When Victoria Morgan first arrived in Cincinnati nine years ago as artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet, she heard an eye-opening comment at a luncheon after she introduced herself to the wife of a well-known public figure seated next to her.
“She said, ‘Oh, I am just so uncomfortable watching men in tights,’ ” relates Morgan, who danced as a principal with San Francisco Ballet and choreographed for the San Francisco Opera. “I thought ‘Wow, I haven’t thought of it that way since I was a curious teenager.’ ”
“It’s a shame,” she goes on to say, “but I feel there is a stigma attached to ballet in America that doesn’t reflect the reality of the amazing physicality of today’s dancers. This makes it difficult to attract some audience members and boys for ballet companies. As a result, just look at the overwhelming percentage of foreign men in the rosters of companies.”
Morgan has made a forthright attempt to acquire, through promotion or the audition process, physically strong male dancers and to give them powerfully masculine roles. She wants to show men dancing with Olympic strength and athleticism. For instance, her A Midsummer Night’s Dream emphasizes male virtuosity and athleticism. “It’s all huge ballon, and the beautiful muscularity that entails.”
Former Balanchine dancer Robert Weiss thinks negative preconceptions about male dancers stem from America’s Puritan heritage. One strategy that has worked for him as artistic director of Carolina Ballet is to present and market accessible works in which men aren’t dressed in tights (or ballerinas in tutus) to first-time ballet goers. He cites a piece his company did in collaboration with the Red Clay Ramblers and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett in February called Carolina Jamboree, including one act with a down-home hoedown.
“If we get them there for these more approachable pieces, they’ll come back for Swan Lake. I haven’t converted everybody, but I’ve converted a lot of people.” Since he launched his company seven years ago, the subscriber base has more than doubled.
Weiss feels that though the sexual stereotypes are still common, people are generally smarter about sexuality today than when he was growing up as a kid in the ’50s. “The notion that all male dancers are gay has always been a myth. There are just as many football players and police and firemen as there are dancers who are gay. It’s just a proportion of the population. Though the world of theater and dance in particular has always been a much more embracing, open, liberal place, what dancers do with their bodies onstage—how well they perform—is what ballet is about and what we want audiences to attend to.”
Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch points out that very often male dancers themselves, regardless of sexual orientation, have trouble with tights. “When men begin ballet, it takes the dancer himself quite a while to become comfortable in tights,” he says. “With full figure tights and a support and everything, you feel very exposed. For that matter, a tutu is also a very revealing thing. The irony of it is that nowadays a lot of choreographers, including myself, don’t use tights at all. Bare legs are more common, and this can actually leave the dancer feeling more exposed than wearing tights.”
Whether in tights or bare-legged, a dancer expects his body to be scrutinized. “Let’s face it,” says Kansas City Ballet artistic director William Whitener, “as an audience member, what you are doing is observing—hopefully, the entire being of the dancer, and everything that he has to express with his emotions and his body. We seem to accept the fact that in athletics you can wear something that’s tight fitting and slenderizing, and efficient for movement. Why should this be different for dance?”
Though Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, has never been approached by an audience member put off by men in tights, he knows what he would say: “Ballet is very aesthetic. It’s not literal. Illusion is the form of communication in this art form. And the human physique is so beautiful. Tights really accentuate the shape of the leg, therefore it’s an even better instrument for the illusion. And I would also say, ‘Come on and get with it.’ ”
Kathy Valin has written about dance for Cincinnati CityBeat and The Cincinnati Enquirer.Â