Not long ago, one of my readers made a comment. I realized right away, she knew what she was talking about, so I asked her if she felt qualified to write a guest blog post for My Son Can Dance. Turns out, she was more than qualified. Today, she sent me a great post about teaching boys how to take on the very male, very masculine, very virile roles they typically dance in classical ballets. I loved it! Who thinks about that when teaching boys to be male dancers–to think about the type of male characters they are dancing and to act them out through their dance? Dianne M. Buxton does.
Dianne writes about classical dance technique, injury prevention, nutrition, and the mind/body connection. She has taught at The National Ballet School of Canada, York University, Harvard University, and George Brown College. Through her work, she reminds dance students that as they struggle for excellence in technique, there is musicality, dramatic intuition and study, and that inexplicable connection to spirituality/magic that will lead them to the fulfillment of their potential.
Here’s what she wrote:
Studying Male Ballet Roles Helps Boys Become Better Ballet Dancers
By Dianne M. Buxton
When teaching boys ballet at any age, some time must go into studying the characters a boy might ultimately perform in classical ballets. I write this now after acting myself and coaching both actors and dancers. Even if boys study ballet to support their jazz or modern dance training, doing so will enhance their ballet performance.
The princes, for example, in Giselle, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty are young men meant to grow into leaders and probably warriors. Some knowledge of the social norms and political “who has the biggest meanest clout” climate surrounding these princes would serve a dance student.
For instance, In La Sylphide, James is a young man from a land-owning family in Scotland. While not a prince, he would be expected to participate in bloody combat with English raiders or Irish invaders to protect his family lands.
Ballet stories come from old folk tales and their actual placement in history might be vague. The recurring theme in these stories is that the men, who have been presumably raised to excel in fighting with swords, bludgeons, knives, and bare hands are caught off guard, hypnotized, entranced, manipulated, and tricked by both innocent sylphs, or swan maidens, and evil wizards or witches. They are, in these stories, pulled into their most vulnerable state. The stories revolve around sudden encounters with magic and all that humans fear, especially strong, trained, fighting men.
Male ballet students need to learn that in these ballets, the royals are not having an ordinary day. Ordinarily they would be at target practice (e.g. the prince in Swan Lake gets a cross bow for his birthday; what does this symbol mean?) or working with their fencing master or hand-to-hand combat master. Imagine the worst, most dire and bloody circumstances a prince’s hunting party could run into in the Black Forest. In a moment, each must be able to fight for his life.
The same holds true for all the supporting roles of the princes’ friends, servants, and mentors. These mythical men had to be the toughest, most skillful and even brutal survivors at all times.
One example of this can be found in James in La Sylphide. Perhaps not historical to the exact year, but watch Braveheart and consider that this was the life James may have led when he was not being enchanted by a witch-manipulated captive Sylph. This represented his “ordinary life” until the Sylph showed up.
I find an exception in Giselle, which is more of a class story. The prince is simply taking advantage of Giselle. He is still heir to a kingdom that he must be trained to defend. His bigger/better royal-crested sword must be hidden when he visits Giselle. A big part of the story concerns redemption. Giselle tricks the Queen of The Wilis by having her prince dance till dawn, and the magic spell and her power are interrupted. He lives. And here is a real challenge for the dancer Prince. He was a cad to two-time his fiancé and mess with Giselle. No one tricked him into it. So what quality does he have that inspires such redemption? Is it just guilt or more than that? Of course, humans have opposite qualities in their characters. Doesn’t that make life interesting!
We know that the royals led softer lives at the end of the day. But they lived in a tradition of becoming royals by bashing someone else’s head in and then retaining their power by force. They were not woosies.
These male characters from famous ballets are all virile characters. Enter the choreographer, who works under the court’s patronage and creates movements for the telling of the story that many modern men would not be caught doing. In more recent history, with the large military class and huge armies under the rule of more sheltered monarchs, the princely roles emphasis changed to more of the sheltered, softer existence. Of course we have no way of knowing how these movements were originally presented by choreographers and then moderated by the first men to dance them.
So, let’s teach young men in ballet to authenticate all these ballet characters and see them as tremendously virile with their lives depending on this trait—all while they are learning pliés and jetés and pirouettes. And let’s do this right from the beginning.
Some choreographers have put their own slant or story change on their productions of the classics. In one, the prince already is emasculated by a dominating mother and then a wicked female sorceress instead of a male wizard. Well, okay… No matter the personal variations on a theme, a dancer who has an approach from his own psyche—not only one handed down from the mentor his company may provide—is able to imbue his characters with many qualities and conflicts, as well as with the innocence of evil and manipulation, to which, sadly, humans are so vulnerable.
Any student performer can use this approach to present an authentic character to the audience. It goes beyond just asking, “What is my motivation?” when dancing a particular role. It draws from the dancer’s own imagination and instincts. His dramatic decisions will show in his dancing, whether he is telling a structured story or, as in a Balanchine ballet, portraying emotions or simply (but not so simple!) the depth of the music.
Any young man who walks into a ballet studio has imagination and instincts. He just needs guidance in getting the most out of them. Experiencing capabilities that go beyond dance technique may give such a boy extra resources with which to tolerate all the painful aspects of being a boy in dance—resources which he is always capable of creating anew.