Boys in ballet: Fighting the parody
Written by Matthew Lawrence
The views and opinions expressed in this article are purely the personal reflections of the writer.
Ballet is a great activity for boys to do. It is athletic, testing strength, endurance, balance and flexibility. It is artistic, embracing creativity, movement quality, physical aesthetics and musicality – and further to this I would argue to the governing bodies of Australia – culturally beneficial. So, where are the boys?
The Billy Elliott movie gives a sorry snap-shot of an at-that-time stereotypical dad’s concerns. In the words of that father: “Lads do football…or boxing…or wrestling. Not friggin’ ballet.” The movie raised the undercurrent, the politically incorrect, yet light as day truth; society has attached men who do ballet as not 'real' men.
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 readily accept the LGBTQI community. If you are one way or the other, no one cares; I am proud to have gay and straight friends. And besides, many straight men in ballet sympathise with prejudice, as we likewise have been typecast, and can relate.
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 performances. Thankfully, with new repertoire, the twenty-first century’s perception of the male dancer is continuing to evolve with productions like Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, The Australia Ballet's new production Spartacus by Lucas Jervies and choreographers such as Wayne McGregor and Liam Scarlett heroing the masculine roles.
Positively, and gradually, there are shards of light appearing.
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.
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 and is often a sell-out.
These initiatives are great environments for our young male dancers to grow in, yet to flourish, they require their parents', friends' and siblings' support. It takes real strength, courage and passion and a network of people to overcome the stigma. 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.