Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3)

The Wild Reed series “The Dancer and the Dance” continues with a third and final excerpt from Ramsey Burt’s book The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities (2007). All three excerpts have been taken from chapter one, “The Trouble with the Male Dancer,” and explore how the spectacle of men dancing can challenge, undermine and/or redefine notions of masculinity.

This final excerpt focuses on homosexuality and the male dancer, i.e., “the dance that does not speak its name.” I find it interesting that much of what Burt says about homosexuality and the dance world can be applied to homosexuality and the Roman Catholic priesthood. For instance, both the dance world and the priesthood attract a disproportionate number of gay men. And despite the fact that in our day and age we know that it’s not homosexuality that’s the problem but the lingering remnants of societal fear and prejudice, both the dance world and the Catholic priesthood continue to perpetuate (and, in the church’s case, attempt to legitimize theologically) institutional homophobia.

The results of such institutional homophobia are truly tragic. At one point Burt quotes writer Graham Jackson who says that homophobic prejudice can “paralyze talented dancers from developing a personal dancing style reflective of their characters [and] limit the range of male dancing severely.” I think a case can be made for homophobic prejudice also emotionally and psycho-sexually crippling many within Roman Catholicism’s clerical caste.

One final part of the excerpt I share below that’s worth highlighting: “There is a difference between thinking of homosexuality as a psychopathology, and seeing any neurosis suffered by a homosexual as a result of internalizing society’s negative image of homosexuality,” writes Burt. In the Roman Catholic community today we clearly see that a major rift has developed between the clerical caste and its insistence that homosexuality be viewed as, in the words of Burt, a “psychopatholgy” or, in the rhetoric of the Vatican, an “intrinsic disorder,” and Catholics “in the pews” who are increasingly recognizing that it’s not homosexuality that’s the problem but the clerical caste’s homophobic (and thus life-denying) rhetoric and actions.


There is a widespread reluctance to talk about dance and homosexuality. Surely making it the dance that does not speak its name. The reference here is Oscar Wilde who, during his trial in 1895 for homosexual offenses, made a celebrated speech in defense of love that dared not speak its name in his century. Over the years since then, a homosexual culture or subcultures have develop with diverse, shifting memberships and significant inputs from artists and intellectuals. In recent years, partly as a result of the gay rights movement, theoretical work has been done on the way homosexuality has been and is represented in the arts and mass media, and research has been done into the work of gay and lesbian artists.

While Melanie Weeks (1987), Christy Adair (1992), and Valerie Briginshaw (2001) have written about lesbianism and dance, until recently surprisingly little attention has been given to gay men and dance. One of the first scholarly books that considered homosexuality and dance was Judith Lynne Hanna’s Dance, Sex and Gender (1988). Although the selections on gay men reflect the large amount of material Hanna researched for the book, they show little sympathy, or understanding, of the situation in which gay people live in our society and Hanna seems unaware of the underlying sexual politics. She saw homosexuality as a problem for gay people, which of course it is; but she didn’t consider what sort of problem. There is a difference between thinking of homosexuality as a psychopathology, and seeing any neurosis suffered by a homosexual as a result of internalizing society’s negative image of homosexuality. The latter way of defining the problem opens up a fruitful avenue for examining gay art, but one which Hanna did not explore. Instead her concern was with “why male homosexuals are disproportionally attracted to dance” (1988: 130), and she suggested ways in which, for gay people, an involvement in the dance world can alleviate or be an escape from their “problem.” The problem, however, is not just the result of internalizing society’s negative image of homosexuality, but the fact that Western society is, and has been for hundreds of years, profoundly homophobic.

The source of much of Hanna’s material on gay men in ballet was the essay “Toeing the Line: In Search of the Gay Male Image in Classical Ballet” written in 1976 by the Canadian writer Graham Jackson. This considered the institutional structures and pressures that influence and limit the production of ballets that deal with gay themes or subject matter and some of the ways in which a gay sensibility is expressed in or can be read into ballet. This essay has, until recently, stood out as one of the very few pieces to consider this subject. Written in the mid 1970s it had a very optimistic tone – coming out seemed for Jackson the solution for most gay men’s problems. Thus his central concern was with the fact that although a large proportion of gay men are dancers, choreographers, or hold administrative positions in the dance world, and there is a large gay audience for dance, ballet companies rarely if ever produce work that directly addresses the experiences and sensibilities of gay people. They don’t rock the boat.

There are obvious reasons why there has been a silence on the subject of gay male dancers and choreographers. Arnold Haskell writing in 1934 is doubtless protecting individuals when he states: “of the outstanding male dancers that I know, and I know them all, not one is effeminate in manner, and very few indeed are not thoroughly normal” (1934: 299). But he is surely also protecting the institution of ballet itself. With the liberalization of laws about homosexuality and substantial changes in social attitudes, the continuation of the taboo on discussions of dance and homosexuality is surely both unnecessary and unhelpful.

One possible reason why the taboo still persists is the need for dance and ballet companies to raise funding and attract sponsorship from private individuals and businesses. If this is the case, it is not a very good one, whereas the arguments for greater openness are surely compelling. Not talking about something doesn’t make it go away, and may, insidiously, make it take on greater significance than it really deserves. All male dancers are placed under suspicion with the result that, as is widely recognized, far fewer boys and men are involved in the dance world than girls and women. Moreover, homophobic prejudice can, as Jackson observes: “paralyze talented dancers from developing a personal dancing style reflective of their characters [and] limit the range of male dancing severely”(Jackson 1978: 41).

This holds true for gay and heterosexual dancers. The initial reasons for keeping quiet about gay male dancers are surely no longer valid, and silences now do more harm than good. Perhaps there are now more choreographers dealing with homosexual themes than there were when Jackson wrote: “Toeing the Line,” but only in the marginalized, underfunded, experimental fringes. In the mainstream, fear, prejudice, and the old boy network still ensure the status quo. The case of Matthew Bourne’s 1995 version of Swan Lake . . . exemplifies this.* It is a truism that fear and prejudice breed on ignorance. Homophobic mechanisms channel and block our understanding and appreciation of representations of masculinity that are made by both gay and straight dance artists. It is through understanding the ways in which these mechanisms work that their effectiveness is undermined, and the possibility of positive change is brought about.

* In chapter 7 of The Male Dancer Burt discusses at length Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake and concludes that, "ultimately, [it] reinforced a negative, disempowering conception of homosexuality that, in effect, reinforced dominant gender norms."

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2)
The Dancer and the Dance
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Church and Dance
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage
Istanbul (Part 4)
Scaling the Heights
Dark Matters
Oh! What’s This, Then?
Whimsical and Edgy
Love, Equality and the Rumba
An Evening with the Yuval Ron Ensemble
Oh, Yeah!
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake Returns to New York
The Potential of Art & the Limits of Rigid Orthodoxy to Connect Us to the Sacred

Image 1: Taken from Men in Motion: The Art and Passion of the Male Dancer by François Rousseau.
Image 2: Chris Nash.
Image 3: Alan Alberto (photographer unknown).


Mareczku said...

This isn't something I know much about but I found it somewhat interesting. It made me think of how when I was a teen I really enjoyed going to school dances. I wasn't shy about asking girls to dance but I eschewed the slow dances. But most of my dancing took place when I was home by myself. I would play records and sing and dance to them. I would spend hours doing this. A lot of it was on Friday and Saturday nights when my parents were usually out and I was home alone.

Sage said...

Excellent! Very well written series. Very thought provoking. I am going to bring this series to a number of people I believe will cery much appreciate it. Very well done Michael!