The Born-Again Balletomane's Blog

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On Working Your Butt Off October 9, 2012

Filed under: ballerina,ballet,ballet class — theworstat @ 5:16 pm
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I’m going to start by saying that at least one person commenting on this blog has used a term similar to the term in the title of this entry, and that today’s entry has nothing to do with that person or with that comment.  The following article was not prompted by that comment or that person, whose comments I really enjoy.

I’m just making an observation that, if someone has said something truly bad about a dancer and a fan of that dancer is attempting a defense, perhaps “she worked so hard to get where she is!” isn’t a very good defense.

Why isn’t it a good defense?  Because it can be argued that every dancer in every major company in the world worked extremely hard to get where he or she is.  Ballet is supremely unnatural.  Even if one is born with a superior aptitude for it, one has to work day in and day out for years to get into a big company…or even into a little one.  And once there, the work never stops unless one wants to forfeit one’s career.

Because of that, saying “s/he worked so hard!” is rather like saying that s/he is breathing.

A better defense of a dancer is to say that watching his or her dancing transforms your life, that he or she defies the laws of gravity, or that he or she redefines grace.  I’m willing to bet that among dancers there is no such thing as a hard worker among hard workers, although I have read that Darcey Bussell, during her school years, got into trouble with some of her teachers for working too hard.  There was a hint of the same comment made about Joy Womack.  Of course, the verdict on Darcey Bussell has been long since signed, sealed and delivered and she is retired and in the history books; Joy, on the other hand, is just now taking her first baby steps as a professional, and her future is a blank page.

Anyway, I’ll wager that working too hard in school and working too hard as a professional may be two different things.  But that’s for another post.  The fact is, in ballet hard work is THE rule.

I think that in the future I’ll avoid any remark about how hard an individual dancer works, even though I don’t think I’ve made such comments in the past.  Again, in terms of ballet, hard work is the rule.  No one who wants a career dares break that rule.

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Too Thin April 2, 2012

Filed under: ballerina,ballet — theworstat @ 5:47 pm
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Back when I was a non-aspiring dance student, there was tremendous controversy about how incredibly skinny some ballet dancers were.  Quickly this got translated into just “ballet dancers,” and thus, “ballet dancer” became synonymous with “anorexic.”

Of course if you apply this as a blanket description of all ballet dancers, it couldn’t be further from the truth.  I’ve always eaten like a horse and never gained an ounce.  This is both good and bad; while I was a good clothes-horse when I was younger, I’m also now afflicted with early-onset osteoporosis.  I’m sure the same is true of others who are built the same way.  So yes, people like us do exist, and I have no doubt a lot of them become dancers.

What’s amusing is that at the time, I remember reading quotes from European and Russian dance figures that the preoccupation with weight was…sniffan American obsession that the sniffers themselves could not be bothered with.  Funny that nowadays, dancers in many U.S. companies look downright round compared to dancers in some companies in France and Russia.

A Russian-trained American choreographer/teacher, Eric Conrad, once gave us the formula that is currently used in Russia to determine whether a ballerina is fat.  I don’t remember the formula, but I think it translated into something like this: a 5’6″ dancer can only weigh about 90 pounds.  Now, don’t shout that from the rooftops.  I’m going on memory here, and you know what my memory is like.

Anyway, that’s pretty alarming.  Yet Conrad, while admitting that such a formula is a bit extreme, says that proper training can lead to the proper proportions.  And indeed, this seems to have worked for someone like Joy Womack.  She was never fat, but now she looks like she hasn’t a quarter-ounce of pudge anywhere.  And yet, she seems healthy.  This is the thing with most Russian dancers: you rarely hear reports of anorexia (of course, there may be other reasons for that), but yet, the dancers are exceedingly thin.  I did once read something about Lopatkina’s diet consisting largely of grapefruit, but who knows how true that is?  Not very, I would think.

That said, I don’t believe that proper training is the entire answer.  As mentioned, most Russian (and French) dancers are very thin.  But these days some are crossing the line into the realm of ‘skeletal,’ and in my view that cannot mean they are healthy.  On the other end of the spectrum, I think there are some people who are “fat” (and I do put that in quotes) and that’s that.  That is to say that I think there are people who are just “big boned” and will never fit the body type currently demanded for dancers.  Do I think that should stop them from having dance careers?  No.  Not completely.  Of course, one has to adhere to an expected body type — but in the U.S., that is hardly anorexic.  There are some very athletic-looking ballerinas here currently, and to us in the U.S., they look just fine. I am far more comfortable watching them than I am watching a stage-full of skeletal creatures whom one can’t help thinking may be about to gracefully collapse into a large pile of bones.

