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Will the White Stripes help to de-feminize ballet?

April 23, 2010

Photo via Starpulse

Chroma, described by choreographer Wayne McGregor as the “freedom from white”, is the much anticipated ballet that uses music from the White Stripes in orchestral form. Reaching out for a more contemporary demographic, the show features such fan favorites as ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ and ‘Blue Orchid’ (it looks like we’ll have to wait a bit longer for that orchestral version of ‘Icky Thump’). The ballet had its premiere in London’s Royal Opera House back in 2006 but now it has finally been added to the 2010/2011 season in the land where the deer and the antelope play.

Firstly, I offer my apologies. In thinking about the title of this post, I’m not even sure if ‘de-feminize’ is the right word. I definitely don’t mean to label ballet as something that’s girly or sissy—outside of Lindy Hop, I’m not much of a dancer myself, but I do have enough siblings to be aware of the dedication and sheer strength required to do ballet—and by society’s definition of girly, this is anything but.

But why does ballet have this feminine attachment? Or is this simply a misnomer for those outside of the dancing sphere looking in? And am I merely helping to perpetuate the stereotype simply by discussing it? Well… we must start somewhere.

Cue the electric guitar!

Maybe, it’s a weight thing. Unlike modeling, ballet dancers aren’t required to be thin or a certain size for appearance alone; it’s more for practicality and grace. The dancers need to be agile and if that mandate is fulfilled, then the performance has a higher potential for improvement. Unfortunately, familiar issues arise:

“Surveys indicate that professional female dancers are considerably thinner than the general population of women, whereas male dancers approach the norm for men.”- Dance Magazine

Few institutions other than modeling, for example, lead to a pervasive culture of eating disorders (the New York Times cited the incidence of eating disorders in dancers as one in five.)- the F-Bomb

…if I wanted to be ballet dancer in Russia, I should weigh 39kg (6 stone, 1lb). I am 5ft 5in. This would give me a clinically emaciated body mass index of 14.1 – a weight that would probably land me in hospital in the UK. – The Guardian on Russian ballet culture

Perhaps grace is the problem. Ballerinas have that association to fragility, vulnerability, and weakness. This could be due to the delicate frame they must maintain but the sweet music behind it all is probably just as great a contributor.

Chroma Photo via Art's Place

And what about the gender roles in ballet? Nevermind the tutus, shoes with ribbons, and myriad arrays of white and pink that have been pounded into our heads by typical mainstream projections; when you see the male dancer toss up, drop, and generally act as the centre pivot for the female dancer, then it’s easy to guess where the power lies. And that’s probably why ballet isn’t feminism’s favorite sport.

Again, those are just stereotypes. Popular stereotypes, but misleading nonetheless.

The ballet and dance shows that don’t have size or subject restrictions are out there,people just aren’t aware of them. And there are even some types of ballet that fall so far out of the normal conventions of ballet that you probably wouldn’t even recognize them as ballet (Re: last 15 seconds of below video).

This is why I think the White Stripes lending a hand to ballet is a great step forward. I don’t think for a second that it’s just a cheap hook or publicity stunt either—I’ve listened to Joby Talbot’s Aluminium album (which is a good indication of the music that will be heard in the ballet) and it’s the real deal. Medium crossovers have always played a fundamental role in hammering certain walls of exclusivity or stereotypes to broader audiences. If Obama can hire and half of Hollywood to get more people interested in voting and politics in general, then certainly raising theatre’s curtain for garage rock’s favorite duo is more than in the realm of possibility.

Chroma Photo via Art's Place

And maybe that’s how we can fight stereotypes. Not by running down one track, preaching our cause, mission, and aspirations to or for a specific group but by bringing things together—in a way that allows us to appreciate different perspectives, ideologies, struggles, success stories, movements and liberations.

Now doesn’t that sound like a fab idea?

