Yosvani Ramos in Suite en blanc. Photo Jim McFarlane
Australia is known for its bronzed Aussie surfers, footballers and swimmers but for decades now, in opera houses around the world, we have also been recognised for producing some of the world's best male dancers. From Sir Robert Helpmann back in the 1930s, right up until today, Aussie ballet boys have taken the international stage and been admired for their strength, passion, wonderful partnering and athleticism. We have an excellent crop of male dancers in the company today but also field male dancers to nearly every major ballet company in the world.
A male dancer's life is one filled with great physical and mental stamina. It's hard enough to fly through the air and land effortlessly, but even more demanding to make sure your ballerina does the same. I am really proud to be a part of the heritage of this unsung Australian success story and look forward to extending the success of our ballet boys well into the future!
David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet (and former dancer)
The early years
During the Renaissance in Europe, dance was seen as a necessary social grace for both men and women. The men did all the jumps and turns, while the ladies of the court dressed to impress. Their gowns were made from the heaviest of velvets and encrusted with as many jewels as each dancer's family could afford. So female dancing relied on much gliding and posing – and frequent fainting from the weight of her outfit.
All courtiers took a dancing lesson every day and their dances were exact and rigidly schooled. The steps were simple but the floor patterns were very elaborate. Great emphasis was placed on deportment and manners, on when and how low to bow. A courtier could lose the respect of his fellow courtiers and more importantly access to the king if he was not exact in everything he did. Nothing was ever improvised.
Paris in particular saw itself as the centre of all social graces. The French court was noted for the elegance of its court entertainments, especially those of Louis XIV. He enjoyed dancing so much he insisted that all who attended his court should be accomplished dancers, and went on to found the first academy of dancing, allowing ballet to develop into a true theatrical art. It produced the first professional ballet dancers. And they were all men – even in the female roles! The youngest and slimmest dancers took these parts, as was the custom in other forms of theatre.
Male dancers became the superstars of their day. In demand throughout the world, they commanded large salaries and the friendship of kings. Three of these dancers, Louis Dupré, Gaetano Vestris and his even more brilliant son Auguste, were admired so much they were called “Gods of Dance”. However within 20 years of the opening of the academy, the first professional female dancers appeared and over the following 300 years, as tastes changed, they gradually dominated the stage, especially during the Romantic period.
The 19th and 20th centuries
Kevin Jackson in Rites. Photo Jim McFarlane
By the beginning of the 19th century, Romanticism filled the stages of Europe with sylphs and other ethereal supernatural creatures, while the men became dreamers. They were ready to sacrifice their lives for their Romantic ideal, but instead ended up sacrificing their careers as they became little more than props for their partners. Although few male dancers found fame during this period, the most successful choreographers and teachers were men.
By the end of the 19th century the centre of ballet had moved to Russia where the superior training and wonderful ballets created by Marius Petipa, and later Mikhail Fokine, would soon aid the re-emergence of star male dancers. When Vaslav Nijinsky and Adolf Bolm leaped to international stardom in Paris with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, they restored the rightful place of men in dance. The year was 1909.
Male dance in Australia
It took a long time for male dance to gain a foothold in Australia. But occasionally a famous dancer would tour Australia and excite men and women alike with the magic of their dance, as Pavlova did all over the world. Here in Australia, a young musical comedy dancer called Robert Helpmann was so inspired by Pavlova that he sailed to England and eventually became that country's leading male dancer. To be a classical ballet dancer in his day, it was necessary to leave home and travel overseas because there were no ballet companies here.
Edouard Borovansky changed all that. He was a dancer from Czechoslovakia and he had toured Australia first with the Pavlova company and then with Colonel de Basil's Ballets Russes. At the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe he decided to stay in Melbourne and start a school and a company. For Australian dancers it meant that at last there was a goal to aim for; a reason to continue with the study of classical dance.
Today the number of boys studying dance around Australia is greater than ever – in ballroom, tap, jazz, folk, contemporary dance and ballet. Competition is extremely intense for acceptance into The Australian Ballet School and other full-time training institutions. Upon graduation, these young men now have the opportunity to join one of the more than 20 professional dance companies in Australia. Throughout the world, Australian male dancers are valued and respected not just for their physicality, athleticism and technical prowess, but also for their sensitivity and their artistry. Male dance is alive and well.