Matthew Ball, First Soloist, Royal Ballet
The biggest challenge that the male dancer faces is the balancing of masculinity and grace.
Stepping out from under the shadow of the prima and into his own spotlight, the last century has seen the triumphant rebirth of the male danseur. On stage, the line between the sexes had always been clearly drawn; the ballerina, a vision of hyper-feminine beauty, dances en pointe, whilst her male counterpart dancer serves to lift, partner and romance. Whilst the ballerinas are transformed into sylphs and faeires on stage, the men are cast into cavelier consorts and porters. Playing out a gendered role, his dances crest in virile displays of power and brute strength that underscores the elegance of the ballerina. This can be seen in Bluebird’s successive entrechats in Sleeping Beauty, the relentless leaps, turns and beaten steps of La Sylphide and Prince Alberect’s high, airy double cabrioles and sharp double tours. In classical ballet, the male dancer’s virtuosity was not characterised by grace of movement.
Returning for a two day run at the London Coliseum, ballet superstar Ivan Putrov’s ‘Men in Motion’ programme explores the changing role of the male ballerino, playing out the twists and turns of his struggle into the limelight. Spanning 100 years, ‘Men In Motion’ pays homage to the dancers and creatives that have played a hand in ballet history. Featuring legendary dancer Irek Mukhamedov and soloists from around the world including Matthew Ball, Marian Walter and Daniel Proietto, with choreography from Fokine and Nureyev to Christopher Bruce, Russell Maliphant and a new work by Arthur Pita. In the lead up to the new incarnation of the show, we spoke to Putrov and the Royal Ballet’s First Soloist, Matthew Ball.
(Photography : Sam Taylor-Johnson. Ivan Putrov, Men in Motion)
The New Male Dancer
I would encourage the next generation to try dance in any context, in any story and to push it’s creative range.
Changing attitudes towards men in dance hold a mirror up to the gradual shift of our cultural definition of masculinity. Leaving behind the tight-laced, suit wearing man of the post-war years, we are starting to create a more inclusive understanding of male identity. Speaking about the acceptance of the dancer and the wider change in perspective Putrov comments, ‘I see that the barriers in every aspects of male life are disappearing.’
In order to deal with new realities, contemporary ballets now focus on the exploration of the interior, psychological dimensions of its dancers. Engaging with his subject matter in a way never seen before on stage, the British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan remains a huge influence in the upheaval of traditional storytelling. Drawing inspiration from theatre and film, MacMillan steered contemporary ballet towards a deeper, more profound exploration of the psyche’s shadow – dealing with sexual awakening, murder and insanity in his often sinister, near-realist scenes.
Another name mentioned by Putrov, and appearing on the bill for ‘Men in Motion’, is the Portuguese choreographer, Arthur Pita. In his now legendary retelling of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, the protagonist’s ghastly transmutation into a beetle is articulated through shapes smeared in thick black oil, the body twisted into inhuman contortions . A century away from the danseur noble, we watch as the male lead’s body bends and snaps – a physical representation of the male protagonists psychotic unravelling.
(Photography : Brett Lloyd. Sergei Polunin and Ivan Purtov rehearsing)
Centuries ago the ballet dancer learnt choreographed movements by rote but these days the male ballet dancer is asked to be an artist. This demands versatility in storytelling and theatrics and a depth of character work previously unimagined on stage. Speaking about the enduring power of classical ballet Ivan explains that this new creative direction allows these traditional roles to develop, becoming more current, more alive. To him dance is about maintaining momentum, pushing boundaries and staying curious to the creative possibilities of the body in motion.
The Great Leap Forward
ThE MAle dancer & The turn of the Century
Thanks to Nijinsky and then later on Nureyev and Baryshnikov we are given a role that is equal. We now have the opportunity to show off just like the ballerina.
The great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev shared this forward-thinking vision of dance, using his dance company, Ballet Russes to provoke a ferment in European culture. Until Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes upturned European taste, the prestige of the male dancer was crushed under society’s anxieties towards masculinity, modernity and the male body. Embracing the avant-guard, their performances dazzled audiences with their Art-Nouveau inspired costume, storytelling and movement.
The jewel in the crown of the 20th century ballet revolution was not a prima ballerina, but instead a young dancer called Vaslav Nijinsky. Nicknamed ‘le Dieu de la Danse’, ‘The God of Dance’, he was a key figure in the reintroduction of the male ballet dancer to the stages of European theatres. Survived through the legend of his roles alone, written accounts describe how he hung in the air mid-leap, enchanting audiences with virtuosity and grace unseen in a male dancer. His roles represented a return to the celebration of the masculine body beautiful and male sexuality, challenging the conservative 20th century ideals.
(Poster by Jean Cocteau for the 1911 Ballet Russe season showing Nijinsky in costume for “Le Spectre de la Rose”, Paris.)
