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Thoughts on gender have evolved since Louis XIV's era. Maybe it's time training evolves too. Photo by Matthew Murphy for Pointe.

Next semester, there'll be a new course name on the syllabus of Boston Conservatory at Berklee: "Constructed Gender Identities in Classical Ballet: Men's Variations."

But this is not a new course, just a new title. The old name is one you might recognize: "Men's Class."

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Whenever San Francisco Ballet soloist Elana Altman sees her name on the cast list for Giselle’s Myrta, she knows it’s time to start preparing for the role’s high-flying grand allégro and stamina-testing
jeté sequence. Does that mean she does extra petit allégro in pointe class? No. Altman, like many women ballet dancers who want to build strength and endurance, drops into a men’s class instead. In addition to reaping technical benefits, Altman says she relishes the chance to cover lots of space in the men’s combinations.

 

More and more ballerinas are dancing with the men. Some take men’s class because it provides opportunities to tackle the large-scale movements that normal technique classes generally don’t include. Others find that the unique technical challenges of men’s class—the turns, jumps and beats—make them stronger dancers and performers. And men’s classes can also help prepare them for the ballet world’s increasingly blurred gender lines: Women today are often expected not only to be able to soar in Myrta’s grands jetés, but also to master bravura jumps and turns—in pointe shoes, no less.

 

What dancers like Altman can expect from a men’s class depends on the teacher. Some instructors start to build strength for virtuoso moves early in the class, with more pliés, tendus and beats at the barre. Other men’s classes may differ from a regular ballet class only when they reach the center, by putting a greater emphasis on large leaps that cover space, double turns in the air, multiple pirouettes and batterie.

 

School of American Ballet faculty member (and former New York City Ballet principal) Jock Soto, who is “very glad” to see NYCB ballerinas Ashley Bouder, Abi Stafford, Sara Mearns, Teresa Reichlen and Sterling Hyltin in his men’s classes, says that he particularly emphasizes jumps. “We work a lot on very clean technique in the jumps,” he says. “The girls jump in their class too, but they’re mainly focused on pointework. For the men’s class, we stress how to make each jump look precise.” Bouder in particular has seen this work pay off: Soto says she can now do clean double sauts de basque while wearing pointe shoes.

 

Though many women, like Bouder, keep their pointe shoes on throughout men’s class, others find that trying out the big jumps and turns in flat shoes can ultimately benefit their pointework more. For Altman, the pointe-versus-flat decision “depends on my feet and what I have to do the rest of the day,” she says. “Today, I put on my flat shoes for the last two men’s combinations. I felt more grounded and had more of a connection to jump from. Tomorrow, when I put my pointe shoes back on, I’ll try to remember that feeling and incorporate it into my pointework.”

 

How do the men feel about ballerinas “invading”? “At first, they joked that I had to wear a dance belt to come in!” says Washington Ballet dancer Sona Kharatian, who takes men’s class about once a month. “But now they don’t notice me.” Kharatian appreciates the “different energy” she feels when dancing with the men. “It’s very much about strength and about muscle,” she says, rather than the delicate intricacies of pointework.

 

For some ballerinas, men’s class is actually where they feel most at home. The bravura female dancer, for whom double tours and quadruple pirouettes have a special allure, is a relatively rare but highly visible figure. When Fernando Bujones staged La Bayadère for Mexico’s Ballet de Monterrey in 1997, he glimpsed a then-19- or 20-year-old Katia Garza following along in the back as some of the company’s men rehearsed the alpha-male Solor variation. A few days later, when Bujones came into rehearsal, some of the men egged Garza on: “Katia, show Fernando your variation.” She did, flawlessly: the double assemblé, the pirouettes à la seconde, even the barrel turns ending in a flourish on one knee. Bujones paused for a second. “Oh my God,” he said. “I’m glad I retired.”

 

Today, Garza continues to challenge herself in men’s classes and rehearsals at Orlando Ballet. When a guest choreographer asks for dancers with specialties or tricks, all eyes turn to her. Artistic Director Robert Hill says she can out-dance some of his company’s men. But there can be a downside to dancing with and like the boys, Garza cautions: She has to be very careful not to overdevelop her legs. “I have to work on a lot of stretching so my thighs don’t get too big, because I’m very muscular,” she says.

 

Still, Garza “loves the big jumps and tricks, because they’re so much fun.” This year, her tenth at Orlando Ballet, she’s determined to add a new men’s trick to her repertoire: the 540, a rivoltade resembling a martial arts jump that spins one and a half times in the air. “I’ve seen Carlos Acosta and other big stars make it look so easy,” she says. “This season, I want to learn it.”

