The Gendered Ballet Aesthetic
What makes a ballet good? Is it an objective concept or something taught? If something taught, who holds the keys to these values? Who is prioritized; who is left out?
When looking at ballet choreographers, the gender imbalance is striking. According to the Dance Data Project, in 2019-2020, only 19% of the works presented in ballet companies were choreographed by women (up from the previous year’s 17%). Does the aesthetic of ballet perpetuate this choreographic gender imbalance?
Looking at ballets receiving good reviews, we gain a sense of prioritized aesthetics, including objectification of the female body, traditional gender roles and narratives, and an emphasis on hyper-femininity which includes an idea of “weakness” for women.
For a female ballet choreographer to “make-it” in this aesthetic world, she either needs to choreograph works that continue the objectification and oppression of women, putting herself in a sticky situation of perpetuating misogyny and making it difficult to create art from her own lived experience, or she can push against these aesthetic norms, making it harder to get commissions and sustain a choreographic career, and also making it less likely that audiences see a work contrary to these gendered aesthetic priorities.
Looking at examples of the various ways ballet aesthetics are gendered, this paper asks us to open our eyes to the way our trained aesthetics discourage women in ballet choreography, and challenges us to push against this norm, creating space for more voices and more visions.