The End of Dance
Fetishes are ruling the day in the world of performance art.
When the West closed down for COVID, we didn’t just get poorer and less free; our public life became ugly, and it keeps getting uglier. The latest episode in the collapse of beauty ideals: viral videos of a 6 feet 3 inches tall man who goes by Sophie (ne James) Rebecca attempting to do classical ballet.
In his childhood, “Sophie” studied ballet in boys’ classes but, he says, was kicked out of dance school when he confided in his teacher that he wanted to be a ballerina. Now as a middle-aged man, he was accepted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance and spent several years training there. He has been passing his exams with flying colors.
Although I have no doubt that “Sophie” works hard, the viral videos don’t do him any favors. One side-by-side comparison of the male dancer next to a girl performing the same routine provoked a barrage of comments about his many technical failures and lack of grace. Another clip shows him performing for international audiences, surrounded by ballerinas en pointe in a dance choreographed around him. After the routine, the ballerinas picked up bouquets of flowers and presented them to the transsexual centerpiece.
Not unlike “Sophie,” many, if not most little girls also dream of being ballerinas. Save for the select few who have the right body, the talent, and the drive to achieve that goal, we realize that soaring over the stage in a tulle skirt is an impossible dream and get over it. We may still take adult dance classes (I did). We just don’t call ourselves ballerinas—unless we are. Instead, many women come to see dancers as a source of inspiration. Ballerinas represent idealized femininity out of reach to ordinary girls, but the feeling of awe they spur can be applied elsewhere in our lives.
If “Sophie” were unable to move on from that impossible dream, it’s probably because ballet is his fetish. So much of today’s woke politics are moved by fetishes—the various trans fevers, the “body positivity movement.”
The real question is not why “Sophie” is fixated on seeing himself as a ballerina but why RAD, together with much of the media, found it necessary to humor an aging fetishist. While “Sophie” acknowledges that he can’t be a professional, he has ambitions—he, for instance, participated in competitions intended for the opposite sex and maintains a personal website as well as multiple social media accounts. Considering his age and skill level, “Sophie’s” online presence serves not so much his own career but the interests of transgender activists. If the tastemakers are keen on celebrating him, it’s probably because they are laying down a marker.
Classical ballet developed out of the mostly male entertainment at the court of King Louis the XIV of France. It was romanticized and feminized over the course of the 19th and going into the 20th century. Over that period, the dancers cut their skirts to showcase their legwork, going en pointe and projecting sublime, otherworldly womanhood. Ballerinas emerged as one of the most intoxicating expressions of femininity in Western civilization. Little girls are mesmerized by the visions of fluttering dancers lifted by their male counterparts in pas de deux.
Even if men and women still train differently, the experimental Modern Dance movement is more than a century old. Modern Dance aesthetics often call for fewer gendered costumes and choreography unbound by romantic sensibilities. For instance, women can be lifting women and even men.
Homosexual men are a force in the world of arts, and choreography with distinct gay features is not new. Since the 1970s, the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been performing drag spoofs of classical ballet, sometimes even going en pointe in pointe shoes. The comedy works because the appropriate reaction to a male torso in a tutu is laughter. Such performances necessarily rely on the existence of conventional gender-normative ballet, which they mock—not that there is anything wrong with either the mockery or the convention.
The world of ballet is open to new ideas, yet looking at the brochure of the San Francisco Ballet program, I see a repertoire heavy on classical programming; it doesn’t look like the modern performances stray too far from the conventional treatment of the two sexes. From what I can tell, this type of lineup remains popular with their predominantly female audiences.
Although many choreographers and composers are male, female dancers are essential. Men may have many interesting parts, but it’s really the feminine charm that draws in the audiences. As the father of American ballet, George Balanchine, said, “Ballet is woman.”
Most performers are the girls who fell in love with the art form very early in life and dedicated more than a decade to adjusting their bodies to unnatural routines. The horror movie Suspiria takes place in a ballet school run by witches; there is certainly an emotional truth in that premise. Sweat, sore limbs, bruised toes, cool judgments, and skipped meals are expected.
For women, the art is very competitive, so many of them count themselves lucky when, after completing rigorous programs, they are able to secure corps de ballet positions in little-known dance companies. Every time they step on stage, they get to embody a dream. Even then, careers can be cut short by injury. Ironically, to be the hyper-feminine role model, ballerinas have to deny themselves the essential biological function of their sex—childbearing must be postponed. I don’t know if I should envy or pity them.
Although women showed willingness to sacrifice for the most feminine of all arts, some ideologies call to change the high ideal of feminine beauty for purely political reasons. For instance, women’s fashion magazine Elle prepped its readers:
Ballet is a classic and established artform, and for centuries we’ve seen the typically dainty ballerina and sturdy prince pose and jeté on stage, enforcing binary gender roles. Who ever would of [sic] dreamed of a dancing male swan?
But in contemporary ballet, choreographers such as Matthew Bourne have played with gender, employing male dancers to dance the steps of traditionally female roles. Why shouldn’t this be the next step?
Maybe because it’s not clear what is to be gained by masculinizing the dance. Elle is not arguing that using ballerinas’ female bodies imposes concrete obstacles for choreographers, and that these obstacles can be overcome by giving the girls’ parts to men. The argument is only that ballet is too feminine and femininity—just like masculinity—is suspect.
Of course it’s possible to completely revamp the world of dance, to orient it toward male bodies—after all, men are more athletic, and aesthetic ideals are subjective. In any event, next to “Sophie,” the men who started their training early and are smaller in stature will look less jarring. Maybe the West can return ballet to its rococo roots, where men can peacock their abilities for the pleasure of decadent male elites.
We can train a decent male dancer and declare him the prima donna of his generation, changing the art for good. I doubt, however, that men can supplant women in their current roles as romantic ballerinas. More likely the aesthetic will change, ending the broad appeal of the genre that for over two centuries capitalized on female hard work and fascination.
Playing politics with art runs the risk of losing the ethereal beauty that has been the guiding light for modern women both in and out of the world of classical ballet. With it will whimper away the girls ready to offer their bodies on the altar of art. Don’t complain about Russia and China being ahead of us.
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