by Amy Bell
photos by Elisa D’Errico
After a career as a soloist with English National Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Juanjo Arques now choreographs contemporary works within the codes of classical dance. During Performing Gender in Bologna amid the Gender Bender festival, I asked him about busting stereotypes and the queer elephant in the ballet room.
Amy Bell: I’m really curious to know what your experience and what your opinion is about ballet training, the effect it has in terms of physically conditioning gender representation. I think there’s a common idea that somehow ballet and dance, because people often think of ballet when they think of dance, is somehow feminising, that the training of the body and mind in this way feminises male and female dancers in a stylised way. What’s your experience?
Juanjo Arques: Well yes it’s a profession that has a lot of femininity. Everything is really delicate and the classical ballets like Swan Lake, Giselle mainly everything is the female cast, especially the white acts and the second acts and then there’s a lack of male characters […] But then in terms of technique is not really feminising. I would say it’s kind of neutral in a way. For example [in training] you have separate classes where girls maybe go en pointe and boys are doing jumps, tricks, lots of turns, all those kinds of things. So I would say maybe from an outside perspective it could be [seen as] feminine but actually when you are inside it’s different. There are so many girls’ things that are difficult for a boy to do and vice versa, also because of the physique, the muscles or anatomies of [male and female] bodies are different. Although now it’s very mixed in more contemporary work…
AB: Yes, I mean other techniques and traditions are much more neutral in terms of gender roles. I am routinely lifting men and women in the work I do, for example, which is something a female ballet dancer is very rarely asked to do. I suspect it’s because her training doesn’t prepare her for it or it isn’t expected of her, rather than because of the basic anatomical differences between men and women. These are things you can work on if you want to, after all.
JA: Yes and I think this applies more due to circumstances or your attitude or conditions. Het Nationale [Dutch National Ballet] for example is a very versatile company and we do a lot of neo-classical or more modern repertoire, still in the classical code but all the dancers are more mixed. Some men are, for example, very flexible so they already take more ‘feminine’ training and then they become more versatile dancers. So in a way in the training goes in all directions and I think now it becomes more mixed. So perhaps, yes, you need to be a little bit more female-orientated in your way of thinking to understand or to [know] how to approach it.
AB: In what way more ‘female-orientated’?
JA: Like in my work I love to work with partnering so I love to study a girl because I see what she needs. I get inside her mentally and I find the support or what the boy needs to do to her. Some really masculine boys or straight boys or even gay boys don’t think that way, they are bad partners and sometimes the girls are complaining about this.
AB: But it’s quite a stereotype, and for me a negative one, that the woman always ‘needs’ to have something ‘done to her’, to be supported or that she lacks her own power.
JA: Well I think in ballet there are always stereotypes: masculine and feminine. It’s the code but it can also be ambiguous somehow. For example in classical ballet there are feminine roles created to be played by males. Like in Sleeping Beauty there is one character who is the friend of the prince, one of the royal family. These people are usually more feminine, they have more mannerisms and somehow this translates to, I would say, like a gay character without being gay. I was doing Peter Wright’s version actually and he was coaching me for the role and he said, ‘Although it’s feminine, it’s not like you are pretending to be a woman, it’s because of your education, of how posh you are.’
AB: He coached you to find a kind of refined campness?
JA: Yeah, refined. You have more mannerisms, you are obviously more feminine but don’t try to put it like ‘crazy gay’, but it’s really feminine, you know, like with the eyes [looks sideways from this eyes with beautiful posture] or how you touch your face or how you touch your body [gracefully gestures]. You are more sensitive than the other male characters basically, but it’s not like you have to be gay. It happens also in other ballets. In Don Quixote there is Gamache, a character who is very feminine as well but he wants to marry the main woman.
AB: It’s pretty complex then.
JA: Yeah, but then it’s used to have comic relief in the piece, that’s the way I see it.
AB: The comedy gay, another stereotype!
[photo by Federico Borreani]
AB: But back to the partnering question because it seems a really important part of your own work, do you ever make partnering sequences between two men or two women to break these traditional codes of power?