Lisa Traiger writes on dance and performance for The Washington Post, among other publications.

MYTH: The guys in ballet are all gay.

“Let’s just say guys in ballet are guys. And some are gay, and they’re great; some aren’t, and they’re great. They’re all just humans, like the rest of us.” —Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

“San Francisco is known for its gay community, but there are still straight people who live in San Francisco! So I look at it that way: It’s just like life, or the world. Some people are gay, and some people are straight.” —Prince Credell, dancer, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet

 

MYTH: You have to wear tights all the time.

“Most of us don’t wear tights all the time. Maybe in schools, but we wear shorts and sweatpants in a company environment. In class and rehearsals, you have to maintain a modicum of professionalism and have things that are not going to interfere with the choreography or be a distraction. But no, we don’t all have to wear tights.” —Stephen Legate, principal, San Francisco Ballet

“The costuming can really change quite often in ballet. You get to wear pants and shorts. A lot of character costumes [have] historical pant legging–type things, depending on the period. But you look at football players, and they are wearing pretty tight clothing. Yeah, they have pads on, but that is serious spandex they are wearing too. You look at runners, or sprinters, they are all wearing tight unitards. Wrestlers are another prime example of another sport with very tight clothing. At some point you come to realize that the tighter the clothing, the greater the range of motion.” —Michael Levine, dancer, The Joffrey Ballet

MYTH: It’s a lot easier to be a male ballet dancer.

“The technique for men, post-Nureyev, post-Baryshnikov, has really come to equal that of women. In the past, men were the lifters, the ‘toters around of women,’ and that’s not the case anymore. Men have featured roles. Stanton Welch here in Houston is a big proponent of men being men, being very strong and being able to dance on their own.” —Simon Ball, principal, Houston Ballet

“In the larger world, it’s harder because people accept women being ballerinas a lot more than they accept men being dancers. So you are constantly struggling against those men-in-tights [stereotypes]. Trying to make people understand the art, the physicality and the masculine side of it is difficult. And growing up in a small town, people were like, “You do what?” They didn’t understand, and I was constantly trying to show them what being a dancer is. They accept it when it is a young girl, but when it is a teenage boy going off to do ballet, you get a funny look.” —Michael Levine, dancer, The Joffrey Ballet

MYTH: There are no male stars in ballet anymore.

“As far as technique and charisma onstage go, there are men out there now who match and exceed those people that you think of as the stars of the ‘70s, when ballet had a large following. [Today’s men] have the artistry matched with the technique that makes you want to watch a person. It’s a very virile type of charisma and energy that makes you want to watch a man onstage, which Carlos Acosta definitely has. Johan Kobborg is another wonderful artist who comes to mind. The world of ballet and men is well and strong.” —Simon Ball, principal, Houston Ballet

“An unlikely star like Joaquin De Luz is a star to me. Audiences aren’t familiar with him yet, but every time he goes out there, he’s just so exciting. Somebody like Daniel Ulbricht, who is a soloist with New York City Ballet. These are phenomenal dancers. And I think that somebody like Angel Corella and Jose Manuel Carreño. These are stars. I think that human beings in general are just more accessible than they were in previous eras, and it probably killed stardom, but it makes for better individuals.” —Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

MYTH: Being a male ballet dancer is all about doing tricks.

“That’s not true! Well, for me, the kind of dancer that I am and the kind of dancing that I do, it doesn’t require that at all. I do more contemporary work, so it’s really not about tricks, like jumping and turning, at all. I don’t want to sound cliché, but it’s about honesty and integrity and trying to show that onstage. Even in classical ballet, there are things that require tricks like Le Corsaire or Don Q and then there are more romantic ballets like Giselle or Swan Lake that are totally about portrayal and the dance. It’s about a role.” —Prince Credell, dancer, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet

“The virtuosic male technique demands that you be able to do a certain amount of what are called ‘tricks.’ But the actual amount of time that you get to use those tricks in repertoire, on a day-in, day-out basis is very little. If you’re doing Basil in Don Q, then you’re putting some of those tricks to use, for sure, and it’s necessary that you be able to do them. But that’s one ballet out of maybe 25 in a season. And the rest of the time you’re not. So that’s just a small portion of the vocabulary that’s required. It’s most important to be as well-rounded as possible and that includes acting ability and modern dance ability, contemporary dance ability and the artistic intelligence to put it all together.” —Stephen Legate, principal, San Francisco Ballet

 

Interviews by Jocelyn Anderson; Peter Boal interview by Kristin Lewis

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