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The Male Gaze in Dance: What Happened?

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.

Donald Dinelli


It got me thinking about dance and the male gaze,

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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)

Review: 2013 San Francisco Ballet’s Program 8: Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella

The U.S. premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella brought a modern fairytale to life on the

War Memorial Opera House stage

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in San Francisco.

2009 SF Ballet’s Program 4 and 5

A photo of Ruben Martin rehearsing Robbins' The Concert in the program. Photo in the program by Erik Tomasson.

A photo of Ruben Martin rehearsing Robbins' The Concert in the program. Photo in the program by Erik Tomasson.

Just a quick note on Programs 4 and 5 at the San Francisco Ballet currently going on, which I saw this past weekend – if you haven’t seen these yet, RUN and grab tickets to the last showing this week. It’s my two favorite programs this year so far at the SF Ballet – out of the six pieces presented over these two programs, there was only one half-miss (can anyone guess which one I wasn’t totally thrilled about??). Program 4 has the haunting Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas and the hilariously charming Robbins’ The Concert that had everyone from these loudly giggling little boys in the orchestra section to me, laughing out loud. It also includes Tomasson’s On a Theme of Paganini. The great thing is that the last program this week contains nearly the same oustanding cast I saw in Jardin and the Concert, aside from the spot-on comedic timing of Pascal Molat, who will be danced instead by Ruben Martin in the photo above. How can you not love that photo?? Alastair Macaulay wrote about how George Balanchine favored against type casting, and it would be great fun to see hearthrob Ruben Martin in this comedic role on Wednesday.

Program 5 is the delicious all-Mark Morris program – they did an all Robbins’ program last year that I didn’t think quite captured the essence of Robbins, but I felt like the Mark Morris program captured the elusive balance of Morris’ heart, wit, humor, and versatility very well. If you like ballet to be only beautiful and classical and extension-y, perhaps this isn’t the program for you (although I like beautiful ballet as well). But if you like to see someone push the boundaries of what ballet can be in a surprising and thrilling way, Program 5 is for you. This program would be great for younger audiences as well. It includes Morris’ A Garden, Joyride, and the audience favorite, Sandpaper Ballet.

More to come later…

More information on Program 4 and Program 5 on the SF Ballet’s website.