Guest post by Jessica Wallis
Jessica Wallis is the founder of Ballet in Cleveland, a classical ballet presenting company in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mission is to share the wonder of ballet with both boys and girls of all ages. Ballet in Cleveland is working on a presentation with the New York City Ballet in June.
Caption: The tuition-free program for younger boys at the School of American Ballet
One of George Balanchine’s most popular quotes is, “Ballet is woman.” With this quote, Balanchine aimed to highlight the long lines and artistry found when women danced on pointe, as paired with the delicate curves of their lean muscles, and even hair, as Balanchine ballerinas often had long hair that he occasionally called for them to wear loose during performances.
Loose locks displayed during the finale of Walpurgisnacht Ballet
Although Balanchine was certainly not amiss by highlighting the elegance and femininity inherent in ballet’s nature, he also did an effective job of choreographing steps that showcased the athleticism of male dancers. As society changes and we begin to broaden our scope of accepted norms, I must stop and think about the place of “boys in ballet”.
This weekend our non-profit classical ballet presentation company, Ballet in Cleveland, will have a table at a fundraiser for another local nonprofit, Art Sparks. We will be donating a Ballet in Cleveland t-shirt, a pair of decorated pointe shoes, and a scholarship to a master class with celebrity ballerina Allison DeBona in March. After I thought about what we would donate, I had a moment of pause: What if a boy receives the gift? A boy wouldn’t want a pair of pink pointe shoes. Immediately I pulled one of our black shirts to package as part of the gift, and began to re-think of what we could offer instead of pointe shoes. Even me, an individual who has had involvement with ballet for over 25 years, with a (hopefully) progressive attitude toward the art, had immediately defaulted to catering the gift to a young girl, and not a boy.
In 1992, Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet (NYCB) and chairman of faculty at the School of American Ballet (SAB), started the boys’ program. His specific aim with this program was to create a class of only boys. Ballet classes, if they are primarily made up of girls, tend to focus on turns and other steps in which female dancers need to be strong. An all-boys class not only allows the freedom of curriculum to focus on jumps and strengthening that boys need, but it also can make them feel more comfortable and not overshadowed by girls. Years ago, at an audition at SAB, a seven-year-old boy, who was the only boy in his ballet class at the time, shared his thoughts on the subject: “I can’t take the pink anymore.”
In a recent 60 Minutes segment by Lesley Stahl about NYCB, I was pleased to see that males were primarily featured. A few minutes into the piece, Martins was shown encouraging and congratulating young boys backstage after a performance, He reminded them not to be “mechanical”, and coached them on musicality, one of the elements that sets NYCB dancers apart from those in other companies. Principal dancer Robert Fairchild was also featured. The piece showed Fairchild’s triumph during his first performance of Balanchine’s masterpiece, Apollo. The portion about him began with his description of being teased when he was young because he was the only boy in his ballet class. Sound familiar? He goes on to say that it was difficult to endure, but that if you love something so much, you have to follow it no matter what. And good thing he did- Fairchild is one of NYCB’s finest dancers who made his way through the ranks of the company very quickly through hard work and dedication to his art. What a role model, especially for young boys with an affinity for ballet. All in all, I was struck by the fact that 60 Minutes chose to showcase young boys backstage as well as a young man in a leading role, with minimal costuming and no set, and not the typical ballerina in her jeweled tutu and crown. That said, I value and appreciate the role of the ballerina and do not wish to downplay the huge part that female dancers play in ballet. Rather, I was glad to see that the focus for this piece was on a male artist and the significance of his debut in a role, and not the typical glitz and glam that is often associated with ballerinas and marketed to the masses.
Caption: Robert Fairchild as Apollo in Balanchine’s Apollo
It is worth noting that George Balanchine, known as “the father of American ballet” was reluctant to take ballet as a child, and didn’t even have a particular interest in it. However his mother loved the arts and had the young George audition with his sister, who shared her mother’s passion for ballet. In Russia, ballet does not have the stigma for boys that it has in America. Ballet is something revered, and involvement in it is looked upon honorably for members of both sexes. So as social norms and stigmas change, and we function under an administration that welcomes and promotes equality, let us hope that with this comes many boys in many ballet classes and debuting on many stages… even if they were dragged in by their sister or their mother to begin with.