Classic ballets like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker have delighted audiences for generations. But they also have very specific ideas of what kinds of roles male and female dancers are expected to perform.
Now, Nashville Ballet is creating a new work that re-imagines the role of gender in dance.
To inspire the choreographers and musicians working on Nashville Ballet’s latest project, Attitude: Other Voices, artistic director Paul Vasterling posed four questions: What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be both? What does it mean to be neither?
The questions came to Vasterling after he read National Geographic’s 2017 issue on gender. “And what really grabbed me about it,” Vasterling explains, “was the the spectrum, the variety, the many facets of gender that humans can have.”
Which, Vasterling knows, is rarely present in classic ballet.
“When I was a student, men did certain things. We jumped, and we lifted, and we did strong things, whereas the women danced on pointe and were smoother and softer — things that we traditionally think of as male/female.”
Each choreographer in the ballet’s Attitude: Other Voices series was given the freedom to explore what gender means, and how it intersects with other aspects of identity, like race and sexuality.
Jennifer Archibald’s piece, for example, explores what it means to reclaim your power as a woman on stage, when so often women are presented by male dancers in a way that makes them appear vulnerable or objectified.
Choreographer Matthew Neenan looked to his own experience of gender growing up. He was paired with Nashville composer Cristina Spinei to set his story to original music.
“Matthew grew up with four sisters and took ballet, and we talked about him being bullied as a male taking ballet lessons,” Spinei said when she previewed her ballet music on Nashville Public Radio’s Live in Studio C. “And that still happens with boys taking ballet, and a lot of boys don’t continue on because there’s so much pressure.”
Neenan’s story is one that Vasterling can relate to.
“I’m from the South, so, definitely, I didn’t tell anybody that I danced,” Vasterling says. “I basically lived my life trying to keep the truth from people that I was a dancer. I just didn’t want them to know, because I knew that I was going to be ridiculed for it.”
For Vasterling, a work like this is not about making a political statement, but creating a space to ask questions, challenge the status quo and ultimately foster community, regardless of our gender.
Nashville Ballet’s performance of Attitude: Other Voices is at TPAC this weekend.
This story was produced in partnership with 91Classical.