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Female Voices on Stage

Redefining the ballerina in the original stage production of Robyn Hood

A Global Women's Studies Creative Works Capstone Project

Alex Marshall closeup

My Global Women’s Studies capstone project involves choreographing an all new, original ballet production based on the story of Robin Hood. Historically, classical story ballets have portrayed women as delicate, easily persuaded, naive, and decorative. This gender-bender version of Robyn Hood works to challenge ballet stereotypes and tropes with an aim to more accurately represent the experience of women and portray a strong woman leader. Part of the process of accurately representing women involves working directly with women. Our production team is made up entirely of women, including three choreographers, a set designer, a professional storyteller, a costume designer, and a historical expert. My hope, and the hope of the entire team, is that this ballet will resonate with modern audiences and performers, specifically women, in a way that ballet has not done in the past.

This project is twofold: to create a ballet that represents a female perspective both in story, movement, and costume and to do so with an entire female artistic team. These two goals are integral to each other because to have the first, it is vital you have the second. To quote the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made” and this includes the ballet studio. Historically speaking, classical ballet has been dominated by male directors and choreographers. Consequently, ballets have portrayed women through the male gaze and stage productions have reinforced sexist stereotypes. Ballet has gone through many transformations but even when, in the 1890s, ballerinas took on roles of more powerful women on stage, they were still being sexualized due to costuming and choreographic choices (Gutsche-Miller). In the Balanchine era, men were pushed into the shadows, being placed in a position of servitude to the leading ballerina (Macaulay). While this change would seem to celebrate femininity and women, it was still problematic because it placed women on a pedestal and continued to represent female experience on stage through a man’s perspective. In the 1960s, the age of the ballerina was deemed dead with figures such as Rudolf Nureyev taking center stage. While this was a major triumph for gender roles in dance, ballet was still lacking accurate female representation and celebration. The 21st century has seen a rise in female choreographers although many of them come to ballet from modern dance (Macaulay).

Our goal was to add new female voices to the classical ballet canon and to more accurately represent female experiences on stage via a classical story ballet. The first step was to create an all-women artistic team. The project was headed by Hilary Wolfley, Assistant Professor in the Department of Dance and artistic director of BYU Ballet Showcase. Through an application process, she chose two student choreographers, Maile Johnson and myself, with whom to collaborate with. Wendy Folsom worked as our storyteller, BYU students Emma Rollins and Kinzie Ijams acted as our dramaturg and costume designer respectively, and Tara Carpenter Estrada designed the scenery projections. We also worked with a fantastic theatre production team including Benjamin Sanders (Production Manager), John Shurtleff (Technical Director), Crysta Lamb (Production Stage Manager), Taylor Tew Nelson (Lighting Designer, BYU student), and Troy Sales (Sound Designer).

The next step was to pick a story that we felt could have strong female leads and represent the ideals we were looking for, namely feminine strength and female community. We chose the age-old story of Robin Hood and worked to bend all of the male characters into females. With a story in place, Wolfley, Johnson, and I set to work choreographing the ballet. Our main goal was to not fall prey to story-ballet tropes such as traditional pantomime and strictly male/female pas de deux. We wanted to remain within the confines of classical ballet technique while simultaneously pushing the boundaries through unique port de bras (arm movements), exciting formations, and untraditional pantomime.

Summary of the GWS research that has informed my work:

When in discussion with my mentor, Wolfley, she said that there were three main things that inspired the birth of this project. First, is Michel Fokine’s ideas about reforming ballet. Fokine was a dancer, painter, philosopher, musician, and intellectual in the early 1900s (Fokine Estate Archive). He began his radical reforms of ballet in 1904 and in 1914 wrote a paper detailing the following five principles:

  1. Do not “form combinations of ready-made and established dance steps” but “create in each case a new form corresponding to the subject, the most expressive form possible for the representation of the period and the character” (Fokine Estate Archive).
  2. Choreography and gesture should “have no meaning in a ballet unless they serve as an expression of its dramatic action” and “must not be used as a mere divertissement or entertainment, having no connection with the scheme of the whole ballet” (Fokin Estate Archive).
  3. Ballet can use “conventional gesture [pantomime] only where it is required by the style of the ballet, and in all other cases endeavors to replace gestures of the bands by mimetic of the whole body” (Fokine Estate Archive).
  4. Expressiveness in ballet comes “from the expressiveness of the face to the expressiveness of the whole body, and from the expressiveness of the individual body to the expressiveness of a group of bodies” (Fokine Estate Archive).
  5. Ballet must refuse to “be the slave either of music or of scenic decoration, and recognizing the alliance of the arts only on the condition of complete equality, allows perfect freedom both to the scene artist and to the musician.” To this effect, one is not to “impose any specific ‘ballet’ conditions on the composer or the decorative artist, but gives complete liberty to their creative powers” (Fokine Estate Archive).

