Ballet tends to follow conventional gender roles in performance and in the types of training female and male dancers pursue. Dance Performance Preparation student Bebe Brunjes wanted to join a pointe class.
The request sparked another important change at George Brown Dance. In repertoire, a class where students learn choreography from Ballet Jörgen, roles used to be assigned based on gender identity. Now, students can learn all roles.
“Nobody gave it a second thought when I said I wanted to do pointe class, and as an emerging artist, to be taken seriously and get that respect right off the bat was so refreshing,” Bebe said. “It gave me that encouragement that this was the right thing, this is the place that you belong, and I could not be happier.”
George Brown Dance graduate Elise Tigges of Ballet Jörgen spoke with Bebe about training at George Brown, discovering pointe and what Instagram and TikTok mean for dance.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you get your start in ballet and dance?
I’ve been dancing for about 18 years, but I didn’t start ballet until about 2013 when I was cast in a production of Carousel with Orpheus Musical Theatre Society in Ottawa… Since then, I’ve mainly been taking drop-in classes and workshops.
I also participated in the Broadway Experience program through Broadway Dance Centre in New York. It was two weeks of intense musical theatre training with Broadway professionals. Those workshops, specifically, helped me really define myself as a dancer before coming to George Brown.
What brought you to George Brown?
When COVID happened,… I really wanted to focus on progressing throughout this time and all signs were pointing to me going back to school…In my search for university and college programs, I stumbled across George Brown. I had more training in acting and music, I knew George Brown’s dance program would help fill in the gaps of what I didn’t know and then complement what I already did know.
You’re taking pointe class at George Brown. Had you done pointe before you started?
Yes —Funny story. So, as I said before, I work backstage on a lot of touring ballets, with Royal Winnipeg, National Ballet of Canada, as well as the Bolshoi and a couple of other Russian companies. During one loadout as a wardrobe person, I noticed that one dancer had thrown out her pointe shoes. So,…I swiped them out of the garbage can, took them home and cleaned them thoroughly (you know dancers’ feet). I didn't intend to use them but after I cleaned them, I tried them on and they magically fit. From then on, I was like, you know, I really love this feeling. I want to be a dancer on pointe now. I used those shoes up until the beginning of my classes to train myself. Now, having the pointe shoes that I have, I know they did not fit. The original ones were a mess, probably for a shoe size that is three or four sizes smaller than mine.
What was it like to finally join the pointe class?
Over the moon happiness! It was one of those satisfying moments where I had anticipated the worst based on previous experiences. I expected so many challenges and an uphill climb to get into this pointe class but then they made it so easy and effortless. Nobody gave it a second thought when I said I wanted to do pointe class, and as an emerging artist, to be taken seriously and get that respect right off the bat was so refreshing. It gave me that encouragement that this was the right thing, this is the place that you belong, and I could not be happier.
Let’s discuss the stigmas around men in dance in general. How do you feel about that and what was your experience growing up?
My experience with dance was very much, if you’re a male dancer, then …you’re either queer and feminine or you are hyper-chauvinistic…As I grew older, I found that all the stigmas and all the stereotypes about male dancers were completely unfounded. Yes, you’re dancing. Yes, dancing is often seen as something artistic and poetic and lyrical and very majestic. But at the same time, it takes so much power, strength, detail, and focus…When you’re in the ensemble, as a male dancer, like myself, a lot of the time you’re over-compensating for any of the femininity that you may portray. That was also very dominant in my acting school. To make you more commercial, more usable for lack of a better word, you need to almost squash that femininity. In dance, it was a lot easier because a lot of my teachers could convey how to be more masculine without saying words like “dance like you like women” or “dance less gay.” That’s very common to hear.
In dance or in acting?
Both…As I grew older, I … became a social justice warrior against everything that was expected as a masculine dancer and pushed toward the other direction… I’ve been embracing my femininity in dance and that’s specifically what I wanted to do with George Brown… I want to play with gender because that’s art.
Can you talk a little about the stigmas of men dancing on pointe?
I think that I thought that it was unavailable to me. I thought it was something to do with science — something to do with the idea that women are slenderer, and pointe was going to be specifically for people of certain statures. I thought there had to be some other reason aside from me just being male that said I can’t do pointe. Social media platforms like Instagram have become such assets to dance. I can go look up a hashtag like male pointe dancers and see examples of everyone…who’s decided to take a video of themselves doing pointe. Seeing videos gives me a little bit more motivation and excitement to see that pointe could become very gender-fluid moving forward.
Do you think ballet is changing in terms of gender fluidity and acceptance onstage as well?
Absolutely!...representation is being pushed forward into a light where people are recognizing that it is so incredible. Representation is so important to shed light on marginalized communities.
I think often of what stories companies are putting on stage. In my mind, I just think we don’t need to see another Swan Lake. We need to see someone else’s story on stage, and so, do you think that’s possible and that that’s coming for ballet?
I’m optimistic. Gender fluidity has just really taken over. While ballet may be taking a long time to jump on the bandwagon there are still moments where you can find that break from the tradition. I’m just really excited about the idea that more companies will be producing things that aren’t necessarily standard… When you stick to gender norms, you’re only getting one side of the story… As artists and performers, we’re storytellers, so when you restrict things based on gender guidelines, you’re missing out on so many beautiful stories that could be told from so many different angles. You never know who’s going to be in the audience.
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