Thursday, May 22, 2008

The real face--and sound--of Russian ballet

The online trailer to David Kinsella's new film about Russian ballet, A Beautiful Tragedy, shows a young woman who is training at one of Russia's premier ballet schools. Against a background of piano music we see her beautiful, expressive face contort with effort as she works. And we hear--most extraordinarily--her panting. It's the sound of ballet, a sound you don't hear from the audience at a performance. It's the sound of a young athlete and artist working to her fullest capacity.

We also see her face, and the faces of several other young dancers in the film. They have the gaunt and haunted eyes, the protruding bones, of anorexia. According to Kinsella, dancers at this school in Russia must keep their BMIs down to about 14. These young, growing girls learn to punish themselves, to starve, to obsess about fat, all in the name of beauty. A particular notion of beauty.

I'm glad I'm not a ballet lover, because I don't think I could sit through another ballet without seeing these girls' faces and hearing, in my mind, the sound of that determined, exhausted breathing.


Anonymous said...

I don't buy the common statement that ballerinas must be super-super-thin to dance well on pointe or for them to jump higher or for the men to lift them. Anna Pavlova and Margot Fonteyn were perfectly able to be two of the greatest ballet dancers ever and they were not super-thin. The same with all of the great pre-1970s dancers. They were definitely slender, yes, but nowhere near the thinness 'required' today. (Though not all ballet companies require it - it is mostly a Russian influence thing.)

Requiring all the dancers to be thin is several things: a way to have uniformity in your corps de ballet - make everyone equally thin; a fashion; and enforcement of control and elitism.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't able to watch the trailer, but I read the rest of the material. "Perfect legs"!? What does that even mean? This is infuriating.

Sacrifice, fine, dedication, fine, determined panting, fine. But the other stuff that allegedly goes on at that school? "Stretching" people and arbitrarily deciding that one of them has "perfect legs" and forcing them to maintain weights below what their doctors deem advisable? That's something else. Way else. It disturbs me that what could, if true, only be called pathology, is being dignified with words like "sacrifice" and "beautiful tragedy."

Ballet has become a specialized, exotic taste--a fetish. Well, the golden rule of fetish culture is safety, sanity and consent. If the description of the Perm school on Kinsella's website is even remotely true, then it flunks on all counts: what's happening to those girls' bodies is medically unsafe, certainly insane (as they are twisted into weights and shapes which the human body was never meant to assume), and the consent of girls who are so young and in such desperate circumstances is not remotely valid.

Ballet is inherently beautiful. It does not need to be performed by haunted-looking 80-pound human lollipops in order to look good. This whole 'body type' thing has gone way too far. It's lost all validity. It's become crazy.

That poor girl Oksana--her eyes were utterly dead (and with good reason, if what we read is true). There goes the artist. What good are "perfect legs" if there's no joy in them? This is why ballet has become boring to watch. Because schools like this one, by accident or design, are turning out crushed souls in black-magic bodies.

*Real* ballet schools and teachers are not like this. Try to get a copy of "The Art of Teaching Ballet" by Gretchen Warren. You'll note, just for starters, that it has a healthy woman on the cover. In the second entry, teacher William Christensen decries the "tragedy" that gifted women are being denied a place on the ballet stage because they have hips. Warren herself calls it "one of the greatest injustices" of the field. My point is--many, many in the ballet world, those who are truly dedicated to the *art* and not to the visual fetish of the skinny doll, teach ballet in healthy ways and want the ballet world to get over itself about physique. Right now, their voices are not being heard. Someday, that will change. Far too late to help girls like Oksana, of course.

But someday, we *will* start letting healthy, vibrant women back onto the professional ballet stage. And ballet will become interesting again.

Anonymous said...

The man who made the film really made me angry. He posted parts of the film on YouTube about a year ago and when commenters worried about how very thin all the girls were, he would support the school's standards, saying it was right for them to be unnaturally thin.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the two comments in a row, but now that I look at his comments again, he doesn't seem to support the dancers being that thin at all, but he still seems to accept it. He has broken English, so it's a bit confusing.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched a performance by the Tchaikovsky Ballet at a local theater, and I was struck by how thin the dancers were. I mean, I am a longtime ballet fan, and the thinness of ballet dancers is sort of fetishized in our society anyway (in my experience people on the one hand are concerned about eating disorders and ill health, but in a weird way admire the romanticize the dancers' way of life and in some way seem to need the dancers to be so waiflike as part of the "fairy tale"), so obviously I know that dancers today are very, very thin. But this seemed much more stark. I couldn't view the trailer either, but I wonder if this is a trend that is just continuing to become more severe in Russian ballet--probably elsewhere too, but perhaps Russian ballet in particular. I didn't notice the dancers being so painfully thin when I saw a ballet performance (put on by a different company) at this theater last year.

Anonymous said...

I go to a russian ballet school - It's not in russia by tyhe way but similar standards, slightly less strict on the weight, but still picky about how much you weigh. It does put you down and I am slightly over the weight so I do get put down a lot, and I can definatly see why the urge to loose weight presses students to develop disorders,

The thing you have to understand is that no matter how negative people are about the russian ballet weight, It's still going to have the same standards for weight, because the russian ballet is renouned for having perfect legs- not bulky, skinny and delicate. They keep tradition and I severly doubt that they will change this because the 21st century has introduced healthier ballerinas onto the stage.