The Dead White Men Choreographers Society

There’s a special society in heaven (or?) for the white male choreographers of yore. These special few shaped the lives of so many (women) and enforced the (hierarchical) systems of dance we all take for granted today. Who were these giants of the field? What were they really like?

Stance on Dance has put together stats on some of your favorite dead white dude choreographers. We present these stats mostly courtesy Wikipedia. Know your history, or be doomed to repeat it (oh wait… we already are)!

Dead White Men composite

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MARIUS PETIPA

Born: 1818

Died: 1910

Number of ballets choreographed: Over 50

Number of other men’s wives he seduced: At least two

Number of countries he had to leave for seducing other men’s wives: Two

Biggest hit: The Sleeping Beauty

Hits he didn’t actually choreograph but that are commonly attributed to him: Swan Lake (choreographed by Julius Reisinger) and The Nutcracker (choreographed, at least in part, by Lev Ivanov)

Biggest flop: Conveniently lost to history

Statements he modestly wrote in his diary: “I am amazing.” “I can state that I created a ballet company of which everyone said: St. Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe.”

Statement he wrote in his diary to describe a lead dancer: ” … that nasty little swine.”

Number of children: Nine, by two wives and a “liaison”

Number of pet gerbils: At least four, probably more

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GEORGE BALANCHINE

Born: 1904

Died: 1983

Number of works choreographed: Over 400

Nickname: Father of American Ballet

Number of wives: Four plus an “unofficial” one

Number of dancers he was romantically linked to: Lost count

Lamest thing he did to a dancer he had a crush on 55 years younger than him who wisely married someone else: Caused her to leave the company

Most questionable quote: “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.”

“Type”: Tall, leggy and very thin

Favorite snack: Nachos

Would he share them with his dancers? Umm… no.

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JEROME ROBBINS

Born: 1918

Died: 1998

Number of works choreographed: Over 450

Biggest hit: West Side Story (the Broadway musical)

Productions he was fired from: West Side Story (the movie)

Political leanings: Sell-out Communist

Blackmail the HUAC had on him: Threatened to out him as gay

General temperament: Angry

Number of times he was so busy yelling at his dancers he accidentally fell into the orchestra pit: One

Number of dancers/actors/musicians/composers he scared with his temper: Lost count

Number of stress balls he squeezed to shreds: 832

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MERCE CUNNINGHAM

Born: 1919

Died: 2009

Number of works choreographed: Over 200

Collaborative and romantic partner: John Cage

Marriages he broke apart: John Cage’s previous marriage

Length of time Merce gave John the silent treatment when they bickered: 4’33”

Favorite way to choreograph: Used the I Ching to generate random movements

Favorite way to grocery shop: Used the I Ching to buy random ingredients

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5 Responses to “The Dead White Men Choreographers Society”

  1. stanceondance

    Hi Jamie! Thanks for your very thoughtful response – I really appreciate it! I am surprised at the responses this post evoked. It was never my intention to make these choreographers’ only story their shortcomings. I love ballet (and, somewhat less devotedly, modern dance), and I love the works these men did. I grew up wanting to be a Balanchine dancer… 20 years after Balanchine died. This post was just meant as a fun poke at some of the major character flaws our dance heroes had in the wake of the #metoo movement. Many great men (and women) have had problematic aspects of their personal lives, from Albert Einstein to Martin Luther King Jr. Having just finished a ballet class as I write this, I find myself again and again conflicted by my love of the form and the people who have shaped it, and the problematic histories that have formed what we commonly call “good,” “beautiful,” or “talented.” If anything, I’m pleased this post has evoked so much response. It means there’s still a lot to unpack from these legacies. Very warmly, and hope your well and dancing, Emmaly

  2. Jamie Ray Wright

    As I read this, I ask myself, “Yes, but does this negate the art they contributed to society?”

    Balanchine was a womanizer and, as he aged, it became creepier and, as you illustrate, abusive. I certainly don’t support that. He seemed to be an incredibly needy man who used his power to make other fill his void. But I look at Prodigal Son and see a ballet that, though created in 1929 (aside from the costumes), looks like it could have been created in the last 10 years. I look a Jewels and I am carried away by the exquisite beauty of the work. Serenade simply makes me cry, it is so romantic. I wouldn’t send my daughter to study with him unless I am always in the room, but I can’t deny his talent.

    Jerome Robbins was passionate about his work in a negative way. Lots of artists, male and female, have anger issues. Yet he created work that bridged the gap between us “dance nerds” and the general public. And, (though some may call it pandering or dumbing down) is a good thing. You don’t walk away from a Robbins piece feeling that the choreographer has been talking down to you or that the work is uncomfortably over your head. One can feel like he is telling your story. The ballet Fancy Free, for example, is very similar to stories my father told me about enjoying the company of his Army buddies and single Czech women in dance halls in Germany during the post World War II American Occupation. My non-dance-loving father could sit through this and walk away feeling included. There is value to this.

    Petipa was prolific and brought many stories to life (though many people spit of story ballets). He also was important to the evolution of the art-form, moving it from the processional to an active dance style. Yes, he was a hound but does that mean his talents as a choreographer should be ignored?

    And finally, Merce Cunningham. I am not a huge modern dance fan but it is undeniable the influence he had on all forms of performance oriented dance of today. Though the end of a marriage is tragic, it is equally tragic that a gay man like John Cage would feel forced to remain married to a woman…and, again, nothing to do with the art they produced.

    We are in interesting times of identity-politics fueled criticism. It seems that we are requiring artists to be good people as well as good artists and that a lesser artist who is “woke” should be rewarded over a better artist who isn’t. It makes me think about the purpose of what is put on the stage, on film, and in our books. There was a football player who was not liked personally (for good reasons) but was an excellent football player and was constantly chastised in the press and by fans. He finally had a t-shirt made that said “I wasn’t hired for my personality.” Food for thought.

    While I understand the privilege these men enjoyed, being white and male, and the many unheard voices there have been due to discrimination (As a Black man, I all too clearly understand), we shouldn’t erase the profound contributions these men did make. Hate their sexism and racism. Hate the times they lived in and its customs. But please don’t make their only story their shortcomings.

  3. cyb

    cringey unsourced unacademic and pointless
    except the 4:33 joke harhar

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