While San Francisco Ballet’s premiere of resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s new Rite of Spring was the big draw in Program Three, the evening started with two of last year’s premieres: Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places and Mark Morris’s Beaux.
I’ll talk about Beaux here: Having seen (and written about) it last year, I have to say it had not grown on me, despite compelling cases made for the piece in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I have not gotten over the awfulness of the costumes. Alastair Macaulay makes a good point in the NYT that the camoflage-patterned unitards in orange, pink, and yellow worn by the men of Beaux may be costume designer Isaac Mizrahi’s “response to the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the American military.” Maybe so, but however cleverly a design element in a dance piece responds to the social or political developments of the day, that design element fails if it neglects its one primary job: to reveal and enhance the lines of the body. Mizrahi’s splotchy body stockings visually transform some of the most superbly-sculpted and proportioned men one is likely to get to look at in person into bulbous, stubby figures moving like a bad optical illusion before a backdrop of the same busy pattern.
But something else bothered me more: it was the fact that they were all men. In the same article, Macaulay cites (and refutes) Balanchine’s edict, that “Put 16 women on the stage, and it’s everybody — it’s the world. Put 16 men, and it’s always nobody.” I’m inclined to agree with Balanchine, but am unsure why. I imagined a similar ballet with women, and it seemed that I’d have no qualms about it (at least not with the fact of their gender)—in fact, for all my love of seeing both male and female dancers together, I’ve always felt that it is a particularly moving experience to watch women dancing for and with each other. Seeing these men was not only not moving, but there was something depressing about it as well. I wonder if it has to do with power. It is uplifting to see any group of people who have not enjoyed privileged positions in their society band together and support each other. But there is something sinister in the self-sequestration of the powerful. It’s why the Vatican is probably the most concentratedly corrupt 109 acres on earth, and why mens’ clubs are rightly regarded as laughably out-dated relics of a world that only outdated relics of men would want to belong to. An organization designed for women is understood to be attempting to elevate the status and welfare of women in the world—and to therefore be laboring towards equality for all. An organization for men invites the suspicion that it is in place to maintain an imbalance, an unjust status quo.
Yet even this doesn’t quite cover it—when I imagine that all the men of Beaux were, for instance, black, that, too, seemed like it wouldn’t have the same derogatory effect. In the recent “South Africa in Apartheid and After” at SFMOMA (which I also wrote about), there was a photograph by Ernest Cole of some mine workers performing some sort of ceremonial dance in their camp. They dance in their workclothes with a few ornaments added for the ritual. South Africa probably endures its own grim incarnations of gender inequality, but this image of men dancing with and for each other does not suggest the sort of self-satisfied, and self-protective, sausage party of the examples I used above. These men clearly lead tough, dangerous lives, and labor for the aggrandizement of others. They are also living in camps where the presence of women is forbidden. Their dance is a defiance of the bleakness of their lives, something exuberant and graceful drawn out of the dirt and squalor.
One doesn’t get that sense from Beaux. Now, the dancers who perform the piece (and they are faultless, by the way) may not in fact be the sort of alpha males that their collective personae project. But a man onstage becomes “Man”–a symbol, especially in non-narrative ballet. And because most of the men in this program were white or close to it (despite SF Ballet’s racial diversity), Beaux comes off as a celebration of the classic white male archetype, rather than a re-envisioning of it. And this is despite the element of homosexuality that Macaulay referred to—an element possibly not as moving as it could be simply because the ballet stage is probably the one area wherein homosexuality constitutes the least disadvantage. Watching Beaux, I wondered, “What exactly is it about these twee steps set to Martinu’s twee nouveau-baroque tinkling harpsichord music that Morris felt he needed male bodies, and only male bodies, to express?” If it would have been different and disadvantageous to include female dancers, then he must be wanting to say something about masculinity, to shine some light on something he presumes will be new and edifying for us. What is it? If you’re going to celebrate the historically-celebrated, you’d better make a case for why they need the extra attention, and for how your focus on them isn’t merely sycophantic or self-indulgent. Even reconsidering Beaux as the “happiest rethink of masculinity that ballet has seen in decades” leaves one wondering what it is that is being advanced regarding masculinity, and why it’s being posited as new. Whatever these men were portraying, it didn’t seem particularly foreign or unusual, at least to anyone whose idea of masculinity wasn’t formed by Monday Night Football and David Mamet plays. And is a more sensitive, LGBT-friendly, colorful idea of masculinity really supposed to be new for people sitting in a theater in San Francisco watching a ballet? One has to wonder if this “rethink of masculinity” is a worthy endeavor, considering what we could accomplish if we as earnestly set out to rethink femininity, or simply humanity, instead.