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About the Change

BIG... Discussion
   Ballet Independents' Group

‘Invisible Women’ discussion forum

March 2002
London, Royal Festival Hall

by Brendan McCarthy

Susie Crow's piece in the last issue about Invisible Women

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If, as Balanchine says, ‘ballet is woman’, why do men seem to be in charge? A mere handful of women have a voice, where it counts, at the level of artistic policy. This is especially surprising, because, in contrast to girls, very few boys study ballet. So what happens to them all when they grow up?

These issues were debated at the recent Ballet Independents’ Group forum on ‘Invisible Women’. The guest speakers were the choreographer Cathy Marston (and diarist: Ed) and Alexandra Carter, Reader in Dance Studies at Middlesex University. Zenaida Yanowsky of the Royal Ballet was also to speak, but had to cancel. Because of others’ injuries, she had extra performances in Giselle.

Stereotypes and the ‘Tingle Factor’

Alexandra Carter discussed the fascination of ballet for feminist writers. While they deprecate ballet’s passive representation of women (“the Dying Swan becomes a Sitting Duck”), they are also seduced by the ‘tingle factor’. Katherine Healy, the former dancer, was vexed at how woman dancers had fashioned themselves into objects of male desire, yet, she admitted, “ballet is one of the guiding passions of my life.”

Carter suggested ways of ‘releasing the dancer’ from the prison of stereotyped images. “We can look more closely at the repertoire. Ballet is not just about fairies and sylphs and beautiful princesses. It is also about powerful women, such as de Valois’ Black Queen, who kill to gain power. It is about Wilis, who fill roles of moral agency. They are vengeful, but rightly so.”

Ballet may be richer in such images than many realise; the problem is that the stereotypes are most strongly held by those who have never seen a ballet. Another approach, Carter suggested, was to emphasise the physical prowess of the dancer. If a role was re-interpreted in a powerful stage performance, a female character might no longer seem weak and passive. Crucially, it was important to remember that women had not been muses merely, but active creators as well.

Odds stacked against women choreographers?

This was an appropriate cue to the choreographer Cathy Marston. She has rarely been busier. In the mornings she is with English National Ballet choreographing a work based on TS Eliot’s relationship with his first wife Vivian. After lunch she takes the tube to Covent Garden where she’s working with dancers from the Royal Ballet on a piece based on LP Hartley's The Go-Between. Cathy Marston is a rarity: an independent ballet choreographer. It is not easy working outside a company. A ballet choreographer needs ballet dancers; they are almost invariably members of companies.

The odds, it seems, are stacked in favour of male choreographers. Marston described a recent conversation with Wayne Eagling, the artistic director of Dutch National Ballet. “You really need someone to take a risk on you”, he told her. In practice this means a contract with a company as a character dancer, which allows a young choreographer space to explore his or her ideas. Yet, when she approached the Royal Ballet several years ago, Anthony Dowell had basically said “Darling, I would love to have you as a choreographer, but you know you’re a girl. We don’t have character parts for girls your age.”. For Cathy Marston the implication was clear: “To have that opportunity to work as a choreographer within a company, you basically had to be a boy.”

This resonated with Jennifer Jackson, who had begun to choreograph, while still a dancer with the Royal Ballet. While she had not lacked for encouragement, it was never a realistic option for her to cut back on her dancing. Any choreography had to be done in the margins. “I had the premiere of a new work in the same week that I made my debut as Swanilda. It was very difficult to do both well. Neither came off as it should have done.”

Like Jennifer Jackson, Susie Crow had tried to reconcile the demands of choreography and performance, while she was at the Royal Ballet. It had not been easy. There was a ‘tremendous amount’ of dancing to be done. A ballet such as Swan Lake demanded more of the girls than the boys. Many hours were spent preparing pointe shoes, or darning laddered tights. Boys had no similar chores. “The workload did not leave a great deal of time for exploring your creativity.”

The pressures of multi-tasking

Working outside a company Cathy Marston can make her creativity a priority. But there is a price for independence. She has constantly to network, to be her own administrator, and to manage a number of projects at once. Asked about the stresses of ‘multi-tasking’, she agreed it was a feminine skill. “I wouldn’t be earning a living if I couldn’t do that.” In response a ballet teacher in the audience suggested that the intriguing issue was that so many men should have ‘made it’, if women were indeed better at multi-tasking.

Marston also described why she had become a dancer in the first place. “What drew me originally was what draws all the little girls; dresses and images of being Cyd Charisse and ‘Singing in the Rain’”. At the Royal Ballet School she performed in a piece by Christopher Hampson, who was then at the Upper School. This started her on her path as a choreographer. “It totally inspired me. I could address feelings, stories, things that I had been passionate about in other areas of my life, through dance. And I could do it better than in any other way I had found so far.”

