When most people hear the word “ballet,” the first thing that comes to mind is women who float across brightly lit stages in long tulle skirts. They think about that fifth-grade trip to see The Nutcracker and the way the sets glittered as much as the dancers. With new shows and movies emerging such as “Breaking Pointe” and “First Position,” a more competitive side of ballet is being shown. While these are not always the most accurate portrayals, it does recognize that ballerinas face years of hard work and tribulation before they reach the level of grace and renown we see on stage. A brilliant example of this is Boston Ballet soloist Diana Albrecht. Albrecht immigrated from Paraguay to Brazil at age fifteen to pursue ballet. Later she came to the US to compete in a ballet competition without knowing the language or having a coach.
“Being away from my home country and my family made me mature quickly and become a strong human being,” says Albrecht. The confidence and maturity that Albrecht has gained from dancing have translated into other aspects of her life, pushing her to pursue a degree in Business Management at Northeastern University. Now that I am months away from my graduation, I am proud that I did not let myself give up or ease down on the workload,” she says, describing the balance between student and dancer, “It is possible; it just takes a lot of effort and focus.” Furthermore, she speaks of how the act of dancing itself, and the feeling of being on stage has allowed her to be more empowered. “When you are on stage, you own the space and you want everyone to look at your work, at your movements and your expressions and you want everyone to feel what you are feeling,” says Albrecht, “I think that we feed from this empowerment.”
Albrecht is just one of many dancers in a long legacy of female empowerment in ballet. While the classical period was defined by women as ethereal and delicate characters, this began to shift with the emergence of choreographers like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille in the 1950’s and 60’s. Women’s movement became more dynamic, and powerful while partner work began to be less defined by gender roles.
Balanchine’s choreography focused on women and the power they could project as a large group. His ballet, Agon, part of a series of “tights ballets,” where dancers ditch their elaborate costumes for just a pair of tights and a leotard, is known for being one of the first ballets to push the boundaries of gender in dance. “It was genderless in the sense that the man was not standing behind the woman and presenting her beautifully,” says former Boston Ballet soloist and Emerson ballet professor Leslie Woodies, “They were dancing together and creating shapes.”
Agnes De Mille’s, Rodeo has had a similar legacy. The ballet follows a young cowgirl as she struggles to find herself and eventual love in a world where she is the odd woman out. De Mille’s cowgirl mimics the movement of the men in many ways and her choreography is characterized by powerful jumps and floorwork. Rodeo upset many of the gender norms in ballet, such as allowing men to dance in large groups without partners, and allowing the lead ballerina to be both strong and awkward, in a comedic way.
These redefined gender roles continue to influence choreographers today, such as New York City Ballet’s, Justin Peck, who recreated Rodeo in 2017. His version focused around 15 men and one woman in which the original narrative was entirely stripped away, instead focusing on the music. The men represented the more sensitive and pensive parts of the music while the woman was the force of power.
As more and more choreographers continue to push boundaries, ballet is thrust into the spotlight of popular culture. This, along with movements in the entertainment industry for women to speak out, points to the impact powerful women can have in the art world. “There is something so powerful and so exciting about women working together,” says Woodies, “I know that we have been smothered for years, but I think there is movement that we can be hopeful about.” The ballet world is not only moving but propelling forward into a new age, as companies begin to reassess how gender stereotypes have shaped the industry. These are dancers, but they are also women who hold their passions, responsibilities, and empowerment in the world, which they are now bringing to the stage. These new perspectives are the first step in continuing the conversation.