Boys in ballet: Fighting the parody
Published on 06/06/2018
Written by Matthew Lawrence
The Billy Elliott movie gives a sorry snap-shot of a stereotypical dad’s concerns: “Lads do football…or boxing…or wrestling. Not friggin’ ballet.” Dad Elliot’s justification forces Billy to broach the unspoken misconception: “Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof, you know.” Billy’s raised the undercurrent, the politically incorrect, yet light as day truth; society has attached men who do ballet with homosexuality.
I think we all know why ballet for boys is not more popular. It is typically unspoken, yet clear as Billy’s pronouncement; it is about not fitting in. It is unfortunate that the world is not more like ballet companies, which in terms of sexual acceptance, are utopia work-place environments. If you are one way or the other, no one cares; I am proud to have gay and straight friends. And besides, every straight man in ballet sympathises with homophobia, as we likewise have been typecast, and at times banished.
Ballet has not always been viewed as effeminate. The art-form’s iconic pioneers, such Parisian Auguste Vestris, were internationally revered for their athleticism. Vestris, in-particular, was viewed as a state treasure. Indeed, ballet, in its earliest form, was a trendy art-form for high society and predominately danced by men.
In western society, the pigeon-holing of men in ballet had its origins in the nineteenth century, when Romantic ballet assigned the male dancer to a subsidiary role. And Romantic ballet, evolving to a gentlemen’s entertainment, elevated the women’s part to produce exotic, other-worldly and erotic performances. Thankfully, with new repertoire, the twenty-first century’s perception of the ballerina has changed (if slightly skewed by stereotypes on eating-disorders). However, our society’s perception of male dancers still reflects the Romantic era; of a man in a woman’s job (and clothes).
Positively, and gradually,
there are shards of light appearing.
How do we break this century laid ice? Positively, and gradually, there are shards of light appearing. Dance, in its many forms, has crept progressively into school curriculums in Australia, with research extolling its intellectual and social benefits. Great. However, hip hop and lyrical are cool. Ballet carries an old-fashioned tag for girls, and the obvious label for guys. Targeting this misconception are the ever-expanding education departments in our popular and well-fed ballet companies, but this is a large chasm to cross.
Within ballet’s network, there are also positive green shoots appearing. Australia does have some excellent new and established initiatives for aspirant male ballet dancers, which are looking to build a community. Notably, the Royal Academy of Dance’s Project B (Boys), running summer schools and nationwide masterclasses (for which I am the proud Australian ambassador). The Australian Ballet run events such as Boys Day. In Sydney, Jake Burden has recently established Australia’s first boys only ballet school, fittingly called, Ballet Brothers. To add, Boys’ Ballet Summer School, held likewise in Sydney, is up to its thirteenth iteration.
These initiatives are great environments for our young male dancers to grow in, yet to flourish, they require their parents support. Often it is mum finding a way to sway dad into allowing their son to dance. To mums, I say use guile…for the greater good. Perhaps trick dad into keeping fit at an adult ballet class? (Remember to buy him some Bloch ballet shoes first!). Or perhaps surprise tickets to The Australian Ballet’s Spartacus; the fights will appeal.
To those dads, like mine, who are supportive, gold star. Awesome. We ask a lot of boys in ballet, so, to have your support in creating a strong, independent thinker is invaluable. It takes real strength, courage and passion and a network of people to overcome bullying. And that is why boys in ballet deserve everyone’s support.
About Matthew Lawrence
New Zealand born Matthew Lawrence began his dance career with The Australian Ballet, where in 2004 he rose to the rank of Principal Dancer before relocating to Birmingham Royal Ballet as a Principal Dancer in 2007. In 2013, he returned to Australia under the draw of working with Queensland Ballet Artistic Director Li Cunxin until 2014.
Since then, Matthew has taught extensively in a variety of settings, from The Australian Ballet and Queensland University of Technology (QUT), to Queensland Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s program and ambassador for the Royal Academy of Dance’s Project B.
Creatively, Matthew has choreographed works for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Queensland Ballet, QUT and other leading dance institutions in Australia and abroad. He is also a columnist for Dance Australia.
Photo: David Kelly