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Book To Show How Dance Creates, Challenges Gender Identity

April 3, 1997

Sure, someday her prince will come. Until then, “The Sleeping Beauty” snores away, not even a spectator of her own life, unconscious to it until bestirred by that magic kiss.

This interpretation of the fairy-tale-cum-ballet has led many folklorists and feminists to enshrine Sleeping Beauty as the epitome of female passivity. However, is anything ever that straightforward and simple? Sally Banes, Marian Hannah Winter Professor of Theatre History and Dance Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has found evidence from the dance stage that leads to alternative interpretations. In the 19th century ballet — music by Tchaikovsky, choreography by Petipa — the snoozing princess is always vitally alive and active.

“She dances even in the scene, where, sleeping, she dreams she meets her prince,” Banes observes.

Banes will explore the way in which major works of ballet and modern dance represent women in a forthcoming book, “Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage” (Routledge: December 1997). She says her research indicates the relationship between dance and social, political and cultural influences is much more complicated than dance historians previously have suggested.

“While the dance stage often has reflected and reinforced notions about women’s bodies and identities, it also has formed and in some cases criticized cultural conceptions of corporeality and of institutions like marriage,” she says. “Through dance, men’s attitudes about women and women’s attitudes about themselves literally are given body on stage.”

In addition to her revisionist reading of “Sleeping Beauty,” Banes analyzes the ballets “La Sylphide,” “Giselle,” “Rodeo” and “Agon.” Modern dances include “Witch Dance,” “Night Journey” and “Rites of Passage.” Drawing on political, cultural and feminist histories, the new book examines ways in which choreography and performance create or challenge broadly accepted gender identities. This is an unorthodox approach to the study of dance, Banes says, and one she hopes will open dance scholarship, which has lagged behind other disciplines such as literature and film, to feminist analysis.

Banes also hopes her book will increase awareness of the infinite variety of women’s portraits represented on the dance stage.

“I agree with the French feminist historian Arlette Farge, who discusses the sterility of interpretations of women’s role and representations in history,” Banes says.

The discussion, she says, seems limited to what she calls “the miserabiliste interpretation or the celebrationist interpretation.

“If one looks closely at the evidence of the works themselves, one actually finds a much more complex range of representations than previously has been suggested.”

Tags: books, research