Dead white males and gay dancers: challenging stereotypes part two

If you think that classical music is all about dead white males, or that there’s something unmanly about male ballet dancers, think again.

MSO Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey at work. Photo by Daniel Aulsebrook.

Artists and arts workers, like the general public, are imperfect beings. We may not like to admit it, but we can be just as prejudiced as everyone else. Thankfully, our exposure to a wide array of art forms and modes of expression mean that, at least in theory, we are also given more opportunities to confront our biases and preconceptions than the average person in the street.

Last week, in the first article in this series, we looked at some of the stereotypes that exist around particular art forms and questioned why they endure.

Read: From opera to fringe: challenging art form stereotypes

Today we turn our gaze towards classical music and ballet; enduring art forms with passionate followings, but which nonetheless also carry around a certain amount of baggage.  


‘Yeah, I think that stereotype is still around,’ said Matthew Lehmann, one of the West Australian Ballet’s principal dancers. ‘When I speak to people and tell them what I do some people go, “Really? You don’t look like a ballet dancer,” because there’s still that stigma attached, that’s what first comes into their mind.’

David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, is less sure that such stereotypes are still commonly held.

‘I think this stereotype belongs to my father’s generation, and as my generation have become the fathers I believe some of this thinking has been superseded,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘Over the past 10 or so years this label of the effeminate ballet dancer has been changing, especially in the inner-city, more arts-focused communities. The higher profile of dance in all its forms and the advent of social media to give greater behind the scenes access has done a lot to show the physical strength and resilience that male dancers need to do their jobs. Also, as the nature of sexual orientation has changed with more acceptance of the LGBTIQ community I think these stereotypes of the effeminate male does not lead to such ridicule. ‘

Lehmann, whose interests as listed on the West Australian Ballet website are ‘hanging out with mates and riding his motorbike’, jokes that perhaps one of the reasons people struggle to imagine him as a ballet dancer is because ‘I’m not down at my local pub in my pants-optional attire, in my tights and tight t-shirts and stuff’.

McAllister agrees that the broader public still seem to be uncomfortable with men in tights, ‘although they are fine with men in Lycra as long as they have a bicycle in tow,’ he quipped.

He also stressed the importance of the company’s marketing in overcoming some of the negative stereotypes about ballet. ‘In our imagery we always show our men as the strong athletic and powerful artists that they are and their sexual orientation is of little interest,’ McAllister explained.

Lehmann has first-hand experience of the way marketing has helped change people’s assumptions about the art form.

‘I danced for a company in Canada, Alberta Ballet, and one of their advertising slogans was “If you had a body like this you’d dance around naked too.” And they had basically all the dancers scantily clad in the posters and I thought that was great advertising, because it’s putting the strength of the dancers out there, they’re not effeminate. And when I was there, there was only one gay guy in the company; otherwise it was all straight guys, and I was like “wow, this is crazy”.’

The mainstream media has also played an important role in breaking down certain enduring ballet clichés, Lehmann continued.

‘One thing that helps is all the TV shows about dance. That helps get dance out there, but I think it’s also partially about advertising. Sergei Polunin, the Russian dancer, the “bad boy” – he sort of helped to show that there are guys out there who aren’t in that classic mould as well; he’s definitely helped that mould be broken,’ he said.

Cracks in that mould starting appearing decades ago, McAllister noted. ‘No longer do male dancers wear bobbed wigs and heeled shoes. Rudolf Nureyev shattered this imagery in the 1960s and I think the view of male dancers was forever changed,’ he said. ‘We are doing all we can to ensure that this old fashioned idea of the “poofy” male dancer is as “dead buried and cremated” as the Shakespearian actor in doublet and pantaloons or the opera singer in plaits and a Viking helmet!’


New orchestral compositions are written and performed every year, but the cliché remains that classical music is the sole domain of dead white males.

There’s a good reason such a stereotype endures, according to Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey – because it’s largely true.

‘Oh, that’s been hard-earned over centuries I would say,’ he laughed. ‘That’s very much the reality of the canon of orchestral music and additionally it has been a Eurocentric, male-dominated world.’

Thankfully, the last 15 to 20 years have seen this situation change significantly.

‘The amount of new music that I’ve performed over the last decade has probably been weighted marginally towards males but I would say it’s much closer to an even split and certainly the number of performers within the orchestra – if you have a look at a modern symphony orchestra in Australia it’s very unusual for there to be more men than women in an orchestra, and there are many more female conductors than there ever have been as well, in addition to the already large number of female soloists,’ he said.

‘I would say that there’s clearly still work to do in terms of establishing female composers at the core of the repertoire of the orchestras – and that’s something that I think is happening, it’s just going to take time – and as I said that male dominated heritage is centuries old and its ingrained in the repertoire that we’re currently performing, and as that evolves you’ll see a more neutral gender split in the future.’

