When Roberto Bolle popped out and in of the closet four years ago internet forums and gossip rags foamed at the mouth. Openly gay ballet dancers, like openly gay actors and singers, are few and far between.
In 2005, after the British Navy introduced an advertising campaign aimed at recruiting gay men, Colin Richardson wrote in the Guardian,
The Navy advert is yet another sign that we have grown up as a nation. The police are ahead of the game, having started to advertise for recruits in the gay press in the mid-90s. I used to say then that I knew more gay police officers than I did gay hairdressers. It surely won’t be long before openly gay sailors outnumber openly gay ballet dancers.
This is probably already true. But the reason is that sailors don’t have fans who buy tickets, books and DVDs. Though the climate in a rehearsal room or recording studio allows gay people to be freer than in many other working environments, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easier for them to come out to audiences and that their sexual orientation should automatically become public knowledge.
Luca Tomassini, the choreographer for Italy’s X Factor, commented on Roberto Bolle’s apparent about face.
Bolle has an international public. I don’t know how they might react in middle-America to the news that he’s homosexual. In the dance world there is a very open mentality, but you need to think about ticket sales and fans. Bolle is a sort of pop star: beautiful, attractive, women find him sexy. I can understand that for him this is a difficult moment.
Fellow dancer, colleague and ex-schoolmate Massimo Murru has said,
It’s his business. I don’t understand this morbid interest when it comes to ballet dancers: everyone’s asking if this one or that one’s gay.
Though that curiosity is perhaps very easy to understand: among female fans who dream of becoming Signora Bolle; or by gay men, and maybe especially boys, who want to see a beautiful, talented and successful guy ‘on their side’.
If they ask if I’m gay I don’t reply: it’s my private life and my business who I go to bed with. The fact that people think that male dancers are all gay is a prejudice that sets us back centuries. In every field there are gays, and in our world perhaps it is more evident because we’re theatre people. But I’ve never seen a ballet dancer on a truck during Gay Pride, whereas it’s full of lawyers, students and lorry drivers.
So why should the fact that they’re straight be considered an asset? The truth is that so much of the Balletboyz work has been intensely homo-erotic yet their audience is predominantly female. So is what we’re seeing here merely the dance version of Brokeback Mountain, in which two publicly straight men were cast in gay roles, presumably as a means of “taking the edge off” the film’s gay theme and making it more palatable for mainstream audiences?
Ah yes, the predominantly female audience. Though it must be said, Elton John’s female following hasn’t fallen off over the years, though, of course, he doesn’t have Bolle’s pecs, and never did. And there’s the rub, the problem seems to be for the heart-throbs among us; Elton John wasn’t a pin-up even at 20. An artist wants as many people as possible to experience his work, and the fear of alienating a good part of the fan base must be a primary consideration in being out, or in. However, one of the most famous, beautiful and, dare I say, macho, dancers is openly gay. American Ballet Theatre’s Marcelo Gomes has never hidden his sexuality, yet he says:
I don’t think [coming out] is necessary. If they want to say they are gay, that is up to them. I don’t think people should care. They should enjoy the ballet and not worry about that person’s personal life. I think there are dancers who are afraid. But when you are ready, you are ready — when you’re not, you’re not. The most important thing in life is to be happy and live as you want to live.
Gomes points out,
Right, I’m gay, but not because I dance. That’s what I want to tell people: ballet doesn’t make you gay. There are plenty of men in ballet who aren’t gay, and I can do the same roles that they are doing.
Ballet might not make you gay, but it attracts more gay men (and boys) than many other professions because homosexuality is so easily accepted. Carson Kressley of the tv show Queer Eye said,
Whether you work as an artist or a singer or a dancer, those are all really creative places where gay people are embraced.
And the same applies at school, before entering the workplace. In a recent interview, David Hallberg said that when he was young, dance was his “respite, it was a sort of escape for me”. Within the four walls of the dance studio it was possible to be safe and happy. There is certainly more than a grain of truth in the stereotype of the slightly effeminate boy who finds himself at home in a ballet school with his coterie of female friends, yet still has the physical stimulus of ballet’s athleticism. The sports field can be a far less welcoming territory, though homosexuals are found here too… though that’s another story. As Camille Paglia said, “Heaven help the American-born boy with a talent for ballet.”
Northwestern University psychology professor Michael Bailey studies human sexuality. In an interview with ABC News he explained,
There’s no obvious reason why sexual orientation should be associated with how masculine or feminine one is, but it is in our species. And it probably has to do with the causes of sexual orientation and early effects of hormones on the brain.
The angle from some dance professionals and tv series like Breaking Pointe is that most dancers are not gay, but Bailey did a survey of professional dancers and found half the men were gay. His explanation?
Because dancing is a feminine occupation.
David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, has said that half the company’s dancers are heterosexual although he admitted that the company ”went through a period of setting up fireworks” to show off a heterosexual male dancer, but that policy has been dropped.
I think we’ve actually realised what people do in their private life is their own business. Talent is the commodity we’re really looking for.
Carla Fracci who, with gay partners like Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn, has more right than most to comment on Bolle’s choice, said,
Perhaps among bankers the percentage is the same. The fact is that in the dance world it doesn’t cause a stir, at least not much. Roberto is so beautiful, talented and adored, he shouldn’t be worried about such things. He’s intelligent and influential, and I can’t imagine that he thinks homosexuality is a mortal sin.
In fact, in 2009 after the confusion of his presumed outing in a French magazine interview, which was probably the result of a mistranslation, Bolle said,
I never speak about my private life, and don’t intend to start now… I don’t talk about my sexuality or that of others, and I don’t believe that this is part of the social obligation of artists and public figures. I have an understanding and deep respect for gay people.
Of course figures such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carlos Acosta may help to encourage the lads to enter the world of ballet, but both are from very different backgrounds than most Europeans and Americans. In Russia dance is not seen as being girly and the President pays regular visits to the ballet; and in Cuba, someone who manages to get into a ballet company earns kudos from the kid who lives on the street right up to the political leaders. Dance, including ballet, is part of their popular culture. Straight boys in Manchester or Texas who sign up for ballet classes are the true heroes, like mid-Westerner ex-American Ballet principal Ethan Stiefel:
I represented about 50 percent of the male dancer population there.
When asked by The Boston Globe in 2003 whether he thought documentaries went too far in continually stressing the fact that not all dancers are gay, he said,
No. The stereotype of the male dancer is still there. Some dancers in our company have been attacked in the streets. Friends I go motorcycling with say, `So you dance around posies?’ That’s not being beaten up, but it’s only a few steps away.
We haven’t come as far as we might have thought.
Top, from left, Roberto Bolle, Marcelo Gomes, Ethan Stiefel.