Wednesday 12 March 2014

The shape of grace - by H.M. Castor

Vaslav Nijinsky (1889/90-1950) & Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978)
in 'Le Spectre de la Rose', 1911
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Since today is the birthday of Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most famous dancers in history, I thought I’d write a post about ballet and, in particular, about one way in which the dance world has changed since Nijinsky was at the height of his career, a century ago.

Ballet, as you may have seen, has been in the spotlight recently (pardon the pun). Last month Channel 4 aired a series called Big Ballet, in which ex-dancers Wayne Sleep and Monica Loughman coached amateurs who were considered ‘oversized’ for professional dance training, and cast them in a special performance of Swan Lake. Meanwhile, two other ex-dancers, Dame Beryl Grey and Dame Gillian Lynne (both now in their 80s), gave an interview to The Guardian’s dance critic Judith Mackrell in which they poured scorn on claims that professional dancers are currently pushed too hard. They suggested that, on the contrary, life is much more comfortable for dancers now than it was in their day, and that today's dancers are, if anything, cossetted.

As Mackrell pointed out in two articles on the subject (read them here and here), this is not the first time that an older generation of dancers has grumbled about modern ways. And, though it is undoubtedly true that dancers in Grey and Lynne’s era worked incredibly hard without the rehearsal facilities and the physiotherapy support from which many of today’s dancers benefit, nevertheless the assertion that – despite all the hardships – “we just danced and enjoyed every minute” does carry a whiff, for me, of the famous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ comedy sketch (if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching it, click here).

But what interests me most in all this is the question of female dancers’ weight. In response to concerns about starvation diets, Gillian Lynne told Judith Mackrell, “I've always had to watch my food. There's nothing wrong with it. Most dancers want to be slim. Quite honestly, dancers have to diet. You have to be underweight.” And the Telegraph journalist Tom Rowley, reviewing an episode of Big Ballet, reported that the reaction of Derek Deane (a former director of the English National Ballet) when asked his view on the (larger) dancers’ chances of success in their project was, frankly, sneering.

I know that the pressure on dancers to be slim is, in itself, nothing new. But definitions of 'slim' have changed. If we look at this Ballets Russes programme from 1914:

 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…and then at this 1955 advert featuring American ballerina Maria Tallchief:

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…and, finally, at this picture of current ballet star Alina Cojocaru:

Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov 
in 'Le Corsaire', English National Ballet, October 2013
by ASH (English National Ballet) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

…it is clear, surely, that over the last century a pretty dramatic change in ballet’s aesthetic ideal, in terms of women’s physique, has taken place. Some may argue that since dancers today are more athletic than their forebears, the change in body shape is down to long hours of exercise only. That may be true in some individual cases, but certainly not in all. 

Others may argue that this is simply a practical issue. Choreography today includes many complicated lifts that cannot be performed if the woman is too heavy. But this is a chicken and egg situation. Why were these lifts created in the first place? Why were they dreamt up by choreographers (who are, significantly, mostly male – but that’s another whole discussion) who could just as well have created different moves? It seems to me it’s perhaps been a cumulative process: the lighter female dancers have become, the more choreographers have been able to push the boundaries, and this in turn has put pressure on the women to become thinner still. Female dancers, however slender they are, dread being known as the heaviest girl in the class – it is thoroughly shaming to know that the boys in your ballet school, or the men in your company, do not want to be paired with you because you are harder to lift than your classmates. And, beyond that, the bottom line is that if you do not look right - if you are not thin enough - you will not get work.

Tamara Karsavina was a world-famous Russian prima ballerina.
She was also one of the founders of modern British ballet.
Here she is shown in costume for 'Les Papillons', 1912

Photographer unknown [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

American ballerina Sarah Lamb taking a curtain call
after dancing 'La Fin du Jour' with The Royal Ballet (2007)

by Scillystuff at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0
from Wikimedia Commons

Of course you could argue that if some women decide to make such a rarefied and eccentric art form their profession, they should simply accept that unnatural thinness is one of the requirements. But two things bother me about this.

One is that ballet is a popular hobby amongst girls, and they tend to start lessons when they are very little. In beginner classes at the age of 4 or 5, their size won’t be commented on. But if they fall in love with dancing and carry on training with any commitment, the messages about weight will most likely become very clear at or before puberty. I remember, as a schoolgirl, being in a ballet organisation in which every girl who was considered by the teacher to be overweight (which meant, in that context, not positively thin) was hauled out in front of the entire class and interrogated about her eating habits, meal by meal. It was shaming, and meant to be so. It terrified the girls who weren't singled out, as well as those who were. We were all about 12. And it is clear from the comments of the women who took part in Big Ballet that this was not an isolated case. 

Galina Ulanova (1910-1998) is considered to have been
one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century.
Here she is with Yury Zhdanov in 'Romeo And Juliet'.

RIA Novosti archive, image #11591 / Umnov / CC-BY-SA 3.0
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Marina Veznovets in 'Scheherazade' (2011)
by Gruszecki (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons

You could say this is realism. You could say - many teachers do - that it is not kind to let girls imagine their body shape is fine, when it will in fact bar them from getting professional work. This is true. But the pictures above show that (a) it doesn't have to be this way and (b) the situation has been getting worse. 