JA: Actually it’s a little bit difficult, confusing to explain. For example, as a gay person I am very happy, I am with my partner and actually my partner is very masculine and I am more like, let’s say, the female role, more passive. But when I am dancing or choreographing I feel I like to adopt a [more masculine] role, because maybe it’s something in me that I don’t have. So I rather prefer to [partner] a girl as she is more fragile and I feel more in control and even if she tries to challenge me I know how to take it. I feel the power to allow her to dominate me or to cut her action, to play a little bit with these things. So in real life I actually like to be more passive in a way, or it depends… But in my work I feel more confident doing girl and boy partnering even if the research behind [it] is two boys or two girls.
AB: But could you not also explore this shifting power dynamic within you with two men or two women?
JA: Yeah, I would like to do that actually but it’s a little bit difficult because we were talking also about the classical companies. Dancers from classical companies are more trained to learn the steps so it’s a little bit hard, at least for the companies I work [with], to go into a creative process where I research or explore a little bit. Somehow a girl and a boy [pairing] is more familiar for them because they have the stereotypes of female and male. When I tried to do [same sex couplings] somehow it became more like movement or it doesn’t go into sexuality. I would like to explore it but I need to have the right people or the right idea behind [it] to go there, also because it’s a challenge for me to do it that way.
AB: But isn’t it strange that at least a lot of the men are gay in real life but they are so conditioned by the familiar heterosexual codes in their professional lives that they find it hard to break them, even though it doesn’t reflect their everyday reality? It’s kind of the elephant in the room, right?
JA: Yeah, exactly… But I did dance a ballet called Situation from Hans van Manen, the Dutch choreographer from the 70s [which] was about gender. It was five couples, five duets and there were straight couples, gay couples, lesbian couples. It was very intimate and very aggressive. So we’re talking about the 70s when there was this gender explosion and I think Hans was exploring identity. I was cast in a straight couple and my role was very masculine, (I always get cast in very masculine roles [laughs]). It was a very dominant [role]. My music was a toilet flush and [in] my duet I was basically using the girl and she couldn’t resist, she just wanted it that way.
AB: Oh, that sounds a bit misogynistic…
JA: Yeah, it was also very fetishistic. There were movements where I was just pulling her [by her] hair and it was very aggressive. I was [making a movement as if] showing my sex to her and she was just rolling and begging for more, it was almost that she wanted to be beaten up.
AB: This to me sounds like… well, an anathema!
JA: There were other duets about men and it was kind of like being shy or exploring, kind of approaching or rejecting and both in the lesbian duet and in the male duet it was somehow that they touch and then they always go back, that they touch in a very private way.
AB: Right, and that kind of sensitivity was not present in the heterosexual coupling?
JA: Well, all of them were different. But with the lesbian couple it was like, obviously there was a lesbian who was like: ‘I am a lesbian’ and the other one was kind of looking curious…
AB: But is that obviously the way it is?
JA: No, but it was in the 70s, it was a really activist piece you know just to show reality.
AB: Well, maybe his vision of reality…
AB: But I wonder, it’s really interesting that you use this example. Since that was made already in the 70s it’s curious to me that still now it’s hard for you within the framework of the commissions that you receive, within the frameworks of the companies, the hierarchies, the traditions, also of the physical vocabulary and the way that you’re trained, it’s still hard for you to break the heteronormative codes even after a work like that which was probably quite famous, he’s a famous choreographer.
JA: Yeah, but at the time when Hans van Manen started to develop his work Nederlands Dans Theater […] was a small group and it started to experiment. I think you have the time in these kinds of groups or companies to explore. In a national ballet, a national company they have a [rehearsal] schedule where they have classical ballets and then into triple bills… When you want to create you are very restricted in time and maybe you have one hour and a half and then you break and then you have other people [coming in to work with them], so there’s no continuity. It’s a bit hard.
AB: But in this project you can really experiment!
JA: Yes, it’s giving me a lot. iI’s totally freeing and it’s really personal because it’s about what you think about your identity or identities or every identity as well. Yeah I guess I’m learning a lot with this experience but it’s very, very challenging.
