If we start applying sexual politics to ballet, we might not be left with much to enjoy

“The misogyny here is beyond textbook,” Claudia La Rocco claimed earlier this month in the New York Times about John Neumeier’s 1978 Lady of the Camellias, then being performed by American Ballet Theatre during its current season at the Metropolitan Opera. La Rocco echoed sentiments expressed by Alastair Macaulay in the Times a year ago about the same ballet when ABT first took it into its repertory. Both critics’ objections inevitably refer back to larger questions of whether the art form of ballet is innately discriminatory and archaic, and by extension beyond redemption or relevance. But specifically applied to this particular ballet as well as to the larger assumptions on which ballet is based, their arguments raised more questions than they answered.

La Rocco didn’t like the way that in Neumeier’s ballet, the 19th-century courtesan heroine Marguerite Gauthier imagines a parallel between her fate—renouncing her bourgeois lover on his father’s insistence and dying young of tuberculosis—and that of 18th-century fictional heroine Manon Lescaut, whose rise and fall via sexual commodification Marguerite sees performed in a theatrical entertainment. But the idea that Neumeier’s inclusion of these two “kept women” in his ballet indicates misogyny on his or the ballet’s part is quite a stretch. La Rocco’s remarks seemed to me an example of the common extrapolative and evaluative fallacy whereby any artistic representation that does not show women—or members of other “minority” or oppressed groups—in a state of victoriously self-actualized agency is automatically an endorsement of repressive societal structures to which women are or have been subjected.

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Lady of the Camellias is based on an 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas fils that he later dramatized (and is the basis of Verdi’s opera La Traviata), which conformed to the perhaps overriding subject of 19th-century Western literature: Women’s attempt to cope, accommodate and rebel against a rigid official morality that divided them into good or bad. Fictional and theatrical representations often found these women destroyed by their attempts to defy convention. But authors, no more than choreographer Neumeier himself, were certainly not necessarily saying that the way it often was is the way it should be or must be.

Both Times writers objected to the profusion of very complicated lifts in Neumier’s Camellias. Macaulay suggested that the act of balletic lifting was innately reactionary because it reinforces traditional sex-differentiation, meaning the woman’s lightness and the man’s strength. Here I had a mixed response. Yes, Neumeier’s lifts are very convoluted and look precarious, perhaps gratuitously so, although they are undoubtedly spectacular flights of kinetic rhetoric (very well performed by Julie Kent and Roberto Bolle at the Camellias I saw last week). Yes, it might be nice to see less emphasis on lifts in contemporary ballet, where they actually tend to be more violently disjointed than anything in Neumeier’s ballet. Maybe women then wouldn’t have to be so thin and men’s backs and knees wouldn’t get blown out so quickly. But there is too much interdependency in the act of ballet lifting to support a clear-cut reading of its semiotics or sexual politics. The woman actually supplies as much aerobic heft as the man. Indeed, there are many ways that ballet celebrates a reciprocal exchange of attributes between the sexes. In ballet, both men and women often magnetize toward an ambiguous space at the center of the continuum. For ballet to work, a man’s manner must be to some degree soft and graceful, while women must utilize and, again to some degree, overtly exhibit core strength and muscular capacity.

In case you find yourself losing sleep about these things—and just as much if you don’t—it would be advisable to see the Royal Danish Ballet, which makes its first Manhattan visit June 14 since 1988. Over the past decade I’ve been seeing and enjoying them in small touring detachments in Newark and Jacob’s Pillow, and in a preview the company gave of its New York repertory at the Guggenheim Museum last March. They are doing some new work here, but RDB’s canonical repertory remains the 19th-century ballets of August Bournonville. Lifts were a lot simpler back then: Bournonville’s ballets don’t emphasize supported partnering work. We don’t see women perched on men’s shoulders or held high above their heads. Men and woman dance alongside each other, in tandem or in mirrored echoing. The technique of partnering is just one of many ways that ballet in Denmark is different than anywhere else, and why it’s always so interesting to see the Danes perform.

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Read more by Joel Lobenthal at Lobenthal.com.