A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish. After all, I choreographed for myself. I never choreographed what I could not do. I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to accommodate the change. But I knew. And it haunted me. I only wanted to dance. Martha Graham
Ballet is not technique but a way of expression that comes more closely to the inner language of man than any other. George Borodin
There are likewise three kinds of dancers: first, those who consider dancing as a sort of gymnastic drill, made up of impersonal and graceful arabesques; second, those who, by concentrating their minds, lead the body into the rhythm of a desired emotion, expressing a remembered feeling or experience. And finally, there are those who convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul. Isadora Duncan
Ballet is a blend of movement, music, athleticism, colours and emotions. It is humans stretching their bodies to the limit and defying the law of gravity. It is rich in fascinating contrasts. It tells a story but there are no words. It engages the intellect and the emotions. It combines athleticism with the cerebral. It is both classical and modern. It began as a courtly discipline but it would become a mainstay of the USSR, where ballet dancers were driven to achieve international fame for the glory of the state. Ballet is sexual, it is a celebration of the beauty of the human body and the performers engage in a lot of intimate touching. Yet it is not really sexual, as for those who dance, it is an extremely demanding job that requires the utmost concentration.
To become a great dancer requires great sacrifice and rigorous perfectionism: most professionals began their training when they were just a few years old. This sacrifice has been a theme of a number of films about ballet. The most recent example is Black Swan, a psychological thriller about a ballerina (Natalie Portman) preparing for her leading role in Swan Lake. The haunting final image of a white tutu oozing blood reflects the contrast between the beauty of the art and its darker side. It is not the first film to look at this theme. In The Red Shoes a ballerina becomes a star but falls in love with a young composer, and she is stuck between her love for the composer and her desire to triumph in the world of ballet. Recently I have been reading Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, by Jennifer Homans, a former professional ballet dancer and now dance critic for The New Republic. The book’s title is a reflection of how Apollo’s perfectly proportioned body inspired ballet dancers through the ages. The book begins with ballet’s origins and ends with her rather pessimistic view of what the future holds for the art. The story of ballet is much more than mere dancing. It encompasses history, politics, revolutions gender roles and much, much more.
The origins of ballet may have been in renaissance Italy but it was in France where it would find its feet. It had come first to the court of Catherine de Medici. But it was during the reign of Louis XIV where it was codified; the five positions were given their names and written down for the first time by Pierre Beauchamp. These positions became the grammar of classical ballet. Ever since French has been the language of ballet.
Ballet was performed in the presence of kings. This was a very hierarchical society; posture, nobility and character were seen as inextricably linked. Louis XIV, the Sun King, was an accomplished dancer, who worked very hard at his technique, especially in his earlier years, practising on a daily basis and performing regularly in his own spectacles and productions until he “retired” in 1670. At the beginning ballet was for men. The relationship between men and women was a chivalric one – the man had to show his technical prowess while women were expected to exercise restraint.
Gradually the aristocrats were eased out as the dancers became professional. The French Revolution, whose raison d’etre was a hatred of all things aristocratic, was to have dramatic consequences for ballet, with all its aristocratic associations. A new kind of ballet was born. By the 1830’s male dancers were reviled and scorned. This is the age of Romanticism and the Romantic critic Jules Janin was categorical: “.I know nothing more abominable in the world than a danseur. Under no circumstances do I recognize a man’s right to dance in public” And since the nineteenth century Western society has adopted a negative view of male ballet dancers, who are seen as weak, feminine and homosexual. I found a nice riposte to this in this article called Don’t Judge Me By My Tights:
My business attire is a pair of tights. All right, there it is. I wear makeup onstage, and some of my colleagues are gay. Can we move on now? Can we leave behind the tired male-ballet-dancer stigma—that ballet is not a masculine pursuit—in order to move toward an appreciation of the athleticism and artistry involved in this line of work?
On an average day at the job, I handle lithe, lovely women, engage in duels and delight in the experience of an exotic locale. I move like a gymnast or martial artist and embody the vilest of pimps or the most chivalrous and passionate of lovers. I constantly expand the borders of my physical capabilities, and I hone my mind to a quick-learning, focused edge. Come 8 p.m., I’ll fuse dynamic movement and storytelling with the grandeur of a full live orchestra.
With the demise of the danseur, ballerinas were able to step into the void. At the centre of the Romantic vision was the ballerina; the danseur was demoted to the position of carrier for the star ballerina. His role now was as a foil to her beauty and talent. What audiences wanted to see was the grace and beauty of the ballerina.
Let’s fast forward to another revolution. It’s 1917 and the Bolsheviks have come to power. The future of ballet must have seemed bleak. An art form born in aristocracy is not what you would imagine in a proletarian state. But it was preserved and ended up as one of the pillars of Soviet culture. Classical ballets remained but the aristocratic air and was toned down a bit of muscle was added. The Soviets also gave us something new – the tractor ballet. These spectacles were infused with socialist realism reworked to glorify the image of the Soviet state. Socialist realism. Now there’s an oxymoron. The tractor ballets, with their smiling faces and gleaming new agricultural equipment, would reflect he creation of a socialist nirvana. In the cold war ballet would provide the state with prestige, with the presence of the Bolshoi Ballet, a cultural icon, causing furore on their tours of the West. Russian dancers became household names, though many would defect.
From its birth ballet, with its emphasis on convention and hierarchy, has been very much a question of state, reinforcing the authority of such disparate figures as Louis XIV and Josef Stalin. I have never been especially interested in ballet but reading Ms. Holman’s book has allowed me to see ballet in a new way. I hope you share my enthusiasm.