Men in Tights

The Rigors of a Career in Ballet

by Marene Gustin

On most any given day, they can be found in the top floor dance studio of the former fire-house on Guadalupe: sweaty, muscular men in tights, bike shorts, and aging sweat pants. They burst across the floor to the tune of a lone piano, leaping into the air while beating their legs together. If this were basketball, they would be making perfect lay-ups. They dash at speeds rivaling a running back and spin continuously in one spot long enough to make a trained gymnast nauseous. Their physical exertions would wind any professional athlete. Dancing, particularly ballet, is not sissy stuff.

Unfortunately, there persists in our society a stereotype which says that it is. As the late Joseph Mazo, in his book Dance Is a Contact Sport, writes: "A reasonable (or unreasonable) segment of the population remains convinced that the arts are a feminine consideration, as opposed to the masculine pastimes of science, sports, and making money." It's a prejudice with which the men who dance locally are very familiar. Native Texan and Ballet Austin company member Chris Hannon feels it: "Yeah, I think society thinks that if you dance, you must be gay." Adds Lambros Lambrou, the artistic director for Ballet Austin, "The Baryshnikovs and Nureyevs certainly enhanced our lot, but when someone says, `What do you do for a living?,' to say, `I am a dancer' is still somewhat embarrassing for a man, particularly in America." There is the understanding that dancing is just mincing, prancing, and other light activity (read: frivolous) and not the physically challenging labor (read: honest, worthwhile) of sports such as that Lone Star favorite, football.

Of course, it isn't that way for women or men. "I think it's harder in a way than football," notes Kevin Trybalski, a longtime Ballet Austin company member who is cutting back on dancing this year to teach and work as a massage therapist. Trybalski played football in high school (opposite a kid named Danny Marino) and finds the rigors of dance training more demanding. Most of the male artists in the company spend as many as eight hours a day dancing. On top of that, they practice cross training, swimming, and weight lifting to build the endurance and strength needed to perform a ballet. It takes much more than breath control and a certain amount of agility. Ballet - especially classical ballet - requires tremendous coordination, balance, and a cleanliness of precision that few professional athletes could muster, not to mention strength. Ballerinas may be lightweight, but try lifting one over your head 50 or 60 times a day. To succeed on the professional level in the field of classical dance requires this kind of intensive training for years.

Why would guys invest in the years of training and the grueling daily regime to work in a low-paying field that is so often perceived as feminine? Hannon has one answer: "There's something about being in perfect physical shape and being on a stage in front of all those people." But he notes that, in addition to the attention and sense of personal achievement, there is the real thrill of becoming an artist. "I've always appreciated a real strong technique in dancing," he says, "and to see that molded from a rigid standpoint and go beyond that to the artistry is very exciting." Oh yeah, and "It's really fun to do seven or eight pirouettes."

Ballet Austin's season opener, October 27 and 28 at Bass Concert Hall, provides an excellent primer on what is required of a professional male dancer today. The program consists of three Diaghilev-era dances in a tribute to the ballet impresario who melded the best and brightest (and often most controversial) of visual artists and composers with cutting-edge classicism to create a new order for ballet. Two pieces, Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la Rose, are after the original Michel Fokine choreography from the early 1900s. The Firebird, also originally created by Fokine, will be danced to Lambrou's steps.

Les Sylphides, set to piano concertos by Chopin, sports a cast of women in long white tutus and a lone male dancer. First performed by the immortal Vaslav Nijinsky in the Ballet Russes in 1909, the male role is ideal for a very clean technician, since the style relies on movement and not on old-fashioned mimicry or posing. The local version will see Guennadi Chtcheberiako, a native of Belorussia, dancing the role. Local audiences may remember Chtcheberiako from last season's Icarus, in which he danced the role of Daedalus. "I chose Guennadi because of his exquisite body shape," says Lambrou. The role does require a "princely type," a tall, good-looking, classical guy to show off the women who get to do all the really cool pointe work. But it does have one variation for the male that demands a length and straightness of body line and very clean precise footwork. Look for Chtcheberiako's intricate footwork, small controlled jumps, and sturdy balances.

Spectre calls for a much different sort of male dancer, one who must embody a rose coming to life and dancing as a young girl sleeps. Jeffrey Plourde, a tall all-American who danced with Utah's Ballet West and the Balanchine-based Fort Worth Ballet (now Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet) before joining Ballet Austin, will perform the role at Bass. "Jeffrey's energy level fits Spectre," says Lambrou. "Since it can be seen as a somewhat androgynous role - I hate that word - if you have a chip on your shoulder about what you're doing as a male dancer, this isn't for you." It also isn't for the weak; its incredibly taxing male variation involves leaps in and out of windows and enough waltzing and turning to make strong calf muscles cramp.

The Firebird, with its famous atonal score by Igor Stravinsky, is a showcase for the female lead - the title role - but it has two strong male roles as well: The Stranger and The Evil One. Lambrou describes The Stranger as a role "that must be intelligent and physical at the same time." He has chosen Cuban-born Rafael Padilla to dance the part. Padilla was discovered on a playground at the age of eight by prima ballerina Alicia Alonso. He went on to study ballet and ultimately dance with the Ballet de National de Cuba and partnered Alonso in several ballets. The Evil One has the potential for a flashy entrance and Lambrou is tapping that potential by having dancer Chris Hannon arrive midstage via a massive, macho motorcycle.

There are other men in the corps to watch for as well: local lad Tony Casati, who did quite well last season in his first year as a professional; Cornell Crabtree, a former New York City Ballet principal who is currently touring Southeast Asia but will be returning to Ballet Austin in the spring; and, of course, local favorite/resident choreographer Stephen Mills, who has been gaining national acclaim for his contemporary dances. A program later in the season will feature Mills' works on a double bill with Balanchine pieces.

In all, there will be 12 male dancers at Ballet Austin this year, including one apprentice. That's a dozen sweaty, muscular men pushing themselves to their physical and creative limits in the service of art. American ballet great George Balanchine may have said that ballet is women, but the role of the male is gaining increasing respect and acclaim, even in Texas. n

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