Being a Gentleman in 21st Century Ballet

In one of my first performances of George Balanchine’s “Agon,” I stood uneasily on stage while my partner, Teresa Reichlen, danced her s...


In one of my first performances of George Balanchine’s “Agon,” I stood uneasily on stage while my partner, Teresa Reichlen, danced her short solo. I had just stepped foot over his head a few times and we were about to reunite for some sort of elastic push-and-pull section. I thought, “I shouldn’t be here.”

It was the winter of 2019, and the conversations going on backstage and in the press about toxicity in the world of ballet, specifically toxic masculinity, had altered my experience of the ballets I love. I understood that “Agon” required a machismo that I didn’t think I had and that I knew I didn’t want. My dancing lacked conviction. I didn’t know how to make sense of dance at a time when audiences seemed to see misconduct in every aspect of our art form.

Ballet has ruled my life and shaped my body for 27 years. I’ve been a principal dancer with New York City Ballet since 2017, a company dancer since 2007, and in the ballet studios since 1995, when I was 6 years old. I have been dancing for so long that the stylized specificity of ballet, however painful, makes sense to me. Despite its rigidity, ballet gave me a freedom that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

But in recent years, ballet has felt tense, and finding a place for me in the works I dance, more difficult. As the ballet world grapples with questions of relevance and representation, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I wasn’t sure how I wanted to exist on stage. I don’t know how to be a ballet dancer today.

Finding authentic expression and maintaining personal and artistic integrity seems urgent, but may seem at odds with the art form I know and love. Since I almost always do cavalier roles – assisting, presenting and dancing opposite a ballerina – the incompatibility is most pronounced when thinking about how to be a partner. Not the mechanics of partnership: I relish the physical challenge of supporting and tangling with someone else. But rather the politics of two bodies dancing together.

I played the middle pas deux in “Agon” only four times. It’s not a natural fit for me. The duo, choreographed by Balanchine in 1957 for Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams, is built on tension and partnership movements worthy of a circus feat. It’s exciting and surprising. Accused. Sensual.

There is a moment when the two dancers are side by side, holding hands above their heads, and the ballerina’s foot rests on her partner’s shoulder. Balancing on pointe, the leg that connects her to him is fully extended. So they turn, she away from him and he towards her; he steps closer, forcing her to bend the leg that is now behind her, as if trying to touch her head to his foot. Every time I do this part I feel cruel, like I’m ripping my partner’s hip.

My partners are flexible, and most say they’re fine, that I can step in and push the leg a little closer to their head. But it still feels wrong to me, because I know what it might look like – like I’m forcing my partner to contort into an unnatural shape.

During the first years of my career, I understood how to be a partner of City Ballet, the company founded by Balanchine. There were stylistic imperatives unique to us: to stand with my feet together behind a partner as she spun, or to focus on the weightless arc of an elevator rather than its height or duration. I was expected to be assertive and project strength. And most importantly, there was a need to treat my partner with respect and even, at times, as if she were precious. I had to be a gentleman.

On a panel in 2018 entitled “Balanchine’s Guys”, Mitchell, director of City Ballet in the 1950s and 1960s, said of his former boss: “He was the epitome of a gentleman. And so we all learned that from MB”

And Mitchell demonstrated it. “How are you?” he said, extending his hand as if offering it to someone. “How do you do?” He turned his hand over to extend it to his imaginary partner. “Open the door. Sit down. Be a gentleman.”

With Mitchell’s articulated hands and elegant demeanor, he could have described a dance. There are many Balanchine pas de deux in which the man does exactly what Mitchell demonstrated: reaching out, reaching out interrogatively—adopting specific mannerisms or polite, polite conversation. Even “Agon,” full of antagonism and dramatic stretching, requires this “gentleman” presentation.

In the Balanchine ballets, you’re not supposed to superimpose emotions that aren’t there. But the duets I dance at City Ballet weren’t made to evoke friendship, the ballerina and her gay best friend. When I’m partnered with a ballerina, romance and sex are built into the steps and gestures we perform.

As a younger dancer, I felt that when the chemistry between two dancers suggested intimacy and certain possibilities, it made for a better performance. I saw an ease in the way my straight male colleagues embodied this aesthetic attitude.

