Credit: GG Deputy Photography and Illustrations Manager Dorota Dziki (@drawing_dorota)

Dance to empower: Representing Scotland in ballet

By Eve Zebedee

Representing Scotland in ballet.

If you’ve found yourself exhausting streaming services throughout this year, perhaps you stumbled across Scottish Ballet’s The Snow Queen. With the closure of stages, online access to ballet has jumped, and gives time to open the curtain to a more diverse audience and dim the elite middle-class view of ballet. When you look for it, the Scottish Ballet are creating greater accessibility, but, in its native city, is enough being done to showcase ballet in a way that will interest the unengaged? 

Increasingly, ballet is an international business. The Scottish Ballet embraces this in its casts, and is beginning to cultivate a company that is representative of multicultural populations like Glasgow. The company worked with Ballet Black in its production of The Crucible and featured non-white dancers centre stage in the recent stream of The Secret Theatre, notably Jerome Anthony Barnes as the nutcracker prince. Netflix is streaming the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker, with, like the Scottish Ballet, a Black Nutcracker Prince, Marcelino Sambé. With the shift of the stage to online platforms, could we see an empowering response to greater diversity within ballet? 

The stage is hidden in comparison to the screen, making it difficult to measure the exact impact of representation in ballet. Diversity is essential to creating narratives accurate to as many experiences as possible. We can hope that the exposure of male dancers, and Black, Asian and Latinx dancers, to working-class audiences, can redistribute a love of ballet to those who would otherwise look away.

There are attempts to dismantle archaic, but still prevalent “ballet blanc” ideals promoting White European visions of ballet. Classical ballets such as La Bayadère and The Nutcracker, feature international character dancers, which could be a way to celebrate the diversity of dance, but display a stubbornness in tradition, and raise voices to colonialism and cultural appropriation. It is complicated; Jean-Christophe Maillot (director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo) debates the careful balance between not losing the context of the times and deciding there is no longer a place for certain narratives. 

In context of Scottish culture, traditional ballet could be an interesting origin: the appearance of the Scottish doll in Coppelia tempts us towards a Highland dance, but the nature of the clockwork doll leaves it unfinished. It would be interesting to see how the Scottish Ballet could reimagine this iconic ballet with a different emphasis. More recently, as in Disney’s Brave, Scotland’s dark dramatic landscapes, when accompanied with Gaelic voices and a passionate protagonist, left a medieval setting lifted by a contemporary story. La Sylphide, first performed in the 1800s, wraps itself in Scottish folklore to create a powerful ballet that lives on. Matthew Bourne’s adaption with the Scottish ballet Highland Fling, performed by the Scottish Ballet in 2018, uses Glasgow’s nightclubs and brutalist architecture to bring the ballet into the 90s and continues ceilidh formations to create a contemporary ballet with a relatability to its Glaswegian audience.

The Scottish Ballet is receptive, releasing Barre-men: Boys in Ballet after hearing the inspiration leading male roles gives to young male dancers; representation works. While the company champions the array of talent and tradition Scotland offers in its repertoire and dancers, the Scottish Ballet should do more. It is still a majority White company and is not firing out shiny ballets that position its Scottish individuality centre every season. Instead, the company gives us sparkling ballets, that are both humble but magnificent in their emotional power, much like Scotland. It would be irresponsible to write a piece on ballet, without drilling on the fact that year after year, funding is cut for the arts. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic only homed in how low priority the arts is for governments. Somewhat a cliche, but an important one at that, is a reminder that it is art that gives us quality to our lives. Constant dismissal of it feeds the elitism and finally renders its intentions obsolete to all but those who already had control. 

It is not a question of should the Scottish Ballet spend more time creating representative ballets, but can it? Really, it appears it wants to. What it must avoid is being competed out by more elite, more widely known companies. For now, ballet retains its niche in upper-middle-class, expensive, opera houses. Lockdown is changing this but is short on centuries of prejudice. The Scottish Ballet is pioneering, and change is shuffling along. The void of respect for all dancers, and all audiences, is a deep one in ballet – and cannot be transformed by one company alone, no matter its own intentions.  


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