Ballet and the Single Story

evgenia obratsova“Ballet is a self-destructive art, privileging the will over the body. Great dancers retire in physical ruin; the next generation assumes their roles.”

I read this yesterday in a New York Times article by Simon Morrison.

Here is what I want to know. Why is it that there is only one story about ballet that anyone is interested in telling? It is what I will call The Black Swan narrative. That is, ballet’s beauty comes at an extreme cost. The dancers are obsessive, tortured, a bit masochistic and haunted by the notion of growing old.

I work with retired ballet dancers who performed at the highest levels. I have not found them to be the embittered, lost souls that they are assumed to be. Dancers are, of course, individuals. They have different personalities, different approaches, and different reactions to the standard ups and downs of a dance career.  Those who make it to the top are, of course, more driven than others. Just as the people at the top of any field tend to be the most ambitious and dedicated. No doubt there are some prima ballerinas who are bitter and resentful after being elbowed out for a younger dancer like the character Winona Ryder plays in Black Swan. There are people who have a hard time retiring from any career and others who view it as a new adventure. The problem with Black Swan is not that it is untrue, it is that it is the only story of dancers that anyone seems to want to tell.

From what I have seen of ballet culture, as it is a classical art form, there is a great respect for tradition and for the great dancers of the previous generation.  The idea that the passing of the baton is a tragedy is a feature of our youth obsessed culture.

The idea that dancers retire in “physical ruin” is strange to me. Athletes, too, have short careers. They have to contend with the risk of career-ending injuries. Football and boxing are more likely that ballet to do serious, permanent damage to bodies.  It is the nature of a physical job that it doesn’t last a person’s whole life.  But compare the health of a 45 year-old recently retired dancer or athlete to the health of a person of the same age who has spent a career sitting at a desk.  Is the dancer’s body really a “ruin” compared to– well, say, the writer?  My dancer partner is a decade older than me, and if anyone were asked to chose which one of us was in better shape, I can tell you they would not point to me.

Why is it that we love the idea of ballet’s ugly side? Why do we seem to like to equate it with torture? People want to hear about exhaustion, bloody toes, and  anorexia.  Why?

Here are my theories. The first is that it is the ugly side that makes it a luxury item.  Have you heard of civet coffee?  It’s an ultra rare, ultra expensive coffee selling for $150-$227 a pound. The reason it is so expensive is that there is not a lot of it. It is made from beans that have been eaten by small mammals and then culled from the poop. Supposedly the civet’s stomach enzymes give the coffee a special soft flavor. (How desperate for coffee was the first person who tried this?)  In any case, the fact that it is hard to get makes it valuable. Ballet is luxurious because it is performed by artists who have dedicated their lives to it and are willing to risk “physical ruin” for your edification and pleasure.

My second theory is that making the price too high for the average person to even dream of attempting allows us to appreciate beauty without being threatened by it.  Commercials make beauty seem like a requirement.  It is not something to sit back and admire but something to achieve– generally by buying beauty products, perfumes, clothing and cars.  We are taught to aspire to fame. Programs like American Idol seem to make fame “achievable.”  It is something we could, and therefore, should achieve.  Years of marketing have primed us to see beauty and fame as a commentary on our plainness.  Pure aesthetic enjoyment is compromised. (As I put it in an earlier article, “You can not appreciate beauty if you feel threatened by it.”) By pointing out how rigorous a classical dancer’s training is, we put it effectively out of our reach, and do not have to feel inferior at being unable to do high leaps and pirouettes.

Ballet is, by its very nature, ephemeral. It is an experience and when the curtain closes it is gone. That the prince loves a swan is not really the point of the story.  The point is… something you experience and can’t verbalize or there would be no point in dancing it.  It is beautiful because it is temporary.  Beauty is the perception of momentary symmetry.  It is the recognition of a perfect instance of balance before the inevitable loss and decay.  Ballet lives in the present.  It is the ritual of the daily company class. It is the high of that perfect moment when things come together and the audience and the performer are breathing together.  Is it cruel that the moment cannot last forever? If it did, would we be aware of it at all?

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