Recently, it’s been brought to my attention through message boards a letter that was submitted to the SF Chronicle, reprinted here:
Ballet ignores gay love
Editor – In 2006 you published my letter about the lack of gay-themed love affairs portrayed by the San Francisco Ballet. After the letter was published I tried to get an appointment to see His Highness Helgi Tomasson, the artistic director, to no avail. I picketed the Ballet administration building, distributing copies of the letter, to no avail. And I leafleted several performances, to no avail. Still, the San Francisco Ballet has not been brave enough to portray same-sex love and passion in a ballet. I find it hard to celebrate the 75th anniversary of an institution so insensitive to a large part of its clientele. I have not attended a performance of that company since 2006 and have felt no loss.
It got me thinking about dance and the male gaze,
a concept that I learned way back as an undergrad in my dance history and gender class. Originally coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“, in short (and from my memory, which is by no means complete), the Wikipedia entry states,
The defining characteristic of the male gaze is that the audience is forced to regard the action and characters of a text through the perspective of a heterosexual man; the camera lingers on the curves of the female body, and events which occur to women are presented largely in the context of a man’s reaction to these events. The male gaze denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects. The female reader or viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male.
In this way, dance history reinforces this idea, in which things presented onstage were congruent with the heterosexual male gaze. Early in dance history, audiences found women as swans and fairies and sylphs to be titillating, thus supporting the existence of ballets such as Giselle, La Sylphide, Swan Lake, and Coppelia. Another interesting tidbit – female dancers scarcely disguised to play male character roles, such as Franz, Swanilda’s fiancee in Coppelia, were also seen. The odd thing was that these male characters were clearly women, with their figures rarely concealed as men. Such sapphic portrayals were permitted onstage, although the opposite (men partnering men) were not as common, if at all.
Yet the odd thing is, if you look around a normal dance audience, women usually predominate, and I have to wonder why the male gaze persists. The Chronicle letter suggests the male gaze still predominates in the dance world. It’s clear that the male gaze is faltering, with the appearance of Matthew Bourne’s almost all male Swan Lake and Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut (as well as a lot of his other pieces)