7 February 2014 at 12.03pm | Comment on this article
‘The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener’ said George Balanchine. A characteristically sweeping statement from the choreographer perhaps, but one that chimes with a common perception of the art form as feminine, in which the ballerina is the star, supported by her male cavalier.
In the 19th century the male dancer’s role was indeed secondary to that of the female. Innovations in choreography and technique at this time, particularly the development of pointe work, led to ballerinas becoming regarded as ethereal, magical creatures, to whom men were little more than consorts and porters. In spite of the rigorous training and tremendous strength required to perform the leading male roles in ballets such as La Sylphide and Giselle, it is names such as Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi and Fanny Elssler that we remember, and not those of their male counterparts.
Over the last 100 years, however, there has been a shift towards the male dancer. The transformation can be attributed to several prodigiously talented performers, and choreographers eager to place them centre-stage. Carlos Acosta, one of the most famous ballet dancers alive today, explained in an interview for The Culture Show, ‘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’.
In 1911, Vaslav Nijinsky, a member of Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, launched the male ballet dancer onto the stage quite literally with a spectacular leap through a bedroom window in Michel Fokine’s new ballet Le Spectre de la rose. The stunning entrance, and the idea that you could have a spinning, leaping male rose rather than a dainty female one, amazed audiences, and from this point onwards choreographers began to explore the male virtuoso.
If Nijinsky emancipated male ballet dancers, it was Rudolf Nureyev who cemented their position in the limelight. His re-interpretations of roles such as Basilio in Don Quixote and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake – into which he interpolated new variations and gave the male character his own identity – made him an international superstar, and revolutionized the way people viewed the male dancer.
Mikhail Baryshnikov won worldwide acclaim for his performances of classic virtuoso roles. He also had parts created especially for him, one of the most enduring of which is the leading man in Rhapsody (1980). Zoë Anderson, Dance Critic of the Independent, describes how choreographer Frederick Ashton planned the ballet as a star vehicle, with Baryshnikov ‘a dazzling visitor, shooting through the ballet like a comet… the triumphant virtuoso’. The role has since become one of the most coveted by premier danseurs, and a spectacular showcase for many of The Royal Ballet’s men.
The Company’s current repertory features a remarkable collection of virtuoso male roles, each of them with unique challenges and displaying different strengths. These range from Crown Price Rudolf in Mayerling – a physically and emotionally exhausting role created for David Wall by Kenneth MacMillan in 1978 – to the skittish and fleet Oberon created for Anthony Dowell in Ashton’s The Dream (1964). Contemporary choreographers continue to explore what the male dancer can do: Arthur Pita’s 2011 The Metamorphosis drew on the extraordinary technical abilities of Royal Ballet Principal Edward Watson to create a spine-chilling alternative to the classical virtuoso.
Male ballet dancers have emerged from the shadows and at last won recognition as extraordinarily talented artists in their own right – as the immense success of Ivan Putrov's all-male show Men in Motion confirms. The ballerino has arrived, and he's here to stay.