Right in the Nutcracker

Right in the Nutcracker

Loulou Callister-Baker takes a step back to look critically at the age-old tradition that is the annual Selwyn Ballet.

An elegant foot brushes across the polished floor of the stage. Classical music fills the auditorium. Laughter teeters throughout the audience as a line of young, muscular men in flowing white dresses fill the stage. Several voices (mostly female) call out at the men: “Yeah, Sam,” “Yeah, Matt.” Soon, the stage is packed with the dancers who, on closer inspection, wear elaborate eye makeup and matching hairstyles. Despite the calls and the laughter, the dancers’ faces remain serious as they follow through with their rigorously practiced dance sequence. The music intensifies and the dance seems to become more complex. Nearer the end of the performance two male dancers – distinguished by their different outfits – perform a routine amongst the other dancers. For the grand finale, the entire troupe congregates on stage and the two lead dancers protrude, lifted by other dancers. High above everyone else they embrace each other with a long kiss, to the audience’s delight. And so ends the Selwyn Ballet for 2014.

The Selwyn Ballet is an all-male ballet troupe made up of first year students from the Dunedin hall of residence Selwyn College. The tradition began in 1928 as a Capping Show skit intended to imitate popular London musicals. However, by 1937, the Ballet became more of a parody of classical ballet. A range of notable male New Zealanders have been a part of it, including former All Black captain David Kirk and former Black Cap skipper John Wright. This year, Zaak Widjeven, a second year Selwyn resident and the Internal Affairs Representative for the Selwyn College Student Association, organised the Ballet. His role included liaising with the Capping Show, booking the practice rooms, hiring the choreographer, looking over the maintenance of the tutus and applying for and receiving $750 of funding from the Division of Humanities for the purchasing of new tutus due to the increased number of Selwyn dancers. After trials, Zaak helped divide the first-year Selwyn boys into three groups: “the Signets,” which are the eight dancers who cross arms and jump in the line; “the twelve Giseles;” and the rest of the dancers, who are in “the Sex Panthers.” After five or six weeks training (which, for the choreographer and Zaak, consists of three-hour sessions each week) the troupe finally performed their skit in the Capping Show.

But is this tradition really a simple and sincere story of hard practice and comedic entertainment? After four years of witnessing virtually the same performance each time at the Capping Show, I started to wonder what the deeper implications of the tradition were. I began to feel offended by the tradition and similar ones that involved cross-dressing, which I had witnessed in a range of contexts as a student. And, at first, when I began seeking answers, each person I talked to (coincidentally) felt similarly offended.

One past resident of Selwyn viewed both the practice and the resulting performance of the tradition as “deeply transphobic and misogynist.” When I asked her why, she told me that her opinion was formed “for the simple reason that when you analyse why it is undertaken as a tradition it is mostly for the humour. To find it funny for men to be in dresses and ‘demean’ themselves in such a way discredits and undermines femininity.” The past Selwyn resident went on to claim that these traditions “seem to insist on maintaining gender divisions,” resulting in limitations on, or outright exclusion in, participation for female students.

After experiencing first hand some of the socially backward traditions certain halls can desperately cling onto (I can already hear the “what’s your problem – it’s tradition! Just go back to the kitchen already” comments), I understood where this past Selwyn resident was coming from. But, when I then turned to the people who, in one way or the other, situate their career around gender politics and identities, I was surprised. The experts blurred what I thought was a clear black and white situation into a mass of grey. It turns out that the Selwyn Ballet has the potential to not be entirely offensive (although, as most non-Selwyn residents may claim, whether it’s that entertaining remains slightly
more ambiguous).

What immediately became apparent after talking to both Gender Studies Associate Professor Chris Brickell and OUSA Queer Support Coordinator Niell Ballantyne was the importance of intention and preceding interpretation. “What is complicated to get a handle on is that ‘drag’ has a whole lot of different meanings for different groups and it depends on the time and the context,” Chris Brickell explained. “There could well be a context where the way it’s enacted is a putdown of women and femininity and there are other moments where it could be seen as a parody of masculinity as well. It depends on what the intent is, who’s watching, how it’s played out, what jokes are made.”

Brickell, the author of Mates and Lovers, which is the first book on gay male history in New Zealand, then provided me with a brief history of the practice of cross-dressing and performing: “If we want to look at even earlier historical roots we might want to think about pre-restoration theatre – pre Shakespeare’s time or even including it. At this point young women weren’t allowed to perform on stage so young men had to dress up and perform as young women. This came to an end in the 17th century, but the tradition of male actors dressing up as females continued on and never entirely
died away.”

“In the early part of the 20th century there were two forms of drag that were really popular – one was men dressing as women (and sometimes women dressing as men), the other was white people dressing in blackface, especially in minstrel shows.” Despite the popularity of blackface in New Zealand, this died out as “attitudes towards race relations changed over time. Blackface is mostly gone and most people now would find it really offensive, but it was the gender crossing that stayed.”

Another example of cross-dressing and performing occurred during the wars at concert parties where men would often dress up as both men and women due to the lack of women around to play the female roles. “A number of men in that context would make careers for themselves as drag performers,” Brickell explained. “The soldiers would love it. The skill of it was to not be seen to be a man in a dress but to give the impression of a woman. To add another twist, often – certainly in New Zealand’s history – female impersonators were gay men who were bringing the drag tradition out of gay culture and putting it on the stage, but under the cover of the lack of women to play these roles. This could be seen by various people as an expression of cross-dressing theatre tradition and an expression of a gay subculture – particularly in the second world war – coexisting. These performances could be understood in different ways depending on who was doing the performing and who was doing the interpreting.” Reflecting on this tradition in relation to the Selwyn Ballet, Brickell added: “As a phenomenon, it’s really, really complex. It can be hard to work out what the true meaning of it is, and sometimes there isn’t even a
‘true’ meaning.”

