How gender roles in ballet are evolving

Choreographer Robert Binet believes the time is right to change the traditional power dynamics in ballet performances
By Katie O'Connor - Published on August 11, 2017
Through his choreography, Robert Binet challenges the status quo of time-honoured ballet. (Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada)

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Robert Binet first set his sights on ballet at age nine.

At a production of The Nutcracker with his grandmother he says he was drawn into the world created on stage and knew he wanted to be a part of that process. He went on to graduate from Canada’s National Ballet School, but he felt the need to devote his creativity to something bigger, so he turned to choreography.

In 2013, he became choreographic associate at The National Ballet of Canada where he has developed numerous works, such as Orpheus Becomes Eurydice, a co-production with The Banff Centre, The Dreamers Ever Leave You, a co-production with the Art Gallery of Ontario. He has also worked for dance companies across the globe and was the first-ever choreographic apprentice at London’s Royal Ballet.

 

Through his work, he addresses ballet’s often fractious relationship with modern values, where men and women are restricted to rigid stereotypes not reflective of contemporary relationships.

On a break from his work in Toronto, he tells TVO.org how gender roles are changing and what it means to challenge pre-conceived ideas.

What intrigued you about working as a choreographer?

I think what I love about it in particular is that there are so many elements to the job. Not only are you in the studio with dancers making the work collaboratively, which is probably the best part, but you are working with writers and composers and designers. There are so many elements that go into a new ballet, so I love the sort of diversity of my everyday job and the huge variety of people and sets of skills and knowledge it brings into my life.

What do you think makes ballet unique compared to other artistic mediums?

I think that above all the many things [ballet] is – it’s a language. It’s a language that is both spoken and interpreted entirely through the body, which means that anyone through any place at any time can understand it. It takes every inch of the human body and makes it expressive in the clearest, most literate way and because it moves in such big sweeping, sometimes extreme ways, it’s so good at expressing the most extreme highs and lows of human life, and that is so moving and so relatable.

What’s it like choreographing for men versus women?

It’s strange sort of in that it’s definitely the most gendered of all art forms. Pretty much from the beginning men and women are trained differently. They have to emerge into the professional world with different skill sets. So a lot of what we do after that is find small ways to break those rigid binaries so that the characters you create on stage are truly rounded.

When you say small ways, what do you mean by that?

The ballet technique emerged from the [17th C] courts of Louis XIV, so ingrained within it is this gender balance of men being the strong one supporting the light, dainty fairy-like women which is not how we live today in the world. So you have to find a way to portray modern relationships and modern men and women through this technique that can often pull you back to those older power dynamics.

How much of a challenge is that?

It’s a challenge in the way that creating anything new is a challenge, but I love it because having this language that’s at once so full of possibility but also challenges … in any creative process [these elements] are good because they make you break the rules and try new things, so I think in that way it’s actually a huge gift. We are in a moment in history within ballet where I think everyone really wants all the rules to be broken so there isn’t any pressure to adhere to older aesthetics.

Do you think roles for male dancers are changing?

Yes. I think in the oldest, oldest ballets, especially big Russian productions, they are very macho and strong and powerful and always rescuing women in very heroic ways. Even in Sleeping Beauty, it’s the woman who falls asleep for a hundred years and the man awakens her with his love. Which is a beautiful story, but I think they are starting to create more ballets where often men are the vulnerable ones who have a more perilous journey through the plot, and women are the ones who really carry the weight of the situation and don’t crumble underneath it.

How can ballet continue to adapt and express modern gender roles?

I think we have to be wise with the stories we choose to tell. It’s like any language, it shifts. We have words we didn’t have five years ago because we needed words for new things that emerged into our life. So if we keep trying to tell new stories about different experiences, different people, and different ways of life the language will be forced to adapt and develop.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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