Historical Dance specialist, teacher and choreographer Charlotte Ewart takes us through a history of women’s involvement in dance – and how they have consistently been overshadowed by their male counterparts…
This week I went to see Frankenstein, a newly commissioned ballet by Liam Scarlett the current wonderboy of the Royal Ballet. While not a perfectly formed piece it certainly had flashes of genius in it and I’m sure Scarlett is a man with a bright choreographic future. A Man. This new work was also brought to us with two leading male stars, the current male artistic director of the Royal, a male designer, a male composer and a male guest conductor. In such a female dominated profession and pastime – a pastime that despite Billy Elliot still is subject to gender stereotyping (how many boys go to ballet classes after all) – where are the women? Why, when there are so many more women in the industry at entry level, are there not more of us running companies and producing work at the highest level?
Was it always thus? Is dance yet another area in history where women have been marginalised and written out? I’m afraid to say that although there are noted female performers and women who have been used as muses, by and large it is the men – the choreographers – who are the celebrated ones.
I study and reconstruct dances from the past. Sometimes the distant past. Dance from the time of knights and princesses, dance from the time of Jane Austen and her male-obsessed peers, and dance from the time of the powerful Renaissance queens.
How do I do this? When I reconstruct any movement from the C15th onwards I refer to the few existing manuscripts that describe dance. Prior to this time it’s all conjecture – guesswork at movement gleaned from iconography, diaries, stories etc. Women feature prominently as performers, particularly in the iconography. We know women performed as dancers from the dawn of civilisation – many historians would have us believe they were all courtesans. I disagree. My current research is recreating C13th aristocratic European court dance. Some evidence lay in tournaments accounts. Tournaments are often viewed through the lens of knights competing at the tilt. Jacques Bretel’s account of the Tournai de Chauvency in 1285 gives us an intriguing view of the role the evening activities played in the event and the equal regard in which the evening was held.
Noble women ran the evening activities, which were lead by dance or dance-dramas and these evening activities were held in the same high regard as the tilting during the day. Why do we not know – because the accounts are scant and many records only refer to those who attended and who won what – how different we might look on things if the evening entertainment had been recorded in the same manner. (My research is ongoing, s watch this space!)
Of the actual notations, men write all. The first recorded choreography is from 1445. Written by the male dancing master Domenico di Pianaza. Others run throughout the C16th/17th. There is a simple explanation for why women were absent, as while some women of very high and noble status could and did publish, dancing masters were not from the noble class. A female dancing master could never therefore have existed. Like Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A room of one’s own’ (which eloquently argues why Shakespeare could never have been a woman), a woman could never have been a dancing master. However, a noble lady could commission a man to do her bidding and many of the manuscripts are named after, dedicated to, or for the use of certain high-ranking noble women. To return to Domenico, he dedicated his dances to Isabella D’Este. The purpose of his being was a woman.
A century and a half later, we move really into a golden age of dance. With the advent of Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581, we reach a place where I believe women were very much in control of the art that was produced. Catherine de Medici commissioned Ballet Comique and, one could argue, it forms the basis of every subsequent court Masque / Ballet. The golden age of court masques – a form of theatre that combined music, dance, acting, acrobatics, elaborate set design, allegory and song – occurred from the late C16th up to the English Civil War, when the form was all but decimated. It continued in a different vein in France under the guidance of Louis XIV and grew into the birth of modern ballet.
Women like Catherine, Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria performed in virtuosic displays of graceful movement. And yet we study the Masque not through who motivated its inception i.e. the women, but their servants – in England’s case, Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones most prominently. Yes, they may have been queens first and foremost, but I would suggest that it may be more interesting to look at how Anne appearing bare-breasted represented and invoked an Amazonian power, or how Henrietta Maria used professional female performers during a time when the ‘accepted’ history claims that all women’s parts were played by men. We still have a popular notion that women didn’t feature on the British stage prior to the Restoration.
As we move into the Baroque and Regency periods, dance notation and teaching is still dominated by men, although we do continue to see star female performers and dedications to female nobility. By the late C18th / early C19th we also start to see female dance teachers appear. While not great in number, adverts for well respected women appear to teach ladies and gentlemen in the art of dance.
By and large however while we see female dancers revered, almost fetishised, it is still the men who get the glory. Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cherito and their peers were all celebrated prima ballerinas controlled and choreographed by men.
We remember and hail Fokine, Bournonville, Balanchine, Ashton and the names bar a few of the women who danced their steps are forgotten. Many have heard of Nijinsky and his controversial Rite of Spring and lascivious L’apres midi d’faun but how many know about his sister Nijinska and her triumphant feminist piece Les Noces?
Dance is intangible. That is its greatest asset and its greatest weakness. Unlike a painting or a novel that survives to live beyond the death of its author, dance is truly existential. There is nothing more immediate and unrepeatable. The performer can embody the greatest beauty in one moment BUT only in that one moment then it is lost forever. The only tangible thing to hook onto in dance is choreography and the choreographer. And even in this age of emancipation and (almost) equal opportunities we find that women are being ignored and sidelined – doomed to be the performed but never the celebrated creator.
If we can’t manage it now, what hope did they have in the past?
Read more about the history of dance:
http://www.the-fcc.org.uk The Female Choreographers Collective
http://www.dhds.org.uk The Historical Dance Society (Formally Dolmetsch)
http://www.earlydancecircle.co.uk Early Dance Circle
www.dancethrutime.com My Website!
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sexism-in-dance-female-choreographers_uk_5720dc9fe4b06bf544e11e52 Where are all the female choreographers.
https://mysylph.com/2012/04/16/catherine-de-medici-and-the-ballet-comique-de-la-reine/ Good article on the first masque.
https://archive.nyu.edu/bitstream/2451/28088/2/AlexanderChauvency.pdf Exploration of the Tounai de Chauvency