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Suppression to celebration: ballet and modern womanhood

“Ballet is woman” said George Balanchine, the father of American ballet, but is it?

By Sophie Halford

“Ballet is woman” seems hardly enough to encompass the voice and diversity of a whole identifying gender; yet few images, and few stereotypes, are more universally recognisable than that of the ballerina. Tools of the trade – the tutu and pointe shoes – alongside exaggeratedly effeminate ideals, mark her stereotype out from the rest and are well-documented on a historical and international level. Ballet was woman, but how truthfully so? And how can this hold up under modern scrutiny? With today’s artists being some of the most socially-aware, equality-driven figures with a public platform where, in terms of modern womanhood, does the ballet industry stand between suppression and celebration?

Classical ballet is an artform of contrast. As a codified approach to dance, ballet is simultaneously historic and modern, emotional and technical. Performances explore a diverse range of topics and the dancers’ pursuit of artistry and technique takes many years of rigorous training. Ballet originated in the 15th century Italian renaissance as a variation of courtly dancing, blooming under the French monarchy of Louis XIV, and transforming in the 19th century with the arrival of the romantic era. Here, with the invention of tip-toe dancing pointework and repertoire titles performed to this day (for example the tragic romance Giselle and ghostly fairy-tale La Sylphide), also came the creation of the celebrity persona of the ballerina – effeminate womanhood idolised on stage. Rival stars of the period, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, became some of the first women to develop large-scale public followings, even featuring on merchandise such as snuff boxes and dolls. Ballerinas portrayed hyper-feminine characters – innocent young beauties, spirits, and later princesses. They were celebrated onstage and yet were supressed by traditionalistic attitudes toward beauty, body image standards, and behaviour.

Fast forward a few centuries and George Balanchine (also known as Mr. B.) was a Soviet born, American defecting dancer and choreographer whose work honoured the heritage of Russian ballet, while reinterpreting it at a time of historically increasing Cold War tensions. Under Balanchine’s style, movements were bigger and faster than ever before, legs were higher, and range more extreme. Enhanced by trends of minimalism and the invention of lycra, costumes were shorter, form-fitting, and more revealing than ever before. On stage he made the female dancer the focus, while off stage he was somewhat a womaniser and notoriously married several of his own muses. Alongside “Ballet is Woman”, Balanchine can also be credited with another famous quote, that in a successful female dancer he “must see the bones”. This is widely cited in research discussing the relationship between ballet and eating disorders – as ballet is an aesthetic art with the athleticism of an endurance sport – which becomes a complicated problem. While Balanchine undoubtably promoted more extreme levels of thinness, he was neither the originator nor the only proponent. Even with the worldwide development of career-enhancing and educational sport-science departments, and a lot of positive progress that has been made since that era, the issue of eating disorders in dancers remains prevalent.

via Wikimedia Commons

With the cult of the feminine ballerina so well established, it took the rise of modern neoclassicism to introduce more gender equality onstage and counter another stigma caused by the female-centric image – that against boys dancing. Only in recent history have the number of male celebrities within ballet increased – including the parodying, gender-bending, and drag culture company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, alongside films such as the 2000 movie Billy Elliot worked to promote inclusivity and boys in ballet, highlighting their male technique, power, and performance on the international stage.

It is these changing attitudes that are key to ballet’s continuing survival. In many ways the art has always maintained strong associations with wealth and elitism, but now we’re seeing the next stage of evolution. There is greater versatility and diversity, which is also the answer to increased competition from contemporary and modern dance, proving that ballet is nothing but adaptable – it would never have survived this long if not. In 2018, the openly gender fluid dancer, Chase Johnsey, joined one of Britain’s leading companies for a female role in The Sleeping Beauty for the first time, hitting mainstream news headlines around the world. More and more ballet companies – as many artists identify within the LGBTQ+ community – actively celebrate pride events and are promoting greater inclusivity within the workplace. Onstage, the roles are changing with the creation of new works and as a generalisation, dance appears to be becoming less about gender restrictions and more about the possibilities of athleticism and storytelling. Offstage, there is more awareness for sexual harassment cases in the wake of the #metoo movement, including the investigation of high-profile companies, resulting in the change of leadership at the prestigious New York City Ballet, the historic stomping ground of our much-quoted Balanchine.

In Balanchine’s own words, “Ballet is Woman” but surely that same Ballet – as a performance, an art, a community of dancers, leaders, and countless others – speaks for itself? Gender politics may have undeniably shaped the history of ballet – but as the rest of the world continues to protest, progress, and transform, so has the same industry that Balanchine had such a hand in shaping.

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