Friday, March 7, 2014

Conflicting Passions

Sometimes I wonder how to be someone who supports equality for all people and dance ballet at the same time. Ballet, especially performance ballet, is inherently such a non-equal activity. I’m not saying that most dancers aren’t treated fairly, regardless of your gender, but just that by definition we are not treated the same way. Men usually don’t wear pointe shoes (unless you’re in Trockadero, and that’s men in parody of women, no matter how absolutely hilarious it is!). Male ballet dancers also have a greater chance of succeeding professionally even if they start dancing later in life, due to the lack of men in ballet (a whole separate issue)—that’s just a fact. Professional companies look for dancers who match their other corps dancers; unfortunately, this often means passing over immensely talented dancers of color or of differing builds. And that’s just considering the aesthetic biases without even starting to discuss the baggage that comes along with ballet’s deep root in aristocracy and classism. How can a dancer look at themselves in their bedroom mirror and say to themselves that it doesn't matter how others judge your body and your look, and then look in the studio mirror and try to change things about their bodies and their movement to be better perceived by the audience?
Daniil Simkin, principal at ABT. Photo taken by Rosalie O'Connor.
There is a common notion the world has of female ballet dancers: that we diet so we can fit into our costumes, that we develop eating disorders and sacrifice our bodies in pursuit of perfection. Although often exaggerated, this is not altogether false. Even in my amateur company, I know beautiful women who are completely comfortable with their bodies and in their own skin. They are intelligent and independent. And yet they bend over backwards to accommodate what’s necessary to better their performance, whether it’s eating half as much, or nursing their bruised, bleeding feet rather than give up a step. I am not innocent of this crime. Is it a crime? Is it even an issue, or just a personal decision?

And this is a tame picture! Photo from Google.

Not to mention that the content of many classical ballet shows, such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, largely feature heroines without much agency and male leads who are very stereotypically “prince”-like. (Why Cinderella doesn’t just move out and get a job?) Nowadays, the focus for ballet dancers is portraying, not celebrating, the character and any potentially unethical themes of the story. But those characters are celebrated regardless. We, the audience, want to root for Cinderella. We want Aurora to get woken by her what’s-his-name prince and get married and live happily ever after. We feel a pang when Nikita is bitten by the snake, ignoring all the major prejudices of the rest of the setting and plot.

But I don’t feel wrong dancing ballet. There is absolutely nothing I can feel guilty for in pushing myself and trying my best. I love performing classical ballets. Personally, when I dance a villain, or even a member of the corps I can celebrate my character, even if the audience doesn’t. I can complain about my aching feet all I want, but in the end I still ribbon up my pointes. I do not feel that the actual act or process of dancing ballet or performing for a ballet company is unfair.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote. Photo from Google.
Fortunately, there are still some popular ballets with heroines that are both lovable and independent: Kitri from Don Quixote, Sylvia from Sylvia, along with newer ballets with more modern themes. (Anyone interested in doing choreo for a ballet of Frozen? I freaking love Frozen.) And fortunately, a serious dancer knows that to be able to keep dancing, he or she needs to keep their body strong. I don’t know if there is a cut-and-dry, get out jail free solution for this. Most likely there isn’t one concrete, logical argument that frees us from worrying about celebrating discriminatory themes, and indirectly encouraging a practice that makes objects of men and women’s bodies. What I do know is this: I am doing what I want to be doing. I am doing what I love to be doing. And if you do ballet, no matter what gender, race, or body type you are, you can say the same.

Misty Copeland, soloist with ABT. Photo from Joel Minden's website. 

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