Girl Was Called "the Most Dangerous Movie About a Trans Character in Years"—But It Helped Its Subject Learn to Love Herself
Before she watched her life play out on screen, transgender dancer Nora Monsecour never felt she could truly connect with a character in a film.
And though Girl—which was released on Netflix today after being highly awarded at the Cannes Film Festival last year—isn't a biography, "the essence of the story is the same," says Monsecour. "A trans girl with a big dream, finding the strength to pursue this career. It was very emotional to watch. It's very strange when you recognize yourself so closely."
Girl follows Lara, a trans girl and aspiring ballet dancer who is frustrated that her hormone therapy isn't working fast enough and that her body is different from the other girls in her class. And though the film has one moment of bullying, overall, Lara is supported in her dream to be a ballet dancer.
Monsecour, who is now a young adult, had a rather different experience in ballet. "When I was Lara's age, it was very hard and I had to fight against a lot of opposition." She was bullied, and had teachers who "didn't believe that transgender was something that existed in the world."
It's not that Girl sugarcoats Monsecour's life. In fact, the film has been criticized by the trans community for its "disturbing fascination with trans bodies." (The camera often lingers on Lara's groin, and there are gruesome moments of her removing tape from her genitals as well as a violent final scene.) This is one of many issues posed in The Hollywood Reporter by transgender critic Oliver Whitney, who calls it "the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years" and who notes that the film's depiction of hormone therapy is harmfully misleading. Monsecour responded to his essay, writing that "those criticizing Girl are preventing another trans story from being shared in the world, and are also attempting to silence me and my trans identity."
Monsecour also argues that Girl's obsession with the body is only realistic for a film with ballet as its subject matter. "I wanted the ballet class scenes to be as pure and honest as possible," she says. "I wanted to see the struggle she had to maintain her focus. When I was 11 or 12 in the studio, I had a leotard on like all the girls, but my body was that of a little boy. So I was busy with, 'Is anyone going to see my body parts? Am I dancing like a girl?' "
Director Lukas Dhont and Victor Polster
Kris Dewitte, Courtesy Netflix
The dance scenes do feel authentic, thanks in part to Monsecour's heavy involvement in the film. In addition to attending dance rehearsals and being on set, Monsecour read each version of the script, sending edits to director and writer Lukas Dhont, who originally approached her about making the film after reading about her story. As the years went by, says Monsecour, it became like "working on something with a friend."
Another source of controversy: Lara is not played by a trans performer, but a cisgender male dancer, Victor Polster. Monsecour told IndieWire that she wasn't concerned about whether the actor who played her was trans or not. "I didn't see Victor as a male actor going to play a trans role," she told writer Jude Dry. "I really felt that he was the one person that could give this role life in a way that would pay respect to my story." (Dhont and his co-writer, Angelo Tijssens, are also both cis men. Dhont recently defended the film in The Guardian.)
Monsecour says that Polster, who is a student at Antwerp's Royal Ballet School, is now a close friend, who often asks her for advice on becoming a professional dancer. "We can really connect on that level," she says. "I have so much appreciation for him." Monsecour wanted Polster to have the freedom to interpret the character in his own way. "But he knew a lot of background of my story," she says. "He's so open and really wanted to understand and respect my journey."
Monsecour's story differs from Lara's in another notable way: At age 14, Monsecour was "pushed away from the ballet world. It's a system that's very much in terms of male and female." She began studying contemporary dance. "I fell in love with it completely," she says. "You really find yourself in the aesthetic." She went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in England, and is currently in her first year as a company member with tanzmainz in Germany, dancing works by choreographers like Roy Assaf and Felix Berner.
Girl has opened doors for Monsecour, including the opportunity to write a book, which she's currently working on. The film was also Belgium's submission for the Oscars' Best Foreign Film award, and was nominated for a Golden Globe. Watching Girl for the first time was "liberating," says Monsecour. "It made me proud of my journey." But, she says, "the biggest thing is that I found acceptance for myself. I always tried to hide behind this mask of being the perfect girl. After seeing so many people love the film, now I should maybe love myself."
A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed for Dance Magazine about the grueling, oppressive grant cycle. It was crying into my pillow, really. I was complaining and desperate to share my story. I was fed up with 10 years of applying for grants and having never received one for the research or development of my work. I was tired of the copy-and-paste rejection letters, the lack of feedback, and what seems to be a biased, inconsistent system.
I couldn't stand that I was made to feel as if I had to ask for permission to be an artist.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
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."
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."