A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
But the ballet has not aged well, especially in the wake of #MeToo. It's a case study in rape culture.
Last month, I brought a group of my Virginia Commonwealth University students to Raleigh, NC, for the Mid-Atlantic South regional conference of the American College Dance Association. Tickets for Carolina Ballet's Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein evening were included with our registration. Fancy Free was the last dance on the program.
Our group sat through it in silence, while many audience members around us chuckled and applauded at the "jokes"—there was a noteworthy burst of mostly male laughter at a pantomime ass-grab. It's all presented as a charming story of boyish exuberance. Certainly, the sailors' variations offer virtuosity and charm, and insight into the social dances of the time along with Robbins's deft integration of them into the ballet lexicon.
But in the lobby afterwards, my students were frankly and vocally horrified at what they had seen. "He actually choreographed the women's fear," said one student. And indeed, though the women respond to the sailors at some moments with mild, wary amusement, for the most part their dancing reveals fear, frustration, anger and disgust. Robbins knew that women don't relish this kind of behavior from men. But he still made a comedy out of it.
In 2019, that humor has worn thin for many people, but clearly, given this audience's reaction, not for enough. Of course, ballet and its audiences are not typically known for a progressive approach to gender. But ballet artists and companies are beginning to explore inclusive practices for nonbinary dancers, nonwhite dancers, and new repertory that challenges traditional gender roles, for example.
What to do, then, with beloved and problematic classics? All the arts grapple with this question, especially those for whom classics are their main money-makers. (I'm thinking of sugar plums.) But the time for venerating classics simply because they're classics is long past.
I suggest that ballet companies could meet the question head on by acknowledging problematic repertory and, if still performing it, by encouraging audiences to interrogate it along with them. Program notes, pre- or post-performance discussions could offer more than simple historical background. Such tools could draw on critical analysis from contemporary dance scholars and critics to place classic works in a framework that doesn't unthinkingly venerate them, but instead points out their limitations and their potential for harm. Because these works are harmful, as my students' shocked reactions to Fancy Free reveal. The ballet's knowing embrace of male/female stereotypes denies people of all gender identities their full humanity.
Fancy Free has a false ending that drives home the "boys will be boys" lesson. After the three sailors devolve into fights over two women who finally leave in disgust, they seem contrite for exhibiting such crass and violent behavior. Is Robbins offering a final judgement that such behavior is wrong? Alas, no. A third woman enters, then leaves, and the men go racing after her.