The second thing that bothers me about the idea that dancers have to be ultra-thin and, as Gillian Lynne said, “there’s nothing wrong with it” is that this fixation on ultra-thinness in the ballet world is not, of course, an isolated phenomenon. There is – culture-wide – a rejection of the female body in its natural form. Thinness is in. If you aren’t thin, too often you are made to feel you can’t be beautiful (or even acceptable). With ballet on this same bandwagon, does this mean you can’t be graceful either? Not everyone is built to be a classical ballet dancer – fair enough. But what message does the current ideal give to our children about dance, about grace, about the possibility of enjoying movement? Movement can be joyful, liberating, confidence-bestowing – our bodies should be our friends. You only have to watch a toddler dancing to know how natural and vital it is to take pleasure in movement. The vogue for ultra-thin dancers, as well as for ultra-thin models and actresses, alienates girls from their bodies and makes their flesh – their very matter – the enemy. Take a longer historical perspective, and you can see that it was not ever thus. But, oh, what a shame!

Etching of Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) by Ernst Oppler
[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Isadora Duncan (1878-1927)
Photograph by Arnold Genthe
Library of Congress, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

'Two Dancers Entering the Stage' by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) 
Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum
 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Greek funerary stele of a female dancer
Museo archeologico regionale, Palermo
Photograph by Giovanni Dall'Orto (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

(N.B. I would like to make clear that in the discussion above, and the photographs chosen, I am in no way criticising individual present-day dancers - I am only trying to demonstrate the general point.)


H.M. Castor said...

The more I look at that Oppler etching, the more I think it's Isadora Duncan, not Pavlova (as marked on Wikimedia Commons). There are photos of Duncan with a very similar costume & hairdo. And I don't think Pavlova would have appeared quite so scantily clad...

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this post - fascinating and important!

adele said...

And what a good point it is, too! Love this post and it's very topical in many ways. I am always struck by this exact thing: dancers were never as thin as they are now in the old days...and the culture of thin is spreading also to opera...Now that performances are beamed all over the world by film, the singers have to be movie star gorgeous. The slightly chubbier ones are less likely to be chosen.. Thanks for this post!

H.M. Castor said...

Many thanks, Joan and Adele. I didn't know that about opera, Adele - but I'm not surprised (sadly). Is it the same for the men as well as the women?

Theresa Breslin said...

Lovely post but how depressing to have to say 'if you are not thin enough you won't get work' ....

Theresa Breslin said...

Lovely post but how depressing to have to say 'if you are not thin enough you won't get work' ....

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this post and these images, Harriet. Well said.

Another thing, related to weight, is the height and proportions of the dancer's frame. Within my wider family, we have some stage dancers, and they are miniature in proportion to many women's bodies - think of the neat size of Bonny Langford, for example.

Glimpsing a musical dance-cast briefly backstage showed me that most grown women could not dissolve to that low weight simply because they were too big in height too. Add to this the need to balance a cast against the height of the male dancers as well, not just for lifting routines - and conformity rules.

Is this still, possibly, a casting feature for the many ballet/dance classes (and their shows) that young girls attend today? Hit a certain height and you're back-row for sure?

Leslie Wilson said...

Beryl Grey was taller than most, wasn't she? But Audrey Hepburn left ballet for acting, because she was advised she was too tall - and then the very woman who had given her that advice said that if she'd remained a dancer she could have become great. Humph. Personally I am glad Hepburn became an actor - though she of course was an example of thin-ness. I wonder if even she would have been considered large, nowadays when models and ballet dancers alike look as if they'd come out of a concentration camp (and tidied up a bit, clearly). I think it is odd, that people on the whole are getting fatter, and yet perfectly slim women are being called 'fat.' There seems to be a mechanism at work that rejects balance, and sets the goalposts at unachievable thinness, which of course puts larger people off getting slimmer for their health, because they will still be called fat, even if they are a size 12! Great blog, Harriet!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Great post, Harriet. Fascinating stuff. We have noted and commented on the down-sizing of opera women in our house recently. No more large ladies with vibrating chins - they are all super-slim now.

H.M. Castor said...

Huge thanks for all these interesting comments. Yes, height is an issue as well, and in ballet it's exacerbated by the fact that the woman 'grows' even taller when she goes onto pointe. Thus, tall women can only be paired with even taller men.

Leslie Wilson said...

I think, though, the height issue is more valid than the extreme thinness: ballet is bad enough for the frame, but proportion does make a difference, and I believe that smaller women are better able to stand up to the strain of the dance? I do wonder, though, how far frankly emaciated women can have adequate muscle, and with opera, too; being so very thin surely takes away from the physical stamina necessary for the job?

Catherine Johnson said...

Great post Harriet, so interesting, but I suppose not surprsing that ballet mirrors societies obsession with thinness. One waits and hopes there will be a change in fashion, perhaps as food becomes more expensive and scarce?