Fall 2021 In Dance

Though these ballets are framed as tragic romances, they are also not-so-subtle glorifications of white femininity. They are celebrations of heteronormative, cisgendered, Eurocentric norms, designed to bar anyone who doesn’t fit into the perfectly

But what is to become of the clas- sical repertoire? Is there any possi- bility of salvaging the original bal- lets? Is it enough to host post-show conversations or provide program notes, acknowledging the weight these works carry? Should ballet companies perform them in a purely historical context, or remove any plot from the choreography? Is it time we dancers retire our tutus, pack up the tulle and feathers, and abandon the White Bal- lets once and for all? I believe the future of these ballets is complicated, and these answers will take time. Although they are a deeply flawed tradition, these ballets are also deeply loved. The first time I danced the second act of Swan Lake , I remember hugging my fel- low corps dancers in the wings, tears streaming down our faces. Over- whelmed with emotion, one girl turned to me and said, “Think about all of the dancers who have danced these steps before us. We’re joining a part of something so much bigger than any one of us.” For many dancers, performing these ballets is not only an artistic release, but an empowering display of their power and strength, a testa- ment to the comradery felt between dancers, and a chance to take agency in their training. Ballet is a paradox, for as valid as these feelings may be, there is clear tension between this kinesthetic experience and the narratives that continuously disem- power women. We have not seen the end of the White Ballets. Having already sur- vived centuries, dancers will continue to pass down the steps and score, and audiences will continue to fill theaters, eager to see the women in white. And while the steps on stage remain unchanged, the world outside will continue to rapidly evolve. The ballet community must realize that their art does not exist in a vacuum. Though tradition is incredibly sacred to the art, eventually our dances must reflect the world around us.

first glance. Their lives? Easily dispos- able. At best, they were granted the common courtesy of symbolizing eter- nal love: their suffering a metaphor for grace and forgiveness. They could pirouette and jete with ease, but never yell or stand firmly on two feet. They drowned in lakes of their own tears and danced to their graves, pointing their feet even in the afterlife. These are stories of women suf- fering, usually at the hands of men; stories of women being shamed, harassed, exploited, and killed. I won’t argue that we shouldn’t be tell- ing these stories. On the contrary, in a post-#MeToo society these stories have never been more necessary. The problem lies in how the ballet com- munity continues to tell them. These stories are always framed around the male protagonist, always told from their point of view. Despite the centrality of Odette’s suffering to the plot of Swan Lake , it is Prince Siegfried who appears in all four acts, his perspective driving the nar- ration. Giselle’s death is a mere pre- cursor to Albrecht’s realization that he will have to live without her. La Bayadere and La Sylphide are no different. These may be stories of women suffering, but the real trag- edy is always the man’s grief. And these are stories of white women suffering. Though these bal- lets are framed as tragic romances, they are also not-so-subtle glorifi- cations of white femininity. They are celebrations of heteronorma- tive, cisgendered, Eurocentric norms, designed to bar anyone who doesn’t fit into the perfectly crafted mold from dancing. Ballet’s gatekeepers will justify all of this for the sake of tradition. The classical repertoire is sacred, we must keep it pure at all costs, must protect the aesthetic and never question our ancestors. This is ironic, considering the Bournonville and Petipa choreog- raphy that the ballet world has des- perately clung to in the last century is itself a revision of previous versions.

The original 1836 version of La Sylphide has been long lost. Though Giselle was first choreographed in 1841 Paris, today we perform the Russian choreography from 1884. Swan Lake , arguably the most iconic ballet in the modern canon, failed upon its initial premier. The 1895 revival, which has survived untouched until today, made major revisions to the plot, score, and choreography. 1 So the ballet “greats,” or rather, the white men who created these bal- lets—Petipa, Bournonville, Ivanov— were already working with revisions. Choreographers today need not feel beholden to any particular version-- there’s no pure form. Truth be told, it shouldn’t be so daunting to touch these works, but because the ballet community puts them on such a high pedestal, it feels as such. There are those who have dared to touch the classics. Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake , which features a nearly all male cast, is itself now a modern classic. Dada Masi- lo’s Giselle integrates South Afri- can dances and reimagines an end- ing where Giselle refuses to forgive Albrecht, leaving him to die. Shobana Jeyasingh explores the origins of ori- entalism and exoticism in her bal- let, Bayadere—The Ninth Life . Oth- ers—Akram Khan, Alexander Ekman, Seeta Patel—have produced their own re-imaginings. For ballet to survive, this work must continue. Still, I would argue that there is room in the ballet repertoire for new librettos. Reimagining the classics is great, but it’s time the ballet community creates a space for the sto- ries that have yet to be told. It’s time that women—including Black women, queer women, and trans women—tell their own stories on the ballet stage. We can tell stories of women suffer- ing. We can tell stories of betrayal, shame, and pain. Yes, we can even tell simple love stories. But to do these stories justice, we must strip them of the white male gaze that has haunted the ballet canon for centuries.

crafted mold from dancing .

EMMA GARBER is an arts writer and dance art- ist. Born and raised in Needham, MA, Garber is in her fourth year at the University of Massachu- setts Amherst. She will graduate in 2022 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and a certificate in Arts Manage- ment. Garber is the Head Opinion and Editorial editor of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian . She has been published in the UMass Magazine , the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Amherst Indy and quoted in Psyche Magazine and on WGBH radio. Garber has danced nearly her entire life, with a special focus on ballet.

Recently, the four-year-old girl I teach ballet to asked me to teach her the “swan dance” she had seen illustrations of in a picture book. I demonstrated raising my arms above my head, bringing my wrists together, palms facing outwards, then let- ting my arms float down once more. There we stood, facing each other, performing the iconic choreography and I wondered where this art form would take us, and where we would take it.

1 Homans, Jennifer. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet . Random House, 2010.


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