Some more links worth reading:

A Feminist Goes to the Ballet- the Fbomb

A Feminist Guide to Ballet- the Fword

The Guardian on Russian ballet culture

  1. Jessica Mack permalink*
    April 23, 2010 1:20 pm

    As a lifelong dancer, and a ballerina back in the day, AND as a gigantic White Stripes fan, I couldn’t be happier about this. I cannot wait to see this ballet! There is an incredible amount of power and strength behind ballet that is muted by an even greater amount of force taken to make it look “easy” “graceful” and “beautiful.” This is much more the case for women ballet dancers, than for men, I think — making that juxtaposition of lightness and sheer force in women dancers so impressive. The White Stripes are a great pairing because they’re all force — no real lightness, except they are highly skilled and their melodies are complex and brilliant. They’re not just making loud noise. I especially love to watch contemporary ballet because of how elastic the dancers need to be — the technique must be flawless regardless of the sounds behind them, yet they can stretch, reach, and push themselves to embody the beats in the most amazing ways. Ballet dancers are probably some of the strongest women you’ll meet!

  2. April 23, 2010 6:13 pm

    Indeed, the White Stripes are probably a perfect pair to match with ballet–a bunch of my flatmates always tell me it sounds like I’m listening to people smashing stuff in their garage and that their only good one was ‘Seven Nation Army’. But I mean, even after listening to under great northern white lights, it’s insane how much deeper they can make their music just by tweaking their live performance. And I think ballet’s just like that in that you really have to be paying close attention to the dancers in order to understand what they are actually trying to do. And once you get past that initial surface and start to notice those tweaks, then that’s where the fun begins.

  3. Taylor Michaels permalink
    April 23, 2010 10:22 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, Kyle! I had no idea that this repertoire existed; it’s definitely an interesting spin on things. Seeing that this premiered at the Royal Opera House, I really am happy to see its success. It seems that these more experimental pieces are usually performed by modern companies (Complexions being one of them… love that clip!!!), but perhaps the movement is spreading to more classical companies. As for partnering work, the man’s role is largely to make the woman look good. Almost a role reversal right out of patriarchy, if you ask me. Thanks for pointing out that ballerinas are anything but fragile. The aesthetics surely support that stereotype, but there’s nothing like a ballerina with six-pack-abs to set it straight!

    • April 24, 2010 12:36 pm

      Thanks Taylor! And that’s a good point about the role reversal–I never thought about it that way before. It’s definitely a stereotype busting perspective. Now if only more people could escape the tunnel vision…

  4. Maria Guzman permalink*
    April 29, 2010 11:44 am

    Hi Kyle,

    What a great marriage of the Humanities! One of the toughest things to achieve as a band/artist is gender neutrality (or whatever you can call it)-appealing to both without tipping the scales in one direction so as to repel anyone. The White Stripes do this well.

    Early on when they first hit the scene, they were automatically “read” as a couple, a very heteronormative reaction. They responded by messing with that impulsive assumption and turn the tables by coyly suggesting that they were in fact, a brother/sister duo. How creepy of the public to assume anything sexual haha!

    But yes, they were once married and now are not, and remain a nontraditional example of what a “band” is. There’s only two of them, their sound is a throwback to the golden era of soul and garage rock, and they hail from Detroit (an economically disadvantaged urban center). Together, they challenge popular notions of modes of expression. I love that this Detroit duo have inspired Wayne McGregor. I may have to get to the ballet much sooner then….

    • April 29, 2010 6:02 pm

      That’s a good point, Maria. I didn’t think to mention the fact that they had told everyone they were brother and sister to mess with public gender assumptions. But yeah, that’s a great example of how they work to stomp out stereotypes.

  5. Maria Guzman permalink*
    April 29, 2010 7:01 pm

    …or perhaps “Icky Thump” out stereotypes? Sorry, I could not help it.

    • April 29, 2010 7:04 pm

      Haha, you know I was thinking about going there, but then I thought nah I think I’ll restrain myself… I’m glad to see it wasn’t wasted 😉


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