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  • Radical Ballet: How Balanchine turned ballet's gender conventions on their head with The Four Temperaments

Radical Ballet: How Balanchine turned ballet's gender conventions on their head with The Four Temperaments

In a historic turning point, Balanchine subverted the established traditions of classical ballet to create a new kind of dance.

By Stephanie Jordan (Research Professor in Dance, University of Roehampton)

23 March 2015 at 3.24pm | 3 Comments

Legs kick high, then slam down with pointes piercing the floor and pelvises thrusting forwards with menace. It’s an army of women blocking the pathway of a hapless, isolated male. Meanwhile, a spatial process is in operation, small- and large-scale; it is carved around individual bodies or embraces the edges of a vast arena, and finally drives an aeroplanes-taking-off-from-a-runway apotheosis.

These are all images from George Balanchine’s 1946 ballet The Four Temperaments, a piece remarkable for its extreme contrasts and intangible oddities. At the time of the premiere, the American critic Edwin Denby was clearly overwhelmed by the multitude of ‘things’ that confronted him:

Unpredictable and fantastic… low lunges, sharp stabbing steps, arms flung wide, startling lifts at half height, turns in plié, dragged steps, révérences, and strange renversés; then an abrupt dazzle of stabbing leaps or a sudden light and easy syncopated stepping."

The most obvious subversion of Balanchine’s ballet lies in gender relations. The Four Temperaments counters the image of woman suggested by the choreographer’s own misleading chauvinist comments. Denby observed ‘girls dancing hard and boys soft’: as in the army image, the leg power, the stabbing pointes, the women showing rather than masking the difficulty and awkwardness of pushing themselves skywards while being supported into huge lifts.

True, there are instances of women being manipulated blatantly like marionettes, turned or strummed like a cello in Themes 2 and 3, for instance. But these are just brief touches of humour, not used to build a character, and it is just as easy to find examples of men being mocked, played with. Just as often too, women and men work together to produce image and effect.

The two male soloists, by contrast, seem surprisingly insecure and confined. They are much less agents of their own destiny than the women who come to trouble their solitude. Both find themselves at various times floored. Melancholic is the more impassioned, driven to violently dropping forwards and the opposite: arching his back extravagantly. Phlegmatic, on the other hand, operates a string of non sequiturs, a non-sense series of gestures that seem to happen despite himself. Both dancers move with something of the weight of modern dance.

But Choleric, the last and the most powerful and self-sufficient of the four temperaments, is a woman. It is she who leads the mass into the colossal ending.

Along the way, lifts and supports (men lifting and supporting women – the conventional roles of ballet) can be read primarily in terms of increasing the effect of power. Two bodies combine to extend and dramatize the line of verticality – the pull between sky and earth – to create counter-tensions in a horizontal plane, to enlarge a movement idea, or to use the off-vertical (of the woman’s body) as a metaphor for danger and the assertion to overcome that danger.

Ballet’s gender conventions become less visible. Balanchine pursues his fascination with the particular formal content of ballet language, its emphasis on line, stretch and verticality and the extension of these features in doublework, and wants to use that content for expressive purposes beyond gender commentary.

One of the most extraordinary features of The Four Temperaments as we confront it today is its capacity for ambiguity – between human representations, some of these unexpected – and abstraction. In this epochal work, Balanchine subverts ballet’s conventions in two different ways: through turning the traditional gender balance on its head so much that it disappears altogether, and through using the vocabulary of ballet to construct an entirely new choreographic language.

This is an edited extract from Stephanie Jordan’s article ‘A Temperamental Ballet’ in The Royal Ballet’s programme book, available during performances and from the ROH Shop.

Hofesh Shechter's new Royal Ballet work is staged with generous philanthropic support from Georgia Rosengarten.

By Stephanie Jordan (Research Professor in Dance, University of Roehampton)

23 March 2015 at 3.24pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by George Balanchine, Edwin Denby, George Balanchine, Production, radical, subversive, The Four Temperaments

This article has 3 comments

  1. Jan Follos responded on 24 March 2015 at 10:48pm Reply

    Balanchine, the Master choreographer in my eyes. Would so have loved to have got tickets for this ballet, but too late now! All those years ago he could foresee what would appeal to today's audiences. My kind of ballet and storytelling. Even from the short clip, it looks totally mesmerising!

    • Mary Dearing responded on 29 March 2015 at 4:41pm

      Interesting observation, Jan. I would ask, did he foresee what would appeal to today's audiences, or did he build it ? How much did he form our contemporary tastes?

  2. Luke Kahlich responded on 26 March 2015 at 12:03am Reply

    While it is certainly is a wonderful piece of work, I fail to see any genuine gender challenges in this or any of Balanchine's work. His quotes certainly don't support any. This seems a bit over reading.

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