We kept these five principles in mind as we choreographed Robyn Hood, specifically focusing on making our storytelling moments come from the entire body rather than just the hands and arms as we would have done in traditional pantomime. One moment from a section I choreographed where we see this in action is when the Sheriff is ordering her Henchwomen to follow Robyn into the forest. Originally I had choreographed lots of angry stomping and pointing but Wolfley pushed me to make it more balletic and the result is the choreography that remains in the ballet today.

The second source of inspiration Wolfley drew upon came from the work of Gemma Bond. Bond is an English ballerina and choreographer who has become well-known in the ballet world for her revolutionary choreography. In one particular interview for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre she says, “What I’m looking for in my work…is that everyone can enjoy it. You don’t have to go to the ballet every week to be able to connect with what we’re doing” (“Behind the Scenes”). Part of our aim with Robyn Hood is to create a ballet that is accessible for all kinds of audiences.

Bond also has said that she finds it best to “pull movement from a narrative” and to draw upon what we know as choreographers which ultimately comes from our own life experiences (“Step into the Studio”). Wolfley’s third piece of inspiration for the production stems from this idea. She looked at what she had experienced as a dancer, a choreographer, and a mother and allowed those experiences to drive her work and inspire her movement and story. This has really inspired me as well. Watching Wolfley be vulnerable in the studio as she creates, both during this production experience and during other processes that I have been a part of with her, has inspired me to embrace the experiences I have had and use them to create change in the ballet sphere.

A summary of what others have done on this topic:

The topic of sexism in ballet has become increasingly popular among dance scholars in the last few decades. Most of their research examines how ballet as a historical system started out and has remained sexist even though ballet has seen many other changes. Most commonly cited is the idea of the travesty dancer. Lynn Garafola explains that the travesty aesthetic was introduced during the Nineteenth Century and was the feminizing of male roles and the increased ‘romantics’ of ballet (Garafola 35). This was particularly popular in Parisian Music-Halls where ballets were produced for bourgeois audiences and used to represent the latest politics and trends of the time (Garafola, Gutsche-Miller). Choreographers represented women in a variety of ways: lovers, meek shepherdesses, temptresses, presidents, mothers, and leaders. They portrayed strong lead females however they often simultaneously took on the role of temptress or seductress. This raises the question, did producers want to portray the ‘New Woman’ or did they want to perpetuate “a conservative perception of femininity” (Gutsche-Miller) that acted as a warning to the audience to beware the unbridled feminine power?

This convoluted representation of women on stage continued through the 1870s when women on stage were portrayed either as innocent and flirtatious or as exotic and seductive. Ballets such as Swan Lake or Coppelia involved love triangles and comic stories of animals or insects. Then, in the 1880s, a shift happened and women’s characters began to take control of their lives on stage. Women were now playing roles typically reserved for men; Sarah Gutsche-Miller points out, however, that their masculine costumes were revealing and meant to draw the attention of a male audience suggesting that they could mimic masculinity but never fully take on that role (Gutsche-Miller). In 1893, the modern woman was in full force on stage and while the female body was still being put on display, the ways in which it was portrayed were growing more complex. The first feminist congress in France was in 1892 and as women became more visible in the public sphere, ballet also mimicked these trends (Gutsche-Miller). Gutsche-Miller says that “While the 1890s saw the rise of strong, independent, and sexually liberated female characters who reflected the influence of French feminist discourse, the same period saw an increase in the number of ballets that put the female body on display” (Gutsche-Miller). The sexual freedom of the French bourgeoise exposed performers to “sexual exploitation in popular media.” Gutsche-Miller also argues that while producers could display modernism in their “depictions of sexually liberated women,” in reality they were making a profit off of their suggestive costumes and poses (Gutsche-Miller). So while ballet appeared to be making progress in representation, it was still lacking female authenticity.

