Is the dance scene open to non-binary artists?

The bang came in late 2021. Choreographer Rosie Kay announced via Twitter that she was stepping down from running her own London-based dance company. She sees herself exposed to a kind of witch hunt and branded as transphobic by some dancers. The allegations, according to Kay in further statements, are inaccurate and have led to an “unfair, opaque and terrible investigation process”: “I can no longer bear this humiliation.” The other side responded promptly with a letter to the BBC: the dancers complained that their ex-boss “damaged our careers” by publishing the affair and resigning. That’s why they wanted to make sure that “in the future nobody will experience the kind of marginalization we had to endure”. What happened?

At the end of August last year, Kay threw a party for the company at her house. After two years of the pandemic, the premiere of “Romeo and Juliet” in Birmingham was imminent. Reason enough for the choreographer to organize a kind of thank you dinner for her dancers. The topics of non-binarity, trans identity and working atmosphere were already smoldering during the rehearsal process, and that evening there was an open dispute. The hook was the next project, the adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s epoch-making novel Orlando. Kay apparently interprets its gender-fluid message in a completely different way than some of her dancers: the choreographer takes the view that biological sex is unchangeable, which is why trans women are men. An attitude that her employees criticized as a transphobic demonstration of power. Especially since there were two non-binary dancers at the table that evening, who felt disregarded and sidelined by Kay’s line of argument.

It’s probably no coincidence that forty-six-year-old Rosie Kay belongs to the same generation as Joanne K. Rowling and Kathleen Stock. The writer, the philosopher and the choreographer defend the principles of essentialist feminism. Opposite them is a discourse front that, like Judith Butler, regards gender and everything gendered as culturally generated and thus changeable phenomena. While Rowling and Stock had long unleashed violent shitstorms from transgender activist circles, Kay drew the outrage of her own team. In the end, she decided to do the same thing as the retired university professor Stock: throw in the beg. The British dance community was horrified by the process and split into two parties: Is Kay a victim of the cancel culture, which erases everything that doesn’t fit into her worldview? Or, conversely, did she cancel the dancers, for example by using the wrong pronouns, namely “he” or “she” instead of the plural “they”, which nonbinary people often prefer?

Landing engagements is difficult for pros who break the cis standard

Kays Company was recently dissolved for good. But the questions that triggered the conflict and caused it to escalate have long occupied large parts of the dance industry: What aesthetic and socio-cultural changes are associated with nonbinarity, transidentity and gender fluidity on stage and behind the scenes – and has the much-vaunted diversity also arrived here? A panoramic view of the global dance landscape reveals major differences and shows careers on the ups and downs. If they take place at all, because even getting an engagement is difficult for professionals who break the cis standard.

This was the experience of Chase Johnsey, a gender-fluid dancer presented as a female ensemble member by the English National Ballet in 2018. A series of “Sleeping Beauty” performances as part of the corps de ballet and that was it for Johnsey. He got a lot of advertising and TV offers, but no longer had a ballerina’s foot on the floor in the ballet world. Which, according to the critics, was not due to his performance, but to the stereotypical thinking of the industry. Johnsey drew the necessary conclusions, founded the Ballet de Barcelona and is today considered by many to be a pioneer. Because in the meantime, doors have opened for younger trans people. Leroy Mokgatle won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne prize for young talents in 2016, found a job with the Béjart Ballet – and put on pointe shoes a little later. This did not meet with everyone’s enthusiasm, but was accepted over time. The most recent addition to the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle proves that something is changing: Ashton Edwards – according to his passport: a man – wears a tutu and is not as noticeable among the “Swan Lake” colleagues as they are New York Times noticed. There is also movement in the opposite direction: Scout Alexander switched from the women’s to the men’s side at the BalletMet. “As long as you can keep up – no problem!”, said director Sue Porter pragmatically.

A transgender role change is possible at the Tanztheater Wuppertal

For Bettina Wagner-Bergelt, former deputy director of the Bavarian State Ballet and who has just left as director of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, that is not the question at all. When Naomi Brito came to her and declared that she would live as a woman in the future and then also want to dance female roles from the Pina Bausch repertoire, she did not hesitate for a moment: “I told her that if that was your decision, there was no way past it and we’ll see what that means for us as a dance theater.” Wagner-Bergelt remembers this on the phone and reports support from all parts of the company. When she presented the newcomers at the start of the 2021 season, Brito made the second round under the sign of trans: no longer as a dancer, but as a dancer. This paved the way for the first premiere as a lady in Bausch’s “Sweet Mambo”.

How gender diverse will the future be? As far as the ballet is concerned, Wagner-Bergelt is skeptical: “The forces of perseverance are great. But the topic is on the agenda and you definitely have to talk about it.” More and better communication about the contentious matter would probably have saved the existence of the Rosie Kay Dance Company and perhaps created a win-win situation. Instead, everyone involved feels upset.

By Editor

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