LAST EDITED ON 16-11-01 AT 03:06 PM (GMT)
The phrase “Men in Tights” has become a standard shorthand for the aversion shared by many men to ballet and to other forms of dance. The attitude it represents was the starting point for Mark Lawson’s recent Guardian essay on ballet as a difficult art form. In his words, “it’s commonly assumed that men who dislike ballet consider Swan Lake an affront to their masculinity”.
The issue of male representation in dance was also discussed on Wednesday at the Ballet Independents’ Group seminar, organised by the excellent Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson. They had brought together a lively panel, William Trevitt of George Piper Dances and formerly of the Royal Ballet, Mavin Khoo who brings to the Bharata Natyam form a background both in ballet and in Cunningham technique, and the dance academic Teresa Buckland. She has particular research interests in Morris dancing.
The evening was less remarkable for its insights into the wider issue of men and dance, than for Trevitt’s and Khoo’s personal stories. In their different ways they are rewriting the rules for male performers. While Khoo trod a very individual path from the time he first went to a dance class, Trevitt’s background was much more traditional. He was a Junior Associate at the Royal Ballet School, and then a full time student there, before joining the Royal Ballet.
Double tours to the knee, double assemblés
“Disappointingly I’ve never had anyone tease me for being a dancer”, Trevitt told his audience. “I’ve never had a problem about wearing tights; I’ve spent lots of time in tights as a prince in most of the classics” But it had been frustrating. Traditional ballets such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty had been “all about the ballerina”. Of Sleeping Beauty, he said, “it was very easy; you didn’t even come on stage until ten o’clock”. What was additionally wearing was a lack of challenging classical choreography for men. Kenneth MacMillan was an exception; he went through various phases of fascination with male and female muses – Nureyev, Seymour, Bussell, and finally Mukhamedov.
Leaving the Royal Ballet did not resolve Trevitt’s dissatisfaction. His time with K Ballet in Japan had been ‘unreal’. “Until last year I was growing into a procedural mould. Double tours to the knee, double assemblés, 3 pirouettes, lift someone over your head. My height and build ordained that. Every male soloist starts with his arms in the same way. It is often a question of doing five specific things during a solo or I’ve failed”.
"A woman cannot manipulate you or lift you".
In contrast, founding George Piper Dances with Michael Nunn had opened new horizons. Partnering Nunn in Russell Maliphant’s “Critical Mass” (the duet they dance together in their current show ‘Pointeless’) had been a profound experience.
“The Critical Mass pas-de-deux opened my eyes suddenly to the reality that half of my repertoire had not existed until now. A woman cannot manipulate you or lift you. When dancing with a man, there are twice as many things you can do. Masculine strengths of picking each other up and lifting each other were previously unexplored. In nineteenth century roles, you spend fifty percent of your time on stage matching lines or standing behind the ballerina. You are essentially an appendage to her. That’s how Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are. To an extent, the less noticeable you are, the better you have done. On the other hand, Critical Mass is one of the most satisfying pas-de-deuxs I have done. I use my body very differently, using joints I didn’t know I had. I engage the audience differently. I make choices”.
Mavin Khoo has challenged convention from early on. At the age of 10 he studied in India with a Bharata Natyam master. The British Council there was interested in having a dancer train both in Bharata Natyam and in ballet. They chose Khoo. At the age of 14 he saw a video of Gelsey Kirkland dancing with Baryshnikov in Don Quixote. It was a formative moment. He was riveted by Kirkland, and, in particular, an extension, which she then amplified by a further two inches. It taught him, he said, a great deal about texture and nuance. This was not because Kirkland was pretty or “ballet-fied”, but because her body was completely sensitive to its surroundings. Khoo later studied with Merce Cunningham in New York, before coming to a ballet school in London. There he was appalled to mention Erik Bruhn to his fellow students, and to find no one knew of whom he spoke. His interest in Asian dance was discouraged. He hated being compelled to do pirouettes rather than fouettes in class, and not being able to dance on pointe. He left the school.