Unfortunately, these trends did not die with the turn of the century; classical ballets were still being choreographed under the iron rule of the male gaze. However, the face of sexism in ballet was shifting. One of the most famous choreographers of all time, George Balanchine, was known for declaring that “Ballet is woman.” His ballets place the man in a place of servitude or chasing while the woman seems to hold the power (Macaulay). However, this does not solve the problem of gender roles in ballet and only further complicates them because neither men nor women are represented in a healthy way. When superstars like Rudolf Nureyev rose to fame in the 1960s, the age of the ballerina was said to have come to a close (Macaulay). The focus returned to the male performer as modern choreographers such as Kenneth MacMillan created ballets that seemed to focus on female humiliation (Macaulay). These ballets portrayed rapes, manipulation, and death. We see that the female body was still being put on display, this time in more violent ways.

Nonetheless, things were not all lost for feminism and anti-sexism in ballet. Sir Fredrick Ashton brought the term ‘unisex’ to ballet and had men partnering with both men and women and doing similar steps (Macaulay). We see this in Ashton’s “The Dream” where both men and women perform steps on pointe. Present-day choreographers such as Alexei Ratmasky and Justin Peck are working to turn the tropes on their heads, having women partner men and having all-male corps de ballets (Macaulay). These new ballets now focus on men and celebrate a more vulnerable side of masculinity. While this is a very important step in the direction of gender equality in ballet, where does it leave the ballerina? Alastair Macaulay, writing for The New York Times, asks, “Can anyone, female or male, give new — feminist — meaning to pointwork? Can pointe work be used to show the female perspective rather than only expressing the male view of women and sublimity?” (Macaulay). He points out that no female ballet choreographer has reached the status gained by Martha Graham, modern choreographer. Twenty-first Century women choreographers are striving to reach this level of influence and working to bring a deeper meaning to pointe work.

For Mariko Turk, author of “Girlhood, Ballet, and the Cult of the Tutu,” the ballerina trope, hand in hand with the princess trope, completely exemplifies ideal femininity and tutus and pointe shoes are all a part of that (Mariko). Both Turk and Macaulay acknowledge that 21st-century ballet and ballerinas are breaking away from their 19th-century predecessors. For Macaulay ballet “is to be determined not by critics but by choreographers, artistic directors, and, not least, by dancers, working together” (Mariko). So while much of the scholarship available on sexism in ballet comes to the conclusion that the ballet world’s inability to change will ultimately—and perhaps already has—lead to its downfall, some see light at the end of the tunnel. That light is female choreographers such as Gemma Bond, Cathy Marson, Helen Pickett, and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, all of whom have choreographed story ballets that work to undo sexist tropes and provide a female perspective on stage.

An analysis of how that research inspired each piece of my creative work:

One specific example of a place I challenged the stereotypes in ballet is the pas de deux in Act II between Scarlett and Robyn. A pas de deux is a partnered dance, traditionally between a man and woman to represent love or relationship. This pas de deux is still an expression of love but instead of romantic love, it is the love between two sisters. The male partner’s job is typically to lift and support the woman while she dances. I did not have one partner lifting the other, rather I had both women dancing almost always in unison to show their comradery and mutual respect. Sisterhood is a relationship built on giving and taking equally, each person being made better because of the other yet both standing strong on their own. The pas de deux starts with Robyn dancing on her own. This section happens after Robyn confronts the Sheriff for the first time and must flee into the woods for safety. She is worried about her family and her community because they are being oppressed by the Sheriff. Scarlett sees her dancing by herself and, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, begins to dance with her. Pas de deuxs between Robyn and Scarlett happen a few times throughout the piece, reinforcing their relationship to the audience. I worked to have as much contact between the two as one would if it was a pas deux between a man and a woman.

One theme that we tried to emphasize in this production is the strength in community. We use the Town scenes to juxtapose the Forest scenes, both of which represent communities but in very different ways. The Town represents what can happen when people are pitted against each other creating a very weak sense of safety and community. The Forest represents a strong community where women help each other and keep each other’s best interest in mind at all times. While most classical story ballets have a corps de ballet of women that represent a community, we wanted our Forest corps de ballet to be a joyful community, not one steeped in heartbreak or tragedy. Like other ballets our Forest community does have a leader but rather than her being the youngest or the newest member, we wanted to have an older dancer be our wise and resilient leader. Unfortunately, we could not find a dancer who was actually older to play the part; however, we choreographed her part in such a way that would keep the integrity of our original plan.