But when I thought I was dancing my best, I felt untied. I didn’t feel royal or manly. I felt liberated. Freed from the need to articulate myself as anything specific. While dancing, I could just move my body and feel like myself, a queer person who loves to dance – and who loves to dance with a partner.

There is a liberation and exhilaration, however, in embodying characters (and characteristics) that were foreign to me, and it wasn’t hard to find ways to be authentic and fulfilled in cavalier roles – for make meaningful connections with my partners. But as my career progressed and City Ballet went through changes, my acceptance of the pure romance implicit in the works I danced weakened. So did my understanding of how I wanted to be a partner on a ballet stage. As a result of my company’s very public musings on how power and gender shape our workplace, some ballets began to feel restrictive and overwhelmed.

When four prominent men from my company left in 2018 amid accusations of sexual misconduct, my instinct was to be too performative in my respect for the women I danced with. I was determined to show an audience convinced of the moral rot of our company, of the integrity of our art form.

But the accentuated mannerisms and dedication began to look like an entrenchment of existing issues. Always treating my partners as delicate, it was as if it robbed them of their strength and their humanity, reduced them. The choreography we perform requires me to lead them around the stage: turning them, pushing them, pulling them, moving them in a way that is not violent, but sometimes requires force and even discomfort. Like when I try to touch my partner’s foot on her head.

Back to “Agon” last fall, Teresa Reichlen and I found ourselves unsure of how to be in ballet. Our relationship has always been warm and easy on stage, but it was forged in the ballets with a tenderness built into the choreography. “Agon”, with its angular shapes and edgy effect, was a challenge.

It was tempting to cling to the gentleman moments, when I had to pretend to introduce her, or gently take her hand with my fingertips and lead her to her place on stage. But what about the meat of the dance? The push and the risk? The manipulations, stretches, and shaping I did with her body continued to be uncomfortable and unresponsive, especially after a nearly two-year hiatus, and for Tess, after a pregnancy.

Many of our rehearsals ended in frustration. But we talked about focusing on playing and being present rather than trying to dance the ballet like we’ve seen before. I remember hearing that Mitchell once described the pas de deux as two kittens playing. “I like it,” Tess said, and so we tried it. Our performance probably wasn’t eye-opening, but it was good. We were more attentive to each other and to the possibilities that this dance can offer.

Part of what keeps ballet dynamic is the choreography that keeps us discovering new approaches and new ways of being. “Steps are made by a person,” Balanchine once said. “It’s the person who dances the steps – that’s what the choreography is, not the steps themselves.” Going back to aspects of a ballet’s original intent – ​​like when Tess and I took the directive from Mitchell’s kitten – can open up the possibilities of a ballet, as can attention and a focus on care. .

The role of the cavalier—the ballet’s “gentleman”—has been described as an attendant to a queen, but assisting can mean more than just serving. To participate is to be attentive. As dancers, we always have to be mindful of the timing and the music. Pay attention to each other. And dancing mindfully doesn’t have to rely solely on romance or sexuality. It is the care that is essential.

I’m not discounting the consideration for my partner that Mitchell talked about when he talked about being a gentleman, but I’m trying to move away from an embodiment of manners relying solely on implied romance. Disregarding the pressure I felt to “play straight” both opens up the freedom to be myself on stage and helps crystallize what is important to me as a partner. Over the past few years, as my colleagues and I have gone through loss and trauma, reorienting dance towards care feels good, feels enduring and human.

Finding space to be yourself can be easier in new dances. Less preconceived ideas to navigate. This season, I’m not dancing much because of a tear in my knee. But I worked with choreographer Pam Tanowitz on her premiere, “The Law of Mosaics.” I didn’t want to give up the opportunity to dance for someone who only asks me to be the person I am.

Pam built a duet for me and Sara Mearns. Sara and I often dance together, but Pam envisions something different for us. We look at each other frankly — we have the right to smile if we want, even if it’s not a happy dance in itself — and we dance side by side, taking the same steps.

“This part is like a conversation,” Pam says of a moment in the middle of our duet. Unlike other dance talks I’ve performed on this stage, I don’t bow to Sara or do any kind of politeness.

We just manage to exist together. Sara and I face each other, holding hands. I tap my foot against my ankle then switch to the other foot. Then it’s Sara’s turn. We thus alternate in a prosaic back and forth. Pam created this dance especially for us. Our movements have no specific meaning other than that I am me and she is her and we dance together.

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