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When does the ballerina become the gardener?

June 3, 2010
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Photo via Martha Swope

The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers and man is the gardener. – George Balanchine

Michelle Baxley is a Dance major at Adelphi University. She grew up with the dream of leaping across the stage with a tiara. Today, her career goal is to become a classical ballet choreographer. In a recent phone interview with her, we discussed the significance of the absence of female choreographers, and she commented:

“I haven’t found female choreographers in classical ballet that I look to for inspiration… As exciting as it would be to become one of the first female ballet choreographers, it’s quite daunting. I have a back-up plan, though, and I’m studying Psychology as well.”

From the time a four year old decides her favorite article of clothing is a tutu, she insists that she sleep with her hair tucked into a bun, or since the first afternoon when she spun around before an audience of teddy bears (wait, was that just me?), she is catapulted into the classical ballet world of damsels in distress and knights in shining armor. Classical ballet is what we associate today with the tutus and satin shoes, the little girls twirling on their toes, and even the images painted by Edgar Degas. Women are now the familiar ballet characters through which audiences take their journeys- a voyage to the land of sweets, a battle to escape life as a swan, or death by a broken heart. The thought of a ballet dancer often brings to mind women clad in tulle skirts and satin shoes floating along a stage. The traditional idea of women performing ballet has become popularized to the extent that some even question whether or not men participate in performances.

From its initiation, the sustaining groundwork of ballet has hardly been that of a female’s world. The French born Marius Petipa (aka “the father of classical ballet”) was involved in every step of the preparation. He concerned himself with composers and designers as well as the political positions of the period. While women were not holding managerial positions in the ballet world, they were undoubtedly influencing the creative process and found themselves to be artistic muses for many male choreographers.

Anna Pavlova became the inspiration for one of  Michel Fokine’s most memorable variations- The Dying Swan. George Balanchine, similarly, created works inspired by the strengths, and sometimes weaknesses, of his favored female dancers such as Maria Tallchief , Merrill Ashley, and Suzanne Farrell. These foremost ballerinas inspired their male choreographers to create some of the most prominent classical ballets that we have today.  However, these artistic influences were simply influences. Women were not creating classical ballets- they were inspiring them. Just as Balanchine had said, “man is the gardener”- men were still needed to cultivate the works.

As art reflects society, it was at the turn of the century that things began to change, and the popularity of female choreographers began to increase. Their popularity was largely found in modern dance–a category that can sort of act as the other extreme to classical ballet (it can generally be described as a series of awkward, abandoned motions). In the early 1900s, American born Isadora Duncan began with modern dance, and she later garnered the title of “mother of modern dance.” That is, at least, a little bit ironic when we consider that the “parent” of classical ballet was none other than a man- Marius Petipa. This pattern with women as modern dance makers continues today. In  1927, Martha Graham opened her own modern dance school. Later on, in 1965, Twyla Tharp founded her own dance company and continued to develop the legacy of women in modern dance. Below is a clip from Tharp’s 1986 work of In the Upper Room:

Where classical ballet labeled the woman as the performer, modern dance created the opportunity for women to convey their choreographic visions to an audience. In terms of George Balanchine’s words, modern dance permitted women to be the flower and the gardener.

One must wonder, in a landscape that can accept a woman’s diversity, why can’t the ballerina be the gardener too?

Alexandria Matz is a political science student at Monmouth University where she is a member of the Honors College and Debate Team. Throughout high school, Alli traveled the country with her ballet studies, and she performed professionally with Orlando Ballet and Colorado Ballet. She continues to stay involved with dance as a ballet teacher.

4 Comments
  1. Alex permalink
    June 3, 2010 2:18 pm

    As a female ballet dancer I love the points this article brings up! It’s an interesting dichotomy in the ballet world in regards to the roles women play; we can inspire some of the greatest works of classicism yet cannot take full credit for their creation. And within those works women are not powerful figures in the least. We are nearly always the weak one needing saving (Odette, Aurora), or the evil one who didn’t get the guy in the first place and is bitter about it (Myrtha, Gamzatti). But with the women’s rights movement came women choreographers, bucking the system of patriarchal control and doing whatever they darn-well pleased, and succeeding at it. Women could finally be the strong ones on stage. We didn’t need a man to hold us up, or throw us into the air anymore; we could stand on our own toes and jump into the sky by ourselves. Not to say men were forgotten; to the contrary we were all finally on relatively equal footing (as equal as possible when pointe shoes are involved).

    But now even as the trend in choreography in major companies slides farther and farther towards contemporary (aka more female friendly) the artistic leadership in those companies is still male dominated. In companies still firmly based in the classics, I cannot think of one female artistic director. School director? Yes, but artistic director? No. And in the companies fully embracing contemporary work, I can think of one female artistic director, and she’s barely been in that office for 6 months.

    So how do we bridge this gap? Women around the world are the CEO’s of major companies, and hold political office, but we can’t run ballet companies? The article above covers all the points I’ve made, but I’m very pleased to see someone else thinking about these issues too. I know as women in the ballet world, we cannot change the work Petipa or Fokine did, and it is important to preserve the classics for generations to come, but must we continue to perpetuate the idea of men as the gardeners forever? How will this ever change? Will it evolve as societal influences evolve? Or does the ballet world exist in it’s own universe with it’s own societal influences?

    Thanks for making me think. Love the article.

  2. June 4, 2010 6:54 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Alex! Just as you said, so much of what we are accustomed to with classical ballet supports a patriarchal society. Women are not leading major ballet companies, but they’re acting as ballet mistresses, rehearsal leaders, or teachers/ directors of the school. Directorship is not somewhere that women are present. I see modern dance as the woman’s outlet for managerial positions. I definitely agree with your comment that it allowed women to finally be the strong ones on stage; it’s interesting to me that women chose not to make dance like Petipa and Fokine had. They chose to break the mold. As for the the ballet world existing in it’s own universe- it seems so true! Only time will tell how (or if) the ballet world will evolve.

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