Documentation of the work:

The following is the official Director’s Note, written by Wolfley, as printed in the performance program.

“Although many iterations of Robin Hood exist, our team sought to create a version where all of the characters are women, and where Robyn was portrayed as a strong, multi-dimensional character who would end up leading other strong women. We wanted to challenge the norms of traditional classical ballet narratives by portraying complex female characters, communities led by women, motherhood and sisterhood, and a narrative-driving corps de ballet. We hope you enjoy this version of Robyn as it reminds us that everyone has power to lift others and that we are stronger together.”

At the end of this [article] I have included [a link to] the full synopsis of the ballet written by our storyteller, Wendy Folsom. Folsom worked with us to adapt our plotline from the original story to a stage production.

Impact narrative:

This project forced me to challenge all the stereotypes and tropes I have come to know so well. I have been dancing and watching ballet since I was three years old. I have performed many classical ballets such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle, and sleeping Beauty, all of which prescribe to traditional means of ballet storytelling and somewhat problematic or two-dimensional portrayals of women and the female experience. I found myself often reverting back to old ways of choreographing and had to be reminded by my mentor to push myself and push the ballet limits to create something fresh and new. Creating a ballet based on a male dominant story gave me the opportunity to explore the differences and similarities between male and female experiences and that, when represented accurately, there is value to all stories and perspectives.

Robyn Hood: The Law of the Forest

Works Cited

“Behind the Scenes of ‘Here + Now’ with Gemma Bond.” Youtube, uploaded by PittsburghBallet, 22 March 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBj0Hwshmh0.

“Fokine’s Revolution.” Michel Fokine - Fokine Estate Archive. http://www.michelfokine.com/index.html. Accessed 17 Oct.

Garafola, Lynn. “The Travesty Dancer in Nineteenth-Century Ballet.” Dance Research Journal, vol. 17/18, 1985, pp. 35–40. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1478078. Accessed 16 Oct. 2022.

Gutsche-Miller, Sarah. “Liberated Women and Travesty Fetishes: Conflicting Representations of Gender in Parisian Fin-de-Siècle Music-Hall Ballet.” Dance Research, vol. 35, no. 2, Nov. 2017, pp. 187–208. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.3366/drs.2017.0201.

Komatsu, Sara. “Pas de Deux: Sexism and the Gender Binary in Ballet.” The Harvard Crimson, Feb. 9, 2021, https://www.thecrimson.com/column/backstage-at-the-ballet/article/2021/2/9/sara-column-pas-de-deux-sexism-and-the-gender-binary-in-ballet/#:~:text=Classical%20ballet%20contains%20extremely%20strict,the%20girls%20focus%20on%20pointework.

Macaulay, Alastair. “Of Women, Men and Ballet in the 21st Century.” New York Times, vol. 166, no. 57478, 15 Jan. 2017, p. 14. EBSCOhost, erl.lib.byu.edu/login/?url=https://https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=120721766&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

Mainwaring, Madison. “The Place to Challenge Ballet’s Gender Stereotypes? In Daily Class.” The New York Times, Jan. 25, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/arts/the-place-to-challenge-ballets-gender-stereotypes-in-daily-class.html.

Mehta, Takshi. “The Inability Of Ballet To Redefine Gender Roles.” Feminism in India, Mar. 1, 2021, https://feminisminindia.com/2021/03/01/ballet-gender-stereotypes/.

Peters, Jen. “Female Choreographers Are Reimagining What Story Ballets Can Be.” Dance Magazine, March 8, 2021, https://www.dancemagazine.com/women-choreographers/#:~:text=Through%20the%20rise%20of%20abstract,Crystal%20Pite%20and%20Pam%20Tanowitz.

“Step into the Studio with Gemma Bond.” YouTube, uploaded by JoyceTheatre, 6 Aug. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kJSf1LDwzU.

Turk, Mariko. "Girlhood, Ballet, and the Cult of the Tutu." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 482-505. ProQuest, http://byu.idm.oclc.org/login/?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/girlhood-ballet-cult-tutu/docview/1630432276/se-2.

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