He has never thought of dance in terms of sexual identity. “I think of myself as a body excited by space. The context of dancing as male or female arises from equating works such as Swan Lake with ballet. It uses ballet, but it does not define the form”.
Khoo spoke of Bharata Natyam as a reconstructed form danced classically by women. “Within the context of Indian and classical dance, I resist the idea of gender and work on the technique. I resist specificity. Many of my role models are women – Gelsey Kirkland, Cynthia Gregory. They are women, but they dance with a strength that is not gender based. Nureyev did not dance like a man: “he danced like an animal”. I found Baryshnikov overtly masculine An obvious statement of gender on stage is an obvious statement of ego”.
The anthropologist Theresa Buckland has researched the issue of masculinity and Morris dancing. 19th century Morris performances were very much “putting your men folk out there on parade, dressed by their sweethearts”. At century’s end, there was a new approach: “The old traditions are great – but what about a few pretty girls?”. The form became perceived as more feminine. When Morris was revived in the 20th century, it was by women PE teachers. In the 1930s the men took it back; women, were described as caretakers pro tem. There is a notion of “the Morris”, Buckland argued, that it is “not really dancing”. Men somehow dislike admitting, “We really love dancing”. Instead they say: “We do not dance, we maintain the tradition”.
William Trevitt, who “used to do Morris as a sideline”, mentioned an interesting contradiction. While in some dances men tried to hit their sticks as hard as possible, other dances with handkerchiefs required considerable delicacy. To this Theresa Buckland replied that, historically, concepts of grace, elegance and strength had been licensed for men in the old dancing manuals. The aesthetics of Morris and ballet were in some ways similar. But there had been a parting of the ways.
"Eroticism at a very high spiritual level"
Mavin Khoo argues the case for abstracting movement from the context of gender. The entire spectrum of movement, whether male or female, he regards as a library to be raided at will. Ismene Brown has written of his obvious femininity, and of his ability to portray “eroticism at a very high spiritual level”. Homoeroticism is not at issue here; Khoo is very comfortable with genderless presentation.
“I’m very conscious as a dancer of the build that I have. I have an androgynous and not a masculine presence and I capitalise on it. I have done a duet with Wayne MacGregor with myself on pointe. The question was – not who was more male or female, but who was more androgynous. Akhram Khan, who is my height, has a male magnetism. When I do a pas-de-deux in adage with a bigger and taller partner, he characterises me more than I do him”.
Some of Khoo’s remarks had obvious resonance for William Trevitt who experienced in dancing with Michael Nunn entire new dimensions, and some very personal ones. “The rules of the piece (Maliphant’s Critical Mass) reflect the values of our relationship. I’ve watched his pas-de-deuxs with others. But to be partnered by him is very different. We share our sweat and intimacy on the stage floor. Back stage we switch again to normality”.
Mavin Khoo agreed. To hold in balance on stage a combination of vulnerability and power was extraordinarily difficult. It was, he added, “a real challenge” to find another male performer prepared to share such intimacy.
"We're not here to turn you into ballet dancers"
Craig Randolph of English National Ballet’s Education and Community Unit spoke from the floor about the experience of holding workshops in schools linked to their current production of Cinderella. Some boys, not many, attended. Randolph focused heavily with them on movement, carefully skirting about the issue of gender. The boys could engage with the movement qualities. But, Randolph said, “Something happens around age 13 – hormones, sexual awareness. There’s a very clear age at which it happens. With boys, if I say ‘we’re not here to turn you into ballet dancers’, they’re very relieved”. He argued that television representations of ballet were problematic. Ballet imagery drew overwhelmingly on tutus and on representations of the feminine. This was often financially driven, he acknowledged, and English National Ballet was quite as guilty as other companies. In contrast, George Piper Dance’s advertising images of masculinity were very powerful. To this Billy Trevitt replied ruefully that theatre managements outside London had told them that if their advertising had played up “Ballet Boyz”, and had evoked images of classical ballet, that they would have doubled their ticket sales.
And there the discussion more or less ended. The evening had addressed the wider social issues in a limited way. But it didn’t really matter. It had been far more interesting to hear two male dancers speak meditatively and very personally about themselves and their art.