Dancing around the glass closet, Part 2: Gay identities in dance

Republished by kind permission from The Dance Journal. Part one of this article appears on Phindie here and on The Dance Journal here

Photo credit: George Platt Lynes Harlequin

Photo credit: George Platt Lynes Harlequin

“ …there is no such thing as a gay sensibility and yes, it has an enormous impact on our culture…”

…is journalist Jeff Weinstein’s oft-quoted line about gay aesthetics a generation ago. Since then movies, theater, literature and even opera have gone a long way to define and represent that undeniable impact. Unfortunately, on the ballet stage and even in contemporary dance, the true impact is still denied, erased, ignored, and for all intents, hidden. Ironic to say the least, since gay artists and their work spans much of dance history- both as a social ritual and as an art form.

In the 90s I was writing about dance for the Philadelphia Gay News and at one point an arts editor decided to limit the coverage to dance that had specific gay content. My immediate response was “It’s dance, gay is in there from some angle, whether the audience recognizes it as such or not.”

I didn’t win that argument, but history bears me out

Assume the positions

At the 17th century court of the dance-loving Sun King, aka Louis IVX, dancer-composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was the Louis’s private teacher, commissioned as court choreographer and dance master. Lully also collaborated with Moliere in the theater, and was an accomplished composer and musician. Lully’s artistic legacy as a composer and dance pioneer can’t be underestimated. He is credited for inventing what became standard ballet training vocabulary, and creating the five basic ballet positions. Even though the Sun King was disdainful of Lully’s sex life, he looked the other way until the threat of a public scandal at court impelled the King to dismiss banish him.

Flash forward to key figures in dance history in Russia’s Imperial Ballet of the late 19th century including composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and impresario Serge Diaghilev, choreographer Mikhail Fokine and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, among others, were active in Russian’s thriving gay subculture of the time. dance. But much of it has to be surmised after the fact, especially in Russia, where the various governments have relentlessly tried to rewrite and erase any claims that these artists were homosexual.

Later when Diaghilev established the Ballets Russes in Europe with many gay artists and performers among the ranks, there was very much an integrated gay sensibility that was changing the history of ballet.

Stereotypes rule

More than a century later, ballet companies in the US are similarly populated with gay artists and performers but there is still an industry firewall on their presence. Adding to that is a refusal to make GLBTQ people visible through character or story line – even as there has been a sea-change in cultural visibility in every other aspect of life and art.

A year can go by without a positive reflection of gay life, meanwhile there is never censorship on the depictions of mincing, sexless, sissy characters that parade through as stock characters on the ballet stage- The fey dance master In La Fille Garde; the gaudy transvestism via the evil sisters in Cinderella or Swan Lake’s Von Rothbart swooping in as a quasi- gay villain with a secret hot nut for the Prince who he must now destroy- all depictions that buy into negative imaging and cultural condemnation of homosexuals.

By now, these depictions are recognized stereotypes and less harmless to today’s more savvy audiences. Gay dancers are regularly cast and can even camp it up onstage in these roles.

Fortunately, gay dancers are also just as often seen as out and proud performers – at a community benefit covered in the press or identifying themselves on social media, for instance, as they post pictures of their weddings and other life events on FaceBook.

On balance, the negative depictions are, by now, harmless footnotes to a thriving, visible gay culture. But since these characters turn up in story ballets often seen by children, for instance, you have to question what messages they still perpetuating.

Meanwhile, for all intents, on the ballet stage, the closet door is still loudly shut. It would be interesting to hear how those discussions go, when artistic directors are discussing content. Who makes the decision that something is “too gay?”

Just as troubling is the prevailing industry homophobia in 2015 that affect casting and ballet companies who still discriminate to cast male dancers that wouldn’t be perceived as gay or feel they have to assure their audiences that the Princes they present onstage are danced by heterosexuals.

Gay pride vs ‘postgay’ trends

Fortunately, there are rebellious dance artists and voices that have been breaking down the straight status quo.

Among the pioneers, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company presented gay life as a joyous fact of life personally and communally. Last year, Jones brought a retrospective concerts to the Painted Bride of works from the 70s and it work still looked bravely proto-gay. In Philly, dancer-musicians Michael Biello and Dan Martin also presented overt gay sexuality in a number of dance works as far back as the 60s. Lesbian and gay dancers in their choreographies over the years that explore dimensional human beings with emotions and specific points of view.