Back in the day George Balanchine was the big bad wolf of U.S. ballet, the one who demanded that his ballerinas have bones sticking out in their chests.  And yes, you did hear a lot about anorexia back in those days.  There was a dancer during that period that I recall hearing about; apparently she was existing on one can of green beans a day.  And she wasn’t the only one.

But yet, looking back through an ABT program from that time, there is only one dancer who definitely looks like there is something going on with her diet — as in, way too skinny.  The rest look downright fleshed out compared to today’s dancers, who still look boldly athletic compared to some of their European/Russian counterparts.  (I don’t have an NYCB program from the same period.)

Natalia Makarova did mention in her autobiography that she lost a lot of weight after her defection; she referred to her old Soviet-era body as “soft.” So there may be something to it — maybe weight standards in the U.S. were once more stringent than they were in Europe and the old Soviet Union of the same period.

Looking further back in time, you see what would be interpreted today as outright obesity.  I read one (unintentionally) hilarious article that blamed this on the very modest clothing the dancers wore way back when, which, the author claimed, prevented teachers from teaching properly because mistakes were hidden.  Therefore, the ballerinas of yore got away with having huge thighs and rear ends.  (Yes…but somehow they also had very visible breasts, and as far as I know, ballet training by itself does not create the currently longed-for flat chest.)

No.  In truth, the women back in the days of yore were just bigger (horizontally).  So were the men who had to lift those women.  I’m guessing that having very trim men leads to extremely trim women, particularly if those women are tall — although, years ago, I recall reading a quote from a male dancer who said that actually, the bigger women were easier to partner because they had more strength.

But still, I’m a bit troubled by the sight of near-skeletal beings onstage, and wonder how much further this can go, and what the effects will be on dancers if they are compelled to be ever-more skinny.  I wonder, in fact, if that is even possible.

 

Crossing Over February 3, 2012

In my personal life I have no one with whom I can share my sheer joy at hearing of Evgenia Obraztsova’s move to the Bolshoi, and the fact that she was hired as a principal there.  So I’ll babble and blubber here.

I’ve never been a professional dancer, but I can sympathize a bit with what she must have gone through at the Maryinsky.  I’ve had many jobs where I  was given massive responsibilities, worked hard, did well, but was not appreciated.  In fact, I have a job like that right now.

Often, all you can do is leave. Somehow I doubted Obraztsova would do that.  She seems, heart and soul, part of the Maryinsky.  Born in St. Petersburg, nurtured at the Vaganova Academy, she grew into a pure Maryinsky ballerina.  She just has that identity stamped all over her every move.

The frustration of never getting that final promotion must have been intense, and frankly I never could figure out how she could stand it.  I did understand totally when she seemed to be guesting more and more with other companies; after all, Vishneva has carved her career out in a similar fashion.  But Vishneva got her big promotion, and somehow Obraztsova was always left behind.  And then Somova came along and blew past her –even with all the questions about Alina’s acting ability, hyperextension, technique, and so forth.  Obraztsova never had any of those problems.  But still, she languished at First Soloist.  The Maryinsky refused to notice even when she made her debut as Odette/Odile elsewhere.

The only plausible explanation I ever heard for this was that Evgenia is tiny, and the Maryinsky currently strongly favors tall ballerinas.  But still, that seems rather stupid to me.  It apparently seems rather stupid to the Bolshoi, too.

I have already read on some ballet-discussion boards questions about whether Obraztsova will fit in at the Bolshoi; after all, she is such a pure Maryinsky-style ballerina.  But I think she’ll do just fine.  She managed to adjust quickly to the Royal Ballet’s style, and even Balanchine ballets haven’t seemed to cause problems for her.  She isn’t set in stone.  She can do anything she puts her mind to.  I think the Bolshoi’s management can already see that.

And it’s not as if other Maryinsky ballerinas haven’t crossed over to the Bolshoi in the past.  Some big names have, among them Svetlana Zakharova.

So that’s it.  Nothing much to say here except that I’m glad all is said and done, and Evgenia finally has what has been due to her for a long time.  May she enjoy it for many years to come.