Training and the ‘Herd Mentality’

This led to a discussion of how boys and girls were treated differently in training. Jennifer Jackson fastened on a key difference. “A lot of girls have an image of the ballerina and dream of becoming one. This is not the case with boys. They have to have grit and determination at an early stage to take it on. It’s safe for the girls, safety in numbers. It’s almost a herd mentality. It’s easy for us to join it.” Susie Crow agreed. Faced recently with a class of fifteen girls and one boy, she was charmed when the boy said that he thought ballet was “cool and fun.” She went on, “you have to restrain yourself from saying ‘Dear boy, how wonderful to have you here’.” It was important equally to value the girls.

According to Nicola Gaines, a teacher from the Royal Ballet School, many girls did not want to be seen to be different. The fight with the shape of one’s body was a constant struggle. “That’s where ballet can be problematic. Some wish to have their lives prescribed.” While this might be an issue for some men, for most, it was not. They had an easier sense of their own bodies than did many women.

Language and Values

Is the language of ballet saturated with values that somehow diminish women? Most speakers agreed that it was not, while, at the same time, confessing their discomfort with the 19th century stereotypes of “fairies, swans, and nice girls.” Cathy Marston was intrigued with this: “People say that ballet does fairies best. How funny that none of us knows what a fairy looks like! It’s quite bizarre. If you ask someone on the street, ‘what does a fairy look like?’ they’d probably imitate a ballet dancer!”

The consensus was that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the language of ballet, but rather at the values that were given to it. Several contributors said it was wrong to lay unique blame at ballet’s door for problems that had wider cultural roots.

Geraldine Morris, who teaches at the Royal Ballet School and at Roehampton, was not in favour of letting ballet off the hook quite so easily. There was a fundamental issue that needed to be faced, she argued. “The ballet dancer is not able to answer back.” She is imbued with an unconscious approach to her culture when she is very young. Unless she recognises that, she is completely in the grip of that culture. Ballet dancers had little freedom of determination, Morris argued (she used the word ‘agency’), and she felt this was true in her own case, when she had been a member of the Royal Ballet. She never felt free to bring personal experience to bear on her performances; had she done so, she would have been told, “Sorry, you have to do the same as everyone else.” In reply Jennifer Jackson suggested that the careers of dancers such as Fonteyn and Seymour were evidence that individuality was not impossible. To which Geraldine Morris replied: “I wasn’t a principal and I had no agency.”

According to another speaker, Virginia Taylor, dance was too often represented as a ‘failed logocentrism’. She was referring to Mark Lawson’s Guardian feature on Dance as a Difficult Art Form, in which he wrote: “We are most comfortable with art that achieves its effects verbally. With dance I always felt as if the audience had to provide mental subtitles.” Society, Virginia Taylor suggested, too easily equated masculinity, creativity and language. Caught in this particular web, the female dancer had no hope of access to power.

Cathy Marston reflected on her occasional feelings of lack of control. “Women do like to be complimented, or approved of. I know I’m guilty of it. I think of myself as fairly forward-thinking. But all the directors and choreographers for whom I’ve worked have been male. They all had that power to distract me from whatever it was I wanted to do. To be a dancer you have to have a certain element of narcissism within you. Even if I didn’t necessarily want to do it, if they liked me doing it, it felt good. I think that has something to do with why there are so many male choreographers and directors, because women are seduced by that.”

In defence of the Corps

The evening finished with a passionate defence of the corps de ballets. A speaker at an academic conference, who had scorned the experience of the corps de ballets dancer, had irked Jennifer Jackson. According to this speaker, the corps epitomised conformity and lack of independent thought. Jackson thought this utterly mistaken. “You were part of a community of dancers. It was a very particular skill, as interesting in its way as soloist work. There was a sense of being part of something bigger than you, and you made a real contribution as a unit to the whole. In 1977 the corps de ballets won the Evening Standard ballet award, something that probably wouldn’t happen today.” For Susie Crow too it was a special time. “I remember everyone coming off after Act 4 of Swan Lake practically in tears after a very intense experience artistically.”

It is curious that the experience of being in the corps, with all its intensities, should be so little documented. That fact threw into sharp relief remarks made earlier by Alexandra Carter’s on the difficulties of representing women in ballet history. Their contribution had been obliterated, she said, while that of the male choreographers and ballet-masters had endured. But this was an incomplete way of recording history. It should, she insisted, “record everybody’s contribution, even though they are nameless, and value that contribution, whoever they are”.

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