Part of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, he became a star overnight after dancing Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose with the male role as the lead and the female as the fantasising spectator. Stepping ahead of the ballerina to take the bow, it was this performance that many cite as the opening chapter to the changing vision of the male dancer. Putrov commented “the man was always cavalier, more often prince or some kind of mythical figure in dance and through his power of portrayal and radicality this came under question. Why can a man not be a softer? Why can a man not be more sensitive and sensual?” This is a question that Ivan and his contemporaries are still asking to ballet audiences across the globe. Over time, society has created a host of stereotypes for the Western male dancer; from the “effeminate” dancer of the Romantic period to the athletic demigod of recent times. It is about time that we move towards a more inclusive perspective on the male dancer, that celebrates a diversity of contemporary masculinities with grace and without apology.
TBE : Do you have specific performances that inspired you to think about the development and liberation of the male dancer in classical ballet?
I : There are so many, so many performances that I have seen that I’ve found inspirational. Choreographers like Michel Fokine, Russell Maliphant, Arthur Pita and Kenneth MacMillan have been turning the tide of the classical understanding of theatre is. McMillan’s creations and his art has influenced so many. In ‘Different Drummer’ it was really quite incredible in what he was creating. He was touching on the psychological aspect of dance, how the man feels. You can see the difference even in the names of the ballets, in 19th Century there were Sofie, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake – it’s all about the woman. In today’s world we have Spartacus and Different Drummer.
TBE: The film Nick Knight made in response to your last show is beautiful. You seem to attract an influential crowd.
I : I am so lucky to get so much attention from these great artists, great minds and great dancers. Their inspiration is such a powerful injection of energy for me. I have some wonderful dancers that are joining the cast for the December show. I have Daniel Proietto who’s returning, he’s in the film that with Nick Knight made. We’ve worked together in the past and I think what unites all these different people is curiosity. What I’m trying to present is the development of the male dancer’s figure and I try to choose and invite dancers who are capable to control this retrospective. And capable they are…they are more than that! I have new young upcoming stars like Matthew Ball, the First Soloist with the Royal Ballet, and also Timofej Andrijashenko, the the star in La Scala.
TBE : How do you think the male dancer has started to exist outside of traditional roles and come to have his own character?
I : During the Romantic Era, the male role in dance was very much a supportive role. Although they had real technique and could dance, it was not a priority to develop that role. Nijinsky was very much the first male celebrity of the dance world in modern history. Through his sheer power of jump, sheer power of portrayal and open sexuality in his performance of Spectre de la Rose, he grabbed the attention of the world and brought change into our vision.
In the 19th Century, the man was always cavalier, more often a prince or a courtier – but this came under question. Why can a man not be softer, why can a man not be more sensitive and sensual? We are so lucky to live in such a tolerant city like London where the dancer has developed and found acceptance, but it’s not the same around around the world. These days, it almost doesn’t matter now whether it’s a man or a woman in some abstract pieces, all this barriers and the structures of classical ballet are being broken. These days a dancer is asked to be an artist. To put their own artistry and vision of a role, into their movement.
(Photography ; Angela Case, Daniel Proietto in Alan Lucien Øyen’s ‘Sinnerman’)
TBE : Can you see a future for classical ballets?
I : Classical ballets are so powerful if you can make them current, if you can make the movements as your own, if you can make the movements as you’re telling a story then it becomes something else, so I don’t believe that classical dance is losing momentum and it’s so stiff, it’s not, it’s developing.
TBE : Looking forward in the next few years, what do you expect of the male dancer now that he has been accepted as a star in his own right?
I : I’m excited to see how theatre and dance are merging. Sometimes it’s more effective to explain yourself through movement and sometime’s you have to use words. I’ve seen performances when both are used and I think they are growing more and more powerful so, maybe we’ll see more of that.
First Soloist, Royal Ballet
TBE : What did you find this role enabled you to express and explore in more depth?
M : This role is a real opportunity to explore a character that is quite rare in the dance repertoire; I play a prisoner who is being interrogated and tortured by two guards, and although the era is not specified, it has a contemporary and modern feel that makes it all the more relevant for a current audience. For this piece, I must really step out of the traditional fantasy of classical ballet and develop a believable ‘modern’ man who is in a truly desperate and helpless situation. I often feel dance is presented as an escapism, but delving into this sort of character is a chance to face up to some of the big subjects that dance can shy away from such as political struggle and the reality of current world affairs.
TBE : What is the biggest challenge that the male ballet dancer faces?
M : I think the biggest challenge that the male ballet dancer faces is the balancing of masculinity and grace. It’s one thing to go onstage appearing manly and confident but to do it with elegance in tights is another. The are many roles we have to inhabit but the archetype of classical ballet, the Prince, must have a regal demeanor and assured presence as well as a manner that is sensitive to and in keeping with the beautiful femininity of the ballerina that we partner. The audience loves a man that is strong, so that he can partner and leap, but a great dancer can add contrast and depth to that by making his movement look effortless and graceful.
TBE : Through your role in this piece, what would you like to impart to new generations of dancers?
M : That dance can express anything. It’s easy to think of how being joyful relates to dance since at parties is where we find dance most. However, it can be an expression of many complex and difficult emotions, whether our internal psychology or the relationships between us and other people. I would encourage the next generation to try dance in any context, in any story and to push it’s creative range.
‘Men in Motion’ Trailer
Tickets from £20 – £95 plus booking fee
Please be aware that this production contains some adult content which may not be suitable for young audiences. For more information, contact the London Coliseum on 020 7845 9300 or firstname.lastname@example.org