(I’m writing this post in response to one of many great points made on this blog by a commenter a few days back)
Years ago, when the danseur reigned supreme, I remember reading a book that stated something to the effect that until the danseurs rescued ballet, it was in danger of degenerating into a girlie show — especially the Paris Opera, which was allegedly rescued by Rudolph Nureyev.
The whole thing was so sexist that these days, it might not go unnoticed. But back in the day, such thinking was okay. I’ve also read that during the periods when male dancers reign, ballet gains in popularity and profitability. Of course. Damn women, ruining everything.
And then, of course, there was Balanchine with his breathtaking statement that “ballet is woman.” Sounds marvelously feminist until you consider the rest of the statement (or at least enough of it to get the gist of what he really meant), “it’s all she has…”
It’s true that ballerinas really have a problem becoming household names. The only one I can think of offhand that everyone has heard of is Anna Pavlova. Among the men, it’s a bit different: Nijinsky, Baryshnikov, Nureyev. And of course in Russia, it’s another story entirely. They have entire lists of both male and female dancers of whom everyone has heard. But it’s not so in most of the rest of the world.
I have questions, however, about male supremacy in ballet (outside of the fame part). Ballet has never really been profitable or universally popular outside of Russia, so there goes that argument. But the argument that remains is the “girlie show” thing.
As I mentioned, most ballerinas toil in a strange, nameless alternate universe. Only a precious few spectators know what they are looking at — the great dancers from the good and the merely competent. Our commentator said that the only knowledgeable ballet fans are those who have a long memory of seeing it in the theater. I’d like to add to their number those of us who have studied ballet, however unsuccessfully.
That is to say, as the commenter pointed out, that when ballet appears on television or on film, it loses something. On film, it usually loses common sense (as in Black Swan). On TV…well, it’s like the reality genre: you have to add something to get it to look flashy and suitable for mass consumption by people who know nothing about it. And that’s where we get to the “girlie” problem.
I recently read some Russian gossip that our old friend Volochkova was spotted sunbathing in the nude on some fashionable beach somewhere. You might say, well hell yes — Volochkova. Cheap is all she has left. But that’s just the thing: her beautiful face is caked in strange makeup that looks as if it’s radioactive, it glows so eerily. She has a goddess figure. But she has nothing else. She used to wanna be a ballerina, so the song goes. But now she’s a Las Vegas show girl. She is a girlie dancer.
Goes over well on television, obviously, but it’s not what a real ballerina has. And who is that real ballerina? Well, let’s take my current favorite, Evgenia Obraztsova. She is at least as beautiful (in a more natural way) as Volochkova. Perhaps she doesn’t have the Hollywood starlet figure, but she has the perfect ballet body to compensate. She has appeared as an actress, but not in a film that many people have heard of outside of Europe. And she has intelligence, taste and style on top of her sterling training. We won’t even mention her talent, since she obviously has almost too much to fit into one tiny body (and judging from what I’ve read, her lack of height is what has kept her from her ultimate promotion at the Kirov).
She also has a distinctive lack of flash, that last thing that would make her a TV superstar. She is ballet. She’s almost like a ballet nun. Her life is about ballet and little else — at least if there is something else, we don’t hear about it. She doesn’t make a fool of herself, nor does she make the gossip columns with any frequency that I’ve heard of. She has humility to match her talent, and that is immense.
In short, she’s bad TV.
There’s also another point that the commenter brought up: among today’s dancers, individuality is meted out in tiny parcels. This one does this little thing, that one does that little thing. Back in the day, the truly famous in ballet tended to be truly different. Anna Pavlova was, if I remember history correctly, considered to be too tall and flimsy; Margot Fonteyn fought her entire career to overcome physical shortcomings caused by her relatively late start in ballet (and it was the same with Nureyev); Baryshnikov was SHORT; Nijinsky had those ridiculous thighs.
I recently viewed a video on YouTube that chronicled the late, probably unlamented American Ballet Theater School in the early 1970’s. (Yes, it still exists, but not like it was in the 1970’s.) The dancers were a mess of different sizes and shapes and styles. The studios were a decaying mess; you kept waiting for a rat to run by or the floor to collapse. The classes were clearly a mess.
Nowadays you watch a video of a major dance school and it looks like someone tiptoed across a hospital-sanitized room with a rubber stamp and placed the same form of a young dancer in over and over and over. The kids literally all look the same, at least in the girls’ classes.
Physical standards and overall athleticism are very high — possibly the highest in history — but where has that gotten us, really? It seems that the mass production of cookie-cutter perfect dancers has left us with nothing more than a mass quantity of dancers who all look precisely alike, and dance perfectly, but that’s it. There’s nothing going on when you look further. It’s cheap, mass-produced ballet, possibly created because uniformly pretty dancers look nice on TV.
Occasionally a real winner (such as Obraztsova) sneaks in, but more often some girl goes through a school and comes out and gets a huge promotion in one year and we are left wondering why. It usually turns out that she’s not only the most exceptional specimen of a certain preferred physical type, but she also has a very beautiful face. Specifically I am talking about Somova here; however, I will allow that she has slowly grown into the role of ballerina. But back at the beginning of her Kirov career she was doing nothing that a dozen of her fellow graduates that year, the year before, and the year next couldn’t have done better. So what was the basis for her promotion? You guessed it. And she’s not the only one.
So I leave you with this question: do women make ballet degenerate into a “girlie show,” or do men? Or both? Or is it just modern technology that reduces ballet to flash-n-trash? Feel free to let me know what you think. Yes, I make commenting difficult, but that’s just because I can’t get back here every day to control spam and trolls. Please comment anyway. Thanks.