Years ago, I had a dream job with Gannett Inc. as senior cultural writer. One of my beats was to cover the big arts stories of the day and so it was that I found myself on one occasion interviewing Richard Cragun the American-born star of the Stuttgart Ballet and one of the finest male dancers of the 20th century.
In those days, Gannett recycled our stories in its many publications, and my Cragun piece found its way into one of the tabloids overseen by a favorite editor who was fond of the Daily News and New York Post. It was with some sheepishness then that I handed the publicist a copy of the publication with the words “Ballet Hunk” in the headlines. I needn’t have worried. He was thrilled.
I covered most of the great “ballet hunks” of the 20th and early-21st centuries – Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Martins, Anthony Dowell, Patrick Dupond, Damian Woetzel (probably the greatest dancer I’ve ever seen). I reviewed and/or interviewed them all and I enjoyed every minute of it. They were not only great dancers. They were and are great men – beautiful, brilliant, sophisticated, cultured, charming, great company. No wonder their onstage partners, some of the greatest ballerinas of the day, and audiences thrilled to them.
I was reminded of my other career – my other life – recently with The New York Times’ Arts & Leisure story “Of Women, Men and Ballet in the 21st Century.”
“Today we’re watching Men’s Lib,” Times chief dance critic Alastair Macauley writes. “Its latest stages have included giving a new equivalence in partnering, whether opposite-sex or same-sex. “
That may be true, but as he acknowledges, ballet remains an art in which men, be they choreographers or danseurs, showcase women. “Ballet is woman,” George Balanchine famously dictated. Yet he called the shots. There was complementarity but no real equality. And there probably won’t be as long as men far outnumber women as ballet company directors and choreographers. (It’s no accident that women made far greater strides in modern dance, as Macauley also points out. Ballet was born in the Renaissance; modern, in the late-19th century with the suffrage movement.)
Martha Graham, one of the greatest modern dance choreographers, was never afraid to showcase male beauty. Indeed, she made it the centerpiece of one of her most controversial works, “Phaedra,” based on the ancient Greek tale of a stepmother’s murderous lust for her stepson.
The female gaze and female power go hand-in-hand. Without the opportunity to create, the way women see men – and, for that matter, other women – doesn’t matter.
But there is another aspect at play here. The female gaze often dovetails with the gay one in that both have celebrated the male as not-so-obscure object of desire. The new Mario Testino book “Sir” (Taschen, $69, 504 pages) celebrates male beauty as a flower rooted in the sexually dynamic soil of the 1970s, when the latest wave of feminism, the gay rights movement and, not so coincidentally, many of the male ballet dancers I would cover came of age.
It’s been said that we get the art that fits our times. So it remains to be seen: Will our more conservative moment lead to traditional depictions of the sexes onstage – a backpedaling for gays and women – or a continuing contrapuntal exploration of sex roles in all their variety?
Remember that even though the Eisenhower years gave us Marilyn Monroe, they also gave us Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean.
When it comes to art, gender and sex, it’s complicated, folks. Stay tuned.