The pas de deux is arguably the centerpiece of classical ballet. Traditionally, it features a man and a woman dancing together, each performing solos, and then coming together once more for a coda. When the two are dancing on stage together, the job of the man is to support and present the ballerina, because “Ballet is woman,” as George Balanchine famously (or perhaps notoriously) said. While this may be true, there is much to be questioned about the role of gender in ballet.
Classical ballet contains extremely strict gender roles, with men and women performing different types of movements and dancing very different roles. In schools, though everyone takes barre and center together, the boys will then leave for a separate “men’s class” while the girls focus on pointework. Dress codes are gendered as well — pink tights and black leotards for the girls, black tights and white shirts for the boys. This rigid divide leaves little room for flexibility or the inclusion of those whose gender identity don’t fit within the traditional cisgender roles on which ballet is built.
Though companies like the all-male drag Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo exist, the company is meant to perform parodies, with a comedic element. Opportunity and inclusion of non-binary dancers in classical ballet are nearly nonexistant, and the stark gender divide may be difficult to surmount for transgender dancers. In 2018, Chase Johnsey broke barriers when he became the first man to perform in a female role in a major ballet company—English National Ballet. Though positively received, some, like former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, were cautious in their response, citing the possibility of yet more obstacles for women in a world already stacked against them.
Returning to the pas de deux, the ballet world has only recently begun to see more subversion of its traditional structure, albeit mostly with contemporary pas de deux consisting of two men. American Ballet Theater’s recent work “Touche” was groundbreaking as their first all male pas de deux and was also explicitly gay coded. Though these works are proof of progress and the breakdown of stifling traditions, they are once again primarily creating opportunities for men and not women. While perhaps this imbalance is due to higher visibility of gay males in ballet or the ability of men to perform partnering feats like lifts, standalone pieces such as the Royal Ballet’s 2017 “Duet” help to create barrier-breaking opportunities for women as well. A rare piece in the ballet world, “Duet” was choreographed for two women—by a female choreographer, no less.
Whelan’s reservations about Johnsey’s historic performance, while perhaps overblown in this context, are grounded in reality. As the first female in a position of artistic leadership at NYCB, she certainly knows the glass ceilings of ballet all too well. Though there are typically more women in a company of dancers than men, positions of power — artistic direction and choreography — have nearly always been, and continue to be, held by men. Underneath the showmanship of Balanchine’s “Ballet is woman,” these positions that dictate female visibility on stage are once again ultimately controlled by men, a reality that might even be said to be reflected in the choreography of the classical ballet canon. As dance critic Alastair Macaulay considers, is the male partner behind the ballerina “serving her or controlling her?”
Ballet, as an art form tied to tradition, can be a deeply sexist and exclusive place. But women are slowly but surely breaking through the glass ceiling and proving their capabilities. Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, is one of those rare women in a position of power at a major ballet company. She has successfully led the company to infinitely greater prestige in the last decade, while continuing to dance as a principal ballerina, and was also the director who gave the previously mentioned Chase Johnsey the radical opportunity to dance in the female corps.
Within the choreography and narratives of the classical ballet canon, there is certainly room to reevaluate how these works present and represent women and power dynamics between the sexes. Moreover, the ballet world must learn to let go of some of its rigidity and actively work to become a more inclusive and welcoming place.
— Sara Komatsu ‘23’s column “Backstage at the Ballet” explores anything and everything ballet-related, from its moments of joy and despair to the broader, systematic issues within it.