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  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

The Siren and How Men Choreograph Women in Ballet

Last night I watched New York City Ballet’s digital "Three Sides to Balanchine" series opener, “Prodigal Son.” I was absolutely thrilled to see Daniel Ulbricht as the son, but honestly the reason I love this ballet is for the ballerina- the Siren. Although typically danced by a tall woman, women of all sizes and shapes are often drawn to this role, the movement and sensual power a dance version of the siren’s song. Theresa Reichlen was lovely, and although admittedly I was hoping Maria Kowroski would be dancing the role, I was completely satisfied by Reichlen and her alluring looks towards the audience at just the right moments.

Something at the forefront of my mind these days when I watch ballets is, “how would gen Z feel about this?” Our much more woke successors will determine which of these ballets makes it and which fall out of the rep. On the one hand, the Biblical parable of the prodigal son can be interpreted to transcend gender, class, race, etc. as it feels allegorical as opposed to literal. However, adding a physical interpretation with human dancers, men and women, raises a lot of different reactions in me. I couldn’t help but watch the siren this time as the male interpretation of what a powerful woman is supposed to look like- tall, thin, scantily clad- as opposed to what I think of a powerful woman as, which is usually just confident and bold. The traditional typecasting and of course the traditional ballet aesthetic supports this male- created dream, the patriarchal projection of a sensual woman. I personally would never be offended or even think twice about casting a shorter woman, man or nonbinary dancer en pointe in this role- with the right personality and coaching of course.

If I was a director, I would love to put this ballet on a program about strong female characters, as the siren is one of those far a few between women in a ballet that change the course of the narrative. The siren pulling the son off the straight and narrow path paints her as somewhat of a villain, although Balanchine definitely loved women too much to turn her into a harlot that the audience would snub. Thinking of other ballets with strong and powerful females, I came up with Robbins’ “The Cage,” before remembering that they’re really supposed to be bugs. Serenade also is frequently marketed as a “girl power” ballet, but in reality, the unity of the corps de ballet brings that feeling forward, as well as the technical power of the Russian girl and the Dark Angel, but I wouldn’t categorize them as “characters” since the ballet is more abstract.

The next strong female character I arrived at was the Lilac Fairy from “The Sleeping Beauty.” Here is a match for the Siren- a strong, powerful woman who completely changes the course of the ballet by altering Carabosse’s curse upon baby Aurora, saving her life but plunging the kingdom into 100 years of sleep, and ultimately guiding Prince Desiré to save her and everyone lives happily ever after. If it weren’t for the Lilac Fairy, the ballet would be over after the finger prick in Act 1.

[Photos: Theresa Reichlen in NYCB's "Prodigal Son" as the Siren (left) and as the Lilac Fairy in NYCB's "The Sleeping Beauty" (right)]

Similar to the Siren, this role was choreographed by a man, Marius Petipa, but unlike Balanchine’s portrayal of a strong woman, the Lilac Fairy has no sensuality about her. (I’m sure a current American male director might coach some sensuality into the role, but every time I see this I cringe tbh.) The Lilac Fairy’s power comes from her benevolence, empathy, and kindness, things we associate traditionally with motherhood, as well as her literal magic powers. The audience is not driven to think of her in any kind of sexual context from a choreographic or costuming standpoint. She is an otherworldly queen, out of reach, and untouched by a male partner- although in many versions she does briefly support Aurora in the dream scene, giving her “more power” through comparative movement to traditionally male partnering.

In these ways, on the spectrum of female characters, the Siren and the Lilac Fairy are on opposite sides. I think what prompted me to contemplate this for hours was, is that it for women in ballet? You’re EITHER extremely sensual and your power comes from pure sex appeal, or you shape the entire reality of the ballet, but you’re portrayed as a fairy or a sylph or some kind of non- human form where Earthly pleasures aren’t an issue that would compromise your power? This goes hand in hand typecasting dancers as either a fiery Kitri or a demure Giselle- men (and women who have been trained and directed by men for most of their careers) see women as either, when in reality they are a blend of everything.

In my opinion, it’s not that every character has to be at the same time super sensual and also chaste and sweet, but because I have a knowledge of ballet history and the context for these works, it becomes glaringly apparent the way men traditionally choreographed female characters. It’s similar to how we as a society have learned that male authors write female characters in a way that doesn’t accurately represent women. Choreographers all have their own perspective, and I think that sharing many viewpoints and a diverse selection of choreographic work will make people realize the biases that choreographers have. Female choreographers of course have a different way of shaping characters, and more contemporary works either delve into multiple realms of raw emotion with human characters or eliminate characters completely, as Balanchine did in his later works. Some of the Siren’s movements which are echoed in "Agon" and other leotard ballets by Balanchine carry a more subtle version of that sensuality, just purely because of the execution of the movement, without the context of the wild woman pulling a man astray. Will younger audience members prefer plotless works, in which we can value just the steps, to those with stories, including Biblical references they might not even know? Or, will plots continue to drive programming, hoping that older audience members will still come for the name, but be presented as more of a historical “this is what ballet has been traditionally and this ballet was important in ballet history,” kind of view for more progressive audience members? Will a ballet company ever have an evening program dedicated to “An Analysis of Female Characters in Ballet?” I would DEFINITELY go see that.

Also, yes, I understand that “Prodigal Son” is supposed to be about the SON but… the Siren is just way too iconic and honestly outshines everything else.

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