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Interviews, essays and commentary published by The Dance Current.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Feature: The Ballerina of the Future

Changes Afoot
By Deirdre Kelly

Sophia Lee in The Nutcracker by Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet / Photo by David Cooper; Digital Illustration by Marcelle Faucher

Ballerinas today are healthier than they used to be, as a
result of a growing awareness of what the body needs to function
at optimum levels of athletic performance. Enlightened
directors and teachers of ballet are developing a new generation
of curvier ballerinas in the understanding that scrawny
dancers are weak dancers, unable to keep up with the accelerated
pace and heightened athleticism of today’s ballets.


Ballerinas of the twenty-first century tend to be more muscular
and less emaciated than they have been in the recent past.
Anorexic chic is no longer in vogue. “Bodies are more athletic
looking and more womanly, shapely with curves as a result of
muscle mass,” says Beverly Bagg, the South African ballerina
now employed as the ballet mistress for Canada’s Alberta Ballet.
“The technical demands are such that a ballerina today can’t
be thin anymore; she has to have muscle mass in order to facilitate
performing to the new athletic standard. She can’t fulfill
her obligations as a dancer if she doesn’t have the power. That’s
why holistic training is important; it creates a more capable
instrument, a more empowered dancer.”

Joysanne Sidimus has staged ballets all over the world.
Over the last forty years she has personally witnessed the ballet
evolve into a more responsible and socially aware endeavor,
repositioning ballerinas’ needs closer to the center of the art:
“We’ve come a long way, baby,” Sidimus says. “I am not saying
that anorexia no longer exists—you and I know that it does—
but companies just aren’t allowing it, anymore. If there are
dancers who are overly anorexic they are encouraged to get
help, leave until they can get it together again. And the schools
are changing: they now have psychiatrists, social workers,
nutritionists—the works—on staff, teaching young dancers
what it means to be healthy and helping them stay that way. It
really is a different world.”

American-born Svea Eklof, who danced with the Royal
Winnipeg Ballet, today coaches young dancers at Toronto’s
George Brown College, a feeder school for Ballet Jörgen in
Toronto. She concurs that the culture is changing—and ballerinas
along with it. “There are extreme regulations in place,”
Eklof says. “In dance schools in the United States a teacher
can’t even say the word weight. It’s not allowed. It’s a result of
an attitude change, I think. People have begun to understand
that girls between fifteen and eighteen are at the heaviest
period of their lives because of hormonal changes within their
own bodies. They have to have a little plumpness in order to
grow into women. So that’s better understood now, and I think
that’s good for the art form as a whole.”

The dancers now being created as a result of this shift in
focus “are not sticks anymore,” Eklof continues. “Lean and
mean is now seen as better than thin and frail and constantly
having stress fractures. It also makes better sense for the art
form as well as companies worried about their bottom line. If
you have dancers unable to dance because they get injured all the time as a result of brittle bones caused by poor nutrition then you can’t operate your business. So the thinking today is more take better care of the talent and the talent will take care
of you, which is a good thing, of course, all around.”

Romantic era ballerina Marie Taglioni

To keep up with the growing demands of their profession,
ballerinas today have to take better care of their bodies. It is no
longer acceptable, or prudent, to abuse them, as in the second
half of the twentieth century, when eating disorders and substance
abuse among ballet dancers were on the rise. The new
generation of ballerinas shows sinew, not bone. Some, like the
Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo and the New York City Ballet’s Sara
Mearns, to name just two new contemporary dancers making
a name for themselves, show rounded hips and breasts.
It’s a brave new look, and Mearns says it’s a sign of empowerment.
“I think that ballerinas today are going from strength to strength.”

But for every giant step forward, ballet takes two steps back.

In December 2010, the New York Times dance critic, Alastair
Macaulay, in his review of the New York City Ballet’s annual
performance of The Nutcracker, took umbrage that the lead ballerina was fleshier than the ballerinas he had been used to seeing in his many decades as a seasoned dance observer. In print, he accused the ballerina dancing the role of Sugar Plum Fairy as
having eaten one sugarplum too many, a cheap shot ostensibly
meant to shame the dancer for having veered away from
the skinny norm. Jenifer Ringer, the ballerina in question, a
working mom, had, in fact, been battling an eating disorder
for years; her curvier body was a result of her having shucked
old and dangerous eating habits in favor of new, healthier ones.
The critic’s jibes could have set her back. But it was a sign of
the times that her public rushed to her defense, writing letters
of protest to the paper and clogging the blogosphere with complaints about ballet’s tyranny of thin. It was evidence that the public was all for a curvier, healthier aesthetic. Ringer showed herself to be equally in step with the times, appearing unfazed by the negative scrutiny of her body; she knew it to be an antiquated mindset, a relic of ballet past without relevance or currency. Ringer told Ann Curry on the Today Show that ballet no longer felt a need to demand and reward thinness: “If you are too thin really you can’t do the job,” she said with poise and aplomb. “You’re weak. You can’t do the job. You can’t perform it well.”

