On Ashton and Queer Identity

As part of an assignment for Graduate Seminar (a class for the first year students which is an orientation to the dance department and resources at Ohio State University), we had to design a postcard as a way to familiarize ourselves with Adobe Photoshop. Creating a blog was also part of that assignment, with the larger goal of developing an online profile. While this may seem simple to most people, or perhaps a matter of common sense in this age of technology where kids grow up with computer literacy, it’s not always easy in practice. Photoshop is a monstrous piece of software and is constantly evolving–the Photoshop I used to use is primitive in comparison to the version at school. I certainly had to relearn a few things and become acclimated to new features, despite my basic knowledge. WordPress has changed a great deal since last I used it, so it’s been challenging trying to become accustomed to a completely different user interface.

We’re also required to share our postcards and before I do, I have to preface by saying mine is an overly saccharine tribute to Sir Frederick Ashton, so bear with me…

A postcard as a part of an assignment to familiarize ourselves with Photoshop.

A postcard as a part of an assignment to familiarize ourselves with Photoshop. The figure in the middle is of course, Sir Frederick Ashton. The rose in the background is my own photography from an outing at the Park of Roses in Columbus, Ohio.

The phrase “Wish you were here…” is a stereotypical saying we associate with the postcard–though we generally don’t send postcards to the deceased. Still, I wish Ashton were here for reasons beyond my desire to pepper him questions about his work. Ashton was homosexual (which was no secret) and part of me wonders if his sexual identity has fostered a lack of interest in scholarly writing about his work. In comparison to his contemporary George Balanchine, there’s a distinct absence of literature when it comes to Ashton. I often wonder if Balanchine, a Russian-born immigrant who had assimilated into New York, had five wives, countless beautiful ballerinas as muses, and a fast-paced, expansive style of ballet to call American was the poster child of heteronormative behavior. Who would be interested in an old-fashioned, hopeless romantic, queer English man who liked the little intricate steps?

And yet, ballet has a history filled with queer identities. Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Kirstein, Bruhn, Nureyev, Robbins, to name some men (women are lesser known, though the lesbian Swan Queen is not a myth–she is very real and not in the manner of Darron Arronofsky’s film Black Swan, which ostentatiously appropriated the image of lesbian ballerinas for the male gaze). Ashton is arguably the most well known gay choreographer of classical ballet and yet I can count the number of books about his work on one hand, most of which were published before his death. Given the proliferation of his ballets to major companies around the world (American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, Australian National Ballet, Bolshoi Theatre, Mariinsky Theatre–the list goes on), I fail to find a legitimate explanation for the dearth of interest.

There are of course other factors involved–Balanchine’s repertory is huge which lends itself to widespread appeal. Also, many feel that Ashton’s wit and humor aren’t appreciated enough, similar to how comedies are rarely in contention for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards. I wouldn’t know how to argue in favor of good comedy, but I do feel strongly about diversifying the choreographic voices that are influencing the 21st century canon, which means celebrating Ashton’s queerness.

So my postcard has Ashton as a sort of spectral fairy, a crown of flowers on his head, the background a magnificent rose (he loved Isadora Duncan and rose petals show up more than once in his work). I wish he was here to experience the progress the world has made in accepting homosexuality and to be able to choreograph with that sense of liberation. Who knows what he could’ve accomplished had he not had to face systemic discrimination based on his sexual identity. Ashton’s achievements laid a foundation for future queer ballet choreographers to build upon, but he’s not receiving credit for this. At this rate, we may never see a ballet with themes of homosexual love in a classical context. Sure, same-sex partnering is explored in contemporary choreography, but I for one don’t think the danse d’école should be reserved for a select few. It’s just movement–it should be available to anybody to use as a mode of expression.

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