AB: Yes, but I guess working with uncertainty and ambiguity is really the point of the whole project. And it must have been interesting yesterday when you showed a movement sketch to hear the ambiguity the group felt in reading your body and your movement. Somehow in your flesh, in the way your nervous system is arranged because of your years of classical training, there’s a real interweaving of ‘virility’ as someone said, and then grace, fluidity, sensitivity…
JA: As a performer on stage I don’t like to show my gender identity if we are doing a ballet that is neutral or something, I just like to show myself. Yesterday the task was [to express] your gender identity and I feel good being gay but I’m also very masculine. I think I have the power of a man, even in social life, you know, I am quite masculine unless I want to go crazy or something, but on stage I somehow I come across in a masculine way which I like. But in my case it’s also more complicated because I think I share a little bit of both [masculine and feminine] behaviours so actually my research of yesterday’s task was to show both aspects. So I showed this flow of movement being organic but also at the same time arriving to points that are very tense or very broken but then at the same time just releasing and finding a more passive way, which I would consider more feminine in a way, because I also feel that way.
AB: But I wonder how useful words like ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are in this context, because it can be maybe too easy to associate ‘masculine’ with tension, strong forms…
JA: … in a literal way, yeah.
AB: … and femininity in a very broad stereotypical way with passivity and fluidity and maybe even weakness. I wonder what your opinion is about how, at a certain point, those physical associations become not very useful because they reinforce stereotypes, and those stereotypes are not very useful in themselves. Maybe we need a new vocabulary to express the complexity we experience, or a redefinition of how we read or gender movement.
JA: I think it’s a very wide question. I think it’s something that I’m exploring right now so I’m not sure if I could answer at this point, because I’m still in the middle of the process and it’s the first time I’m really focusing on gender. When Peggy [Olislaegers, workshop leader] invited me to this project she also asked me that question, ‘How do you feel about gender, about identity or identity in the work?’ My answer was that although I use ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ all the time, the reference behind or the research behind can be from both sides for each.
AB: Yes, but maybe there are not sides. Maybe it’s one big continuum or a network.
JA: In a way I think society or culture, also in classical ballet, always tries to make female and male as opposite as possible but now the truth is that we all have more in common, more than we think. We were talking [this week] about so many categories now, there is LGBT but there is also Queer, there are so many things that are so confusing now and that means we are actually so mixed and we perhaps we’re making a hybrid with both roles. It was very interesting to me to have the talk with the transgender group [Movimento Idententità Transessuale] because it was so powerful for me to see a transformation because I thought they were biologically men and women when they were female-to-male or the other way around. I got really like, ‘Oh my god’ because I could see people in transition and I understood, I never confronted this so close before.
AB: But this is where visibility becomes really important, to be confronted with a person, with one person, a body, a personality, a history… in the flesh, not just the idea of something.
JA: Yeah, yeah, yeah and I love it. And we are questioning everything.
AB: This is great because it makes me understand how relevant supposedly marginal experiences are to everybody, to the mainstream. So maybe it takes a gay person to make a straight person really confront their sexuality or a transgender person to understand how we categorise gender in so called ‘normal’ terms, to make us all reconsider what we think we know. And then it is so interesting that you, Juanjo are starting to question all this within a very traditional framework.
JA: Yeah, it’s almost like going outside the window or just getting deep into the person and even in those circumstances you still don’t know! There’s so much happening and so real and so… I am really surprised about everything that I’m learning here, especially with the transgender people. I was, I don’t like to say congratulating people, but I told one guy, ‘I feel bad if I am congratulating you for your transition, I don’t know how you feel about it, but for me you wanted to become a man and you are a man now, for me I didn’t doubt it, I didn’t even think about you being a woman before.’ I was like, ‘Wow! ’ and that’s why I like to be involved with this project because I learn and I get a lot of information and I can adapt and I can take some back… Perhaps for my new commission in Seattle I will work with gender because I have a small group, a small company and it seems that I have more time to have a real process…
AB: It’s exciting.
JA: Yeah it’s exciting.
Performing Gender, Bologna, October 2013