Helping the ballerina perform well—and stay healthy—is
science. It might seem a strange dance partner for her to have,
but, as Jeffrey Russell, an assistant professor of dance medicine
at the University of California, Irvine, points out, without
science, ballet couldn’t exist: “Without the physics of muscular
force there would be no movement, without biochemistry
there would be no muscular activity; you need food to create
the energy needed for your body to perform as a dancer. If you
take science away, you’ve taken away life itself.”

At the dance research lab he has been operating out of the
university’s engineering wing since 2010, Russell applies these
rudimentary scientific principles to enhancing the life of ballet
dancers as experienced on the stage. The aim, he says, is “to
develop dancers to be better at what they do.” Although his
clinic cares for dancers hurt as a result of their jobs, the primary
focus is on injury prevention. “It’s a lot easier to maintain
something than it is to fix it,” he says, using the analogy of a car,
which runs better if it gets regular lube jobs instead of being
driven into the ground. “When it breaks down, it’s harder to get
it moving again. So it’s better to anticipate the problems than
let them happen in the first place.”

Jeffrey Russell

Russell views injuries as the biggest problem plaguing ballet
as a career choice. “That must mean something is wrong,” he says. As is often the case, it takes an outsider to question what, to the initiated, has become accepted practice. “So let’s study what’s going wrong so we can reduce the number of injuries that come as a result of a dancing career.”

Russell works with a research group of eighteen students,
and he isn’t the first health practitioner to devote his energies
to helping ballet dancers. Many professional dance companies
today are staffed with physiotherapists and other health-care
workers who help ballet dancers stay in optimum condition.
Russell cites the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet,
the Mariinsky (or Kirov) Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England as
companies where dance medicine is practiced. But Russell is
the only dance scientist he knows of working within a university
setting, alongside community-based dance programming.
At UCI there are over two hundred fledgling ballet dancers,
and they constitute Russell’s main area of study. But his reach
also extends into the community; he uses Twitter to advertise
his particular area of expertise. He’s a New World doctor
working to help an Old World profession keep in step with the
times. Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before? “By and large,
people don’t consider dancers as athletes,” Russell says. “There
is a complete lack of understanding among the general population
about what ballet dancers do. People look at them up on
the stage and don’t see the e6ort. They seem beautiful and not
really working hard. Dance isn’t in people’s consciousness the
same way that professional sport is. The rigors of what they do
and the injuries they sustain just aren’t that well publicized.”

Russell owes his unique perspective on ballet to not having
a dance background. He is, by profession, a certified athletic
trainer, one of those guys seen running to help an injured
football player on prime-time TV. He was working in a sports
medicine clinic at Mississippi’s Belhaven College, tending to injured basketball and football players, when a slip of a dancer came in among the jocks desperately seeking his help for a damaged Achilles tendon. He had never treated a ballerina before, but he brought her back to full functioning after a series of therapeutic treatments, including body-strengthening exercises. She told her friends, and soon one ballerina turned into a trickle that became a flood of dancers, all seeking his help. They were mostly young people, community as opposed to professionally trained, left to fend for themselves. Their bodies were a mess, and many weren’t even out of their teens. Their plight inspired him to switch professions. He moved to England to pursue a PhD in dance medicine, which he received in 2008.

Russell did his thesis on the wearing of pointe shoes by
ballerinas, specifically the cruel damage they inflict, including
tendon damage and sprained ankles. At the forefront of
dance science, Russell developed an MRI method for evaluating
the ankles of female ballet dancers standing on their toes.
The scans shed light on the weight-bearing anatomy of female
dancers, affording doctors and scientists a rare glimpse at how
pointe shoes impact bones, joints, and soft tissue. Together
with scientists in England, Russell analyzed the images, comparing
them to dancers’ own descriptions of their pain. “I
wanted to know the demands of ballet on the ankle and the
foot. What are the stresses imposed by the pointe shoe?” It
was a breakthrough study, which not only showed “how the
musculoskeletal system responds to dance” but also furthered
“progress toward the ultimate goal of reducing injuries.”

“After examining the MRIs of ballerinas, I can tell you that
dancing on pointe is not at all good for the ankle,” Russell says.
“But the pointe shoe is not going to go away. It would alter the
art of the ballerina far too much. So what we can do is help
dancers dance to the best of their ability within the confines of
ballet and not be sidelined by injury.”

Svea Eklof-Grey / Photo by David Street

It’s a radical objective—and also a tricky one. Ballet dancers
are slow to give up past practices; their art form is rooted in
tradition. Ballet history is passed down from one generation of
dancer to another, thereby maintaining its classical lineage. But
there is an unforeseen problem with older-generation dancers
teaching their successors how to perform ballet as they once
practiced it; their instruction often comes encased in bad habits
that help perpetuate ballet as an injury-prone profession.

“There’s an old-school line of thinking that physical training
will ruin the ballet aesthetic,” Russell