Read: Female composers forced to think small

There’s another reason why the male-dominated works of the classical canon continue to be performed, according to Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster, Natsuko Yoshimoto. ‘It’s the actual content of these pieces,’ she said.

‘The reason why we keep playing Beethoven Five or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is because they are actually great masterpieces. And also what it does, every time we play and every time we have a different conductor, a different soloist, it brings out completely new aspects of the piece for us, playing. And I suppose the whole point of doing these live performances is that if you’re there, at the concert, hopefully we convey that message to the audience and they feel like they’re not necessarily hearing it for the hundredth time, instead it’s like “Oh wow, today I really heard something different, I heard something new.” It’s that whole aspect of the live performance – it’s so different to listening to recordings.

‘And I think just the quality of these pieces, they warrant being played over and over. But having said that, I think it’s our duty to introduce new works as well – they maybe more relevant to the young audiences now, who I think sometimes can’t necessarily relate to Beethoven or Mozart but they can relate somehow more to grittier, contemporary music,’ Yoshimoto explained.

Fighting the age myth

One of the other great stereotypes about classical and orchestral music is that it’s music for old people. This cliché has in part evolved because of the existing subscription model, Northey believes.

‘I think this has been a product of the traditional subscriber model of orchestras where their audience, in the past at least, has been made up of a group of loyal subscribers who get the season brochure every year and plan their year and they become regular concert-goers. And traditionally I suppose, in decades past, that group has been of a certain ethnicity or age,’ he said.

‘That’s changed a lot with the advent of single ticket purchases and that’s becoming much more common – and I don’t think it’s necessarily age-specific now. People are just simply far busier, make their plans later, and they’re more inclined to buy a single event or a single concert rather than take out a six to ten concert subscription over the year – and they’re not entirely sure if their plans are going to change and they’re much more inclined to impulse-purchase a ticket if they see an ad on social media or in the paper or wherever they’re seeing that advertising. So that has led to a much more diverse audience.’

Another reason for this stereotype about elderly audiences enduring is because of programming traditions, according to Yoshimoto.

‘I think that to a certain degree it’s difficult for families to come out to a concert as an outing – it does limit people going out at night except for people who are a bit freer, I guess, which means people without kids. Often it ends up that if the kids have left home or people have finished working and are retired, people have more time and also more of the means to come out to concerts. I think the lifestyle does to an extent control those factors, I believe,’ she said.

Consequently the onus is on orchestras to diversify their concert times and styles if they wish to attract young and more diverse audiences.

‘If you’re doing concerts at 8 o’clock at night it’s pretty difficult to bring children because it’s a bit late and it conflicts with the family time and general timetable,’ Yoshimoto said.

‘I think that’s why it’s important to look at the whole range of people and make sure that companies like the Orchestra actually look after all the needs of people, of all your audience, and that’s why you have to include things like Harry Potter or lots of education programs which involve children,’ she added.

Northey also speaks to the importance of diverse programming in order to attract a broader audience base and break down such stereotypical thinking.

‘In terms of the genres of music, orchestras are reaching out much wider than they ever did before. So previously where it was purely the orchestral canon of music, now – being a publicly funded, at least partially, organisation – they see the need to make sure that their art is accessible and wide-reaching, and spans a really significant cross-section of the public. That’s been the big change of the last quarter-century that all orchestras world-wide have had to go through: to confront their raison d’être and come up with ways to be really integral parts of their own communities and their own cities,’ he said.

‘That’s been a really good development that’s led to a really diverse audience – and I’ve seen that development even in my time, and I’ve been conducting for about 15 years; I’ve particularly seen that change in the last decade. Audiences are much more diverse than they have been.’

An ageless experience

Northey adds that he tries not to think of audiences as being young or old. ‘I try and think of them as established or new, because you can have new audiences of any age and people coming into retirement with disposable income that allows them the luxury of being able to subscribe to an orchestra. They can get so much richness from that experience and it becomes an important, spiritual part of their life.

‘The thing that I suppose we’re not necessarily catering for, for the younger audience, is targeting them with contemporary orchestral music. We’re targeting them with music which has pervaded into popular culture and that’s been something that’s had a lot of appeal – the film and orchestra projects, the collaborations with jazz and rock artists and different kinds of artists has gripped a younger audience like I’ve never seen anything grip them before,’ he continued.

‘Many orchestras would look at those and say it’s a commercial activity; I don’t think it’s simply a commercial activity, it’s actually an artistic activity. People are there because they love that music and if they love that music that gives them a way into the stand-alone orchestral concerts and that’s up to us to find that journey for them through the films to the regular concerts that we do.

‘But it’s all about developing that passion, that interest, and that’s something that I’m really fascinated by and interested in is connecting with those people,’ he said.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts