Searching the words “ballet” and “feminism” in tandem is unlikely to yield many inspiring results. After all, ballet has a unique rep in people’s perceptions of the dance world—as a rigorous discipline that celebrates only traditional femininity and promotes unhealthy body-image standards. There's even a belief that ballerinas spend most of their stage time supported by their male partners (an assumption that I, a longtime dancer, firmly disagree with; the man is holding on, sure, but the woman is doing all the twirling and extending and balancing on her toes). Such comments, naturally, might keep any feminist away from the theatre—especially during the holiday season, when shows like The Nutcracker go into full swing.
However, one holiday show has been getting rave reviews—not just for the performance quality, but also for the feminist, sex-positive plot. That show is The Slutcracker, a satirical burlesque-ballet fusion which has been running at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass., for four holiday seasons. The show was created by Vanessa White, the lady behind erotica rag Boink Magazine and the corresponding burlesque troupe Babes in Boinkland. Needless to say, it's a unique experience: the nutcracker from the original production is replaced in this one with a sex toy, and the show delves into some pretty risqué territory, including pole dancing and BDSM.
For some, this may be a welcome change from the original Nutcracker, in which (aside from the Sugar Plum Fairy, the show’s most famous role) women do not do a lot of the dancing. (Clara, for instance, is supposedly the lead, but dances primarily in group scenes and sits out most of the second half.) The reviews would certainly suggest that this version is a winner; aside from an attack by conservative organization MassResistance, the majority of critics gave it a thumbs-up.
Whether it is "feminist" or not, on the other hand, is debatable. Yes, women do play a more active role in the plot of this show, and are certainly allowed to be sexual-- but does that make it feminist? White herself does not definitively say; in an interview with the Tufts Daily paper, she says only, "If it is feminist or sex-positive or body-positive that comes through...that's part of me and how I see the world."
My own opinions (having not seen the show) are slightly mixed. I’m all for reclaiming slurs used to hurt women, but I balk at hearing the word slut used in any capacity, and worry that the title will keep some otherwise open-minded people away from the show. (After all, being “sex-positive” and “slutty” aren't the same thing.) I also feel that a show which mixes ballet with other dance forms is not reforming ballet's image so much as deviating from it. Couldn't there be a feminist, girl-power ballet? Do we necessarily have to use other movement styles to get away from the negative images that gauzy tutus and stick-thin prima ballerinas can inspire in us as women?
The Slutcracker isn't a response to all these questions. It is, however, White’s way of combining two of her most-loved dance forms: the traditional art of ballet and the freer alternative of burlesque. The show is satire, and satire is meant to be fun, even more so if it appeals to our desire for wider-ranging acceptance of all women in dance.
And let’s be honest: the idea of a phallic-shaped set piece that mechanically produces snow is kind of funny.
For more information on this show, see this recent interview with creator Vanessa White. If you’re sold and want to book yourself a ticket, go to the Somerville Theatre’s events page (click on “buy tickets” in the sidebar).
Correction: "Slutcracker" creator Vanessa White is a former employee of Boink Magazine, not its founder. Apologies for the error.