual. Make originally cis characters trans. Make nonbinary characters. Give people of color proper representation. Perform the counterhistory while telling the history.
And, while it would be nice if all of these problems could be solved instantaneously, they realistically will not be. Which means we need to give people, and especially kids, a way to advocate for themselves. We need to be giving kids the language to talk about sexual assault, rape culture, sexism, racism, homophobia, and more. We need to be teaching kids to love their bodies in a world that tells them they are constantly not enough. This starts with a conversation but it also starts with action. It starts with asking kids before you touch them to give a correction to form or posture, giving them the agency to say no and take the correction a different way. It starts with not favoring the little boys in class just because there are less of them than there are little girls. It starts with not separating classes by binary gender, with telling all kids that they can be strong, powerful heroes and not just the boys.
The ballet world is at a moment for change right now. A reckoning and a revolution can happen, but we have to take it past symbols and metaphors. There has to be systematic change, and not just at the highest level of the system but everywhere. It’s not going to be an easy process, but there is room for equality in ballet. And we can make it happen.