After being provided some historical contexts of cross-dressing in New Zealand, it became clear that while it was necessary to look at these traditions critically and create awareness of potential negative impacts, whether they actually perpetuated certain gender stereotypes or offended certain people remained very difficult to determine. Each time I asked whether a particular practice should be viewed negatively, Brickell felt it very much depended on what way I looked at it. “If I was wearing a historian’s hat I wouldn’t want to make a judgment call about whether the Ballet was negative or not,” he stated. “I would be more interested in the dynamics that were going on and why they are and what that has to say about contemporary meanings of masculinity and femininity.”

Although there was a strong feminist critique – particularly in the 1980s – that suggested that men dressing in drag was a way of minimising femininity because of the way it appropriated women’s lives and identities, this view can’t apply in every situation. As Brickell added, “I would suspect that it could even be that the meaning and significance of something like the Selwyn Ballet has changed over time as ideas about gender have changed over time. Or maybe it’s possible that ideas about gender haven’t changed as much as we would have liked. But it’s difficult. This is when we would need a microphone in the audience in 1928 and a microphone in the audience now to get a sense of what the Ballet means to the people who are watching it. Then we would need to take the same microphone into the changing room and to see what conversations are being had to work out whether the inflections of the show have changed over time. For example the assertion of masculinity is newer, so there’s a newer dynamic there than there was in 1928. So something has changed in what it means to be a man in a tutu.”

In terms of the Selwyn Ballet there could be something radical going on if is viewed as a way for men to get an insight into the way masculinity compels them to move and express themselves in particular ways. “Of course masculinity isn’t performed, it just is. So you’re not meant to ask too many questions,” Brickell explained. “When you look at masculinity as a thing it undermines masculinity’s claim to being inevitable and natural. It’s not meant to be named and it’s not meant to be dissected. But it’s not very helpful to not being able to talk about this.”

Although Brickell provided me with interesting and useful insights into the history and potential gender politics of cross-dressing in performance, I wondered what someone who was actually involved in the Ballet thought. When I asked Zaak if anyone hesitated about performing in the Ballet he replied, “some of the guys are a bit reluctant to do it to start with because it’s a bit unmanly but they end up becoming addicted to the performances – especially after they hear people cheering.” In the same vein (and hinting at issues of gender politics) I then asked Zaak if he had heard of anyone being offended by the Ballet: “On the last nights the guys get a bit cheeky and do it nudie – but they’re still covered. It’s all in good humour – I don’t think anyone takes it too seriously. We perform it properly but on the last night we want to have some fun with it.” Later Zaak told me that some guys in the troupe “got a bit of shit for it from their mates – like calling them girls or a bit of a pussy for putting makeup on – but people respect that it’s tradition.” Yet, despite comments both by the Selwyn dancers and to them, Zaak still respected male dancers after appreciating the sheer physical strength needed to hold even the most basic of positions.

Although Zaak and a majority of the Selwyn Ballet participants might not be aware of how the Ballet could negatively perpetuate stereotypes and cause issues for those who identify with different genders and sexualities, part of the problem is a lack of awareness due to minimal exposure to these ideas at school and even within certain courses at university. Furthermore, while there is room to perceive the Selwyn Ballet as an interesting tradition involving the exploration of gender identity (this is being optimistic), there exist other student cross-dressing traditions that are clearly offensive.

The tradition of Miss Natural Justice at the University of Otago’s second-year Law Camp, for example, is wayward – not to mention scarring (unannounced flashings of testicles are almost never pleasant) if you’re not expecting it – well, even if you are, too. The year I [wish I hadn’t] witnessed Miss Natural Justice, involved a male being selected from each group, dressing up in feminine attire then stripping until completely naked. The sloppiness and the feeling that the “contestants” felt immense pressure to perform, and therefore were often intoxicated to the point of barely standing, made the entire experience mortifying. However, as a female, what was the most frustrating aspect of the experience was the fact that when a female student did a striptease as a part of the talent show (held at a different point during the weekend) instead of general congratulation (like the Miss Natural Justice contestants had received) people speculated whether she would ever be able to let that down – some believed she would have that reputation for the rest of her university years. When I brought this up with Brickell he agreed that these double standards make the interpretation or enjoyment of the performance quite tricky: “Images of maleness aren’t meant to be laughed at in a way that perhaps images of femaleness are seen as fair game. So I think there is a gender politics element in there. Even the double standard that men are meant to be sexual and women aren’t – men are allowed to be naked and women aren’t.” There remain countless reports of other cross-dressing performances in the student community that seem more problematic - such as a story my flatmate told me of a Carrington RA losing a bet and having to dress up in a “town dress” then read aloud a list of apparently “embarrassing” things (including “I am gay”).

Whenever we look at these big- or small-scale performances it remains to be asked what the intentions of the people performing are and how is the audience interpreting it. During this process, it’s undeniable that there may be complications. There also may be no true meanings behind them all. But when a past popular tradition like blackface has become so obviously offensive now, it remains a question as to just what makes cross-dressing performances
so ambiguous.
This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2014.
Posted 5:12pm Sunday 20th July 2014 by Loulou Callister-Baker.