In the current issue of Dance Magazine there Lea Marshall’s writes on ‘Queer Classicist’ spotlight the troupe Ballez. The company’s artistic director Katy Pyle, hates the gender restrictions and outdated ideals of gender and sexuality that exists in ballet. Pyle established dances classes that “prioritized queer bodies,” working with lesbians and transgender dancers,” she told DM, adding “I feel like the ballet world is missing out by not having us in it. Ballez is a gateway for these incredible performers to be seen.” Pyle created ‘The Firebird, a Ballez’ featuring a Lesbian Princess in 2013. NYT’s dance writer Gia Kourlas summed it up in her review writing “This Firebird blazes with heart.”

Without doubt, a slate of artistic directors-choreographer- Rosie Herrera, Miguel Gutierrez, Mark Dendy, Larry Keigwin, Myra Bazel, Brian Sanders, among others, have made GLBTQ cultural expression as central to the choreography as any other subject.

Lar Lubovitch’s ballet Concerto 622 premiered at an AIDS benefit in New York in 1986 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It became a classic in large part because of a stunning central male duet. Lubovitch conceived it in tribute to friends supporting each other and helping each other die, but it was perceived as an elegy for two lovers. The piece has since been performed by many companies, including Pennsylvania Ballet. It was a rare instance when the emotional realm and reality of gay men on the ballet stage, either implied or inferred.

It illustrates the current trend of ‘postgay’ sensibility that reflects broad acceptance of GLBTQ community in the industry, so why the need to push it onstage. Choreographically, many dance-makers go for symbolic universality, and less categorical scenarios. This has aesthetic validity certainly, but you wonder what has been lost, historically and as a cultural document, in that leap to ‘postgay’ universality?

It’s not like straight life isn’t reflected on stage at every turn and in every way on the dance stage, even in abstract choreographic frameworks.

Dancing in the streets

Gay writer David Leavitt wrote of the unique position gay artists are now in to define their own art. Leavitt asserts “I can say for certain that I probably wouldn’t be half the writer I am if I were straight. My homosexuality gave me the rare privilege of being an outcast. I could not take for granted a culture that did not take me for granted… I could invent.”

Leavitt was part of the renaissance of gay themes and ‘sensibility’ in literature and other art forms. The same renaissance did not occur in dance; although there is certainly evidence that it may, however glacially. Indeed, there has been a healthy dialogue about the diversity, history or themes of GLBTQ culture in dance on par with the cultural coming out in literature, movies, theater, opera and even classical music.

Just as straight culture and sexual identities can be analyzed as a creative drive that informs straight artists, it is valid to investigate the synthesis of homosexual sensibility as it might manifest in directly or indirectly, in their artistic expression. And, crucially, outside of merely sexual intimacy and eroticism. Along with those themes, there is a limitless spectrum of human activity- emotional, familial, communal, friendship, dreams, political- that define GLBTQ life.

Doubly ironic since gays have traditionally been a core audience for dance, dancing itself has always been a central part of GLBTQ life and community as an expression of love, community and solidarity. I was reminded of this at annual Outfest 2015 this month thousands of GLBTQ celebrants were on 12th street dancing in and out of bars, in between checking out the booths of gay owned business and community service organizations.

As recently as the early 1960s, it was against the law for gays to congregate in public, let alone dance- yet dance we did, in the speakeasies of the 20s, at the private socials in the 50s, in the streets of New York after the Stonewall riots, in San Francisco in the 70s to celebrate gay liberation. The dance fundraisers during the AIDS years and onward to the millennial GLBTQ civil- rights celebrations all over the US. The question now is will dance arts finally acknowledge the identities, communities and communal rituals and the ‘sensibilities’ that inspired the movement?’

In Part 3 of this overview series, I’m hoping to open up this dialogue with dancers, choreographers, directors, straight and gay, weighing in on gay aesthetic in dance, and the issues of acceptance, artistic expression and lingering homophobia. Stay tuned or message me lewjwhittington@gmail.com.

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About the author

Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

Lewis Whittington’s articles on the performing arts have appeared in several print and online publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, American Theatre Magazine, Huffington Post, Playbill and Stage Directions.