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, the Nashville Ballet is creating a new work that explores what it means to imagine gender beyond the binary.
To inspire the choreographers and musicians working on Nashville Ballet’s latest project, 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, you know, men do certain things. We 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 their 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 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. And 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. And so this dance goes through his life, his family,” Cristina explained when she previewed her ballet music on Live in Studio C last week. “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, you know, 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 where we can 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.