On Exhibit: Dance museum ponders ballet’s gender roles

Dancing “en travesti” has been a tradition since 16th century
“Gender Neutral” tackles the topic of nontraditional gender roles in the dance world.
“Gender Neutral” tackles the topic of nontraditional gender roles in the dance world.

The title may be neutral, but the latest exhibition to open at the National Museum of Dance is anything but ordinary.

“Gender Neutral,” which opened April 19, tackles the topic of nontraditional gender roles in the dance world, though the mixing of blue and pink backdrops is enough to tip off anyone to the exhibit’s content, even if they missed the title.

“A lot of people think of drag,” said Lisa Kolosek, curatorial associate at the museum.

But that’s only a sliver of the story. Dancing “en travesti” has been a tradition in the dance world since the 16th century, yet what that looks like has changed over the years. “Gender Neutral” focuses on ballet, spanning from the 18th century to today. 

Costumes such as the bright white capris that look like plumage from a rendition of “Swan Lake” are set against torn backdrops. At times the blue backdrop is torn to reveal a secondary pink background color and a print of a female dancer. Other times, it’s the pink background that is torn to reveal a blue background with a print of a male dancer.

The focal point of the exhibit stems from a collection of costumes and artifacts from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo that the museum was given several years ago by the founder of the troupe.

“They’re a comic ballet company but they couldn’t be funny if their technique weren’t there to back it up,” Kolosek said.

Founded in 1975, the troupe performs “en travesti and on pointe,” and is known for its humor as much as its incredible talent. The all-male troupe frequently took on female characters, and performances were met with critical acclaim, even by publications such as the New Yorker.

“Their rise was rather incredible,” Kolosek said. They remain popular today, and their collection of costumes — which range from intricate and dainty to simple and serious — along with posters and memorabilia provide a telling look at their unique success.

In ballet, there seems to have been a back and forth in male and female representation. Men were the stars of the ballet stage in the 16th century before that switched to women in the 17th, said Kolosek. But over the past few decades, a number of choreographers have decided to mix things up.

“The Hard Nut,” a version of the classic “Nutcracker,” choreographed by Mark Morris, has flower characters cast as both male and female. The flower costumes hardly look any different: Female costumes are slightly smaller through the waist and chest, but beyond that it’s difficult to tell the difference.

Next to the costumes, a screen playing clips from the scene is constantly running, providing a look at how the costumes were given life onstage. Watching a scene from “The Hard Nut,” it’s easy to see the choreographer didn’t mean to cover up gender (the men’s chest hair peeps out of the costumes), but to offer a more modern look at the dance. There’s also a running clip from Maurice Bejart’s “The Firebird,” which cast a male in a traditionally female role.

“To reverse the sexes without changing a single movement of the existing choreography . . . in an epoch where the differences between the sexes in daily life is blurred, it seems interesting that dance can be as avant-garde as this reality,” Bejart said.

Lately, it’s become more prevalent to cast the best dancer for the role, rather than the best female or male dancer for the role.

Choreographers such as Justin Peck and Lauren Lovette are bringing another element to modern ballet: same-sex romance. Lovette choreographed “Not Our Fate,” which premiered in 2017 by the New York City Ballet. She created a pas de deux – a duet typically performed with a male and female dancer – with two male dancers. The dance duet is typically performed by a man and a woman. Peck, who choreographed “The Times Are Racing,” also recast the dance’s main pas de deux with two male dancers, telling the New York Times, “It’s time for there to be roles in the ballet where two men can fall in love.”

“Gender Neutral” is diverse in terms of artifacts, costumes and artwork (there are even some pieces by artist Edward Gorey, who was a big fan of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo). It also offers more than a few conversation prompts. 

“We’re hoping it will get people thinking,” Kolosek said.

The exhibit will run through April 2019. For information, visit dancemuseum.org.

Other local visual arts news
Later this month, the National Museum of Dance will be celebrating the renowned work of Tom Caravaglia, a dance photographer who captured the work of Alwin Nikolais, a choreographer and multimedia artist. “Tom Caravaglia: In Celebration of Alwin Nikolais” opens Friday, May 11, with a reception at 6:30 p.m. The exhibit comes on the 25th anniversary of Nikolais’ death. For information, visit dancemuseum.org.

Oakroom Artist show
Artists Steve Kowalski and Hana Panek will present a dual show from May 6-31 at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady (1221 Wendell Ave). There will be an artist reception from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Micropolis Cooperative Gallery
Kathy Klompas, an Oakroom Artist and owner of the Ragged Edge Printmaking Studio in Cohoes, will be a guest artist at the Micropolis Cooperative Art Gallery in Gloversville in May and June. From 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, May 11, there will be an artist reception at the Gallery.
For information on the show, visit micropolisgallery.com.

Categories: Art, Entertainment

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