28 Oct 2018
Masculinity in Matthew Bourne’s Spitfire
New York Times writer, Alastair Macaulay says that in the late eighties the “future of ballet look[s] artistically grim” (Macaulay); but then comes Matthew Bourne. Matthew Bourne is a choreographer from London, who is known for his modern spins on classical ballets and musical theatre choreography (Whitney). While his dance career started later than most; he is considered highly accomplished in the dance world. His first piece, Spitfire, debuted in 1988 (Whitney). The piece is set to Minkus: Don Quixote-Pas De Dux by the London Symphony Orchestra (Shazam). Bourne is not afraid to push back on the boundaries society puts in front of him, as proven by his first piece. Bourne’s Spitfire is a satire of masculinity in ballet in order to critique the assumption of “femininity.”
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “satire” as “trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly” (Merriam-Webster). Spitfire uses comedy and irony to critique the sexism presented in a typical ballet. Ironically, dance is thought of as an art where people can express themselves freely. Yet, in the ballet individuality is discouraged, unless you are the prima-ballerina. Ballet is about precision, technique, and knowing your role and Bourne acknowledges the rigidly of ballet. Typical ballets portray love stories between a man and a woman who represent typical gender stereotypes. Ballet reinforces stereotypical heteronormative ideals in partnering, where the man is expected to be involved in ballet performances only as a prop to make the ballerina more beautiful. The man represents strength and power because he is physically lifting the woman. The woman is seen as beautiful and dainty, in need of stability from the man. By the nineteenth century, dance was seen as “soft” and “emotionally expressive” (Burt 46). As “ballet [came] to be defined as an idealized feminine world” the men who were dancers also became associated with being feminine and the number of men participating in dance declined (Burt 49). The idealized form of masculinity shifted from relaxed nobles to hard working everyday men; therefore, men who were associated with being feminine, “soft,” and “emotionally expressive” were considered effeminate and homosexual (Burt 46). This view of soft masculinity in ballet is the exact thing Bourne is critiquing.
To the ear, the ballet sounds common. The classical music feels familiar and expected, but the pops of laughter from the audience feels abnormal and almost rude. Spitfire’s choreography begins with over-the-top masculine flair. In Spitfire, there are six males dancing as a group, in partners and individually. They start in a typically feminine opening pose. Yet, they hold their hands is strong fists, a stereotypical position for men to flex their muscles and show their masculinity and strength. This whole scene is unfamiliar to see because ballet is typically defined by heterosexual couples, with occasional co-ed groups or groups of women. Therefore, it is abnormal to see only men on stage, taking the attention for the entire piece.
The satire of the piece comes in the form of the pas de deux. The pas de deux is the classic heteronormative partnering section of a ballet. A man and a woman dance a duet on stage typically including lifts, turns and jumps by the ballerina. The ballerina is supported by the male dancer who acts as a source of strength and stability. Bourne uses two men in a pas de deux to show that men can dance both the male and female roles seamlessly while supporting one another physically. At one point the six men are dancing in three pairs and the men dancing as the “female” dancers are perched in a feminine way with their toes pointed looking back at other standing males. Now, with any form of feminine move, like a lift or a pointed-toe walk is qualified with slow, strong, and bound tension-holding arms to add to the manliness of the piece. The “male” dancers lifted the feet of the “female” dancer off the ground and guiding the “female” dancer into a handstand. Yet, the gendered movement shifts because a handstand is not a typical “feminine” move in a ballet. Bourne actively decides to make his dancers’ movement gender neutral so that the audience cannot think of their partnering as scandalous, but rather, he shows the audience that men can dance together gracefully with masculine strength no matter what the deeper meaning of the actions. Now, if male couples partnering in a ballet are taken seriously, it would be considered homosexual, which is very scandalous. He combats the possible tension with irony by having the masculine arm movements be over-the-top “macho man.” If Bourne made a serious piece with men partnering using the same level of emotion and intensity as a heterosexual ballet couple; it would be too controversial for classical ballet audiences. The dancers take an entire eight count to bring their arms into a bicep-flex, which looks absurd, yet the audience is laughing. Now, because of the humor and flamboyance attached to the choreography of Spitfire, the audience finds the male pas de deux more comedic than inappropriate. Using humor makes it easier for audiences to not take the emotion behind the dance as seriously. The men were working together to create different images using lifts or partnering. Their strong and bound movements, with the strength of lifts, shows the audience that these male dancers are real men, not effeminate boys. The audience leaves with a new perspective on male partnering, and therefore what it means to be masculine in dance.
Bourne’s choice of movements for his masculine male dancers shows ballet’s perception of femininity. Bourne decided to make his movement look more masculine, so he had to change what was overtly feminine. The men dance with fists, instead of dainty “ballet hands;” and the men had to walk with strong and bound movements, the strength shown by the dancers adds to its masculine flair. Therefore, this shows that women are expected to be small, light, soft, and weak. In the pas de deux, the male dancer, playing the “female” role lays perched on the ground looking back at the male dancer, shows how ballet expects to see gender dynamics on stage. According to Ramsay Burt, “gender representation in cultural forms … reflect changing social definitions of femininity and masculinity” (Burt 45-46). Burt points out that the story projected on the stage is made for and reflected by the public. If the ballet is portraying rigid definitions of gender, society will expect those same definitions of the people attending the ballet.
Spitfire shows that male dancers are masculine individuals by way of traditional ideas like strength and perseverance and yet, they can also be strong when appearing feminine as well. Bourne is fighting against the image of female subordination by showing that if men can play both roles, why do we need to gender movement? This is an interesting question because Bourne is breaking stereotypes and social boundaries by having men dance together. Yet, he is fighting for gender equality on stage with an all-male cast. Bourne uses his all-male cast to shed light on the gender inequality in the ballet through humor and irony. All while not being overly controversial and entertaining a full crowd.
Works Considered and Cited
Burt, Ramsay. “The Trouble with the Male Dancer . . .” Reprinted in Moving History/Dancing
Cultures. Wesleyan University Press, 2001, 44-55.
Macaulay, Alastair. “A Decade’s Worth of Dance, Dancers and Choreographers.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Dec. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/arts/dance/03choreography.html.
“Satire.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/satire.
“The Year 1988 From The People History.” The People History, www.thepeoplehistory.com/1988.html.
“The Bourne Supremacy.” Western Mail, Jun 04 2012, p. 20. ProQuest. Web. 5 Oct. 2018 .
Whitney, Barbara. “Matthew Bourne.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Matthew-Bourne.
 This argument could be furthered by asking why society today associates strength and power with masculinity, but this is not a part of the argument of the paper.
 Nor is it a typical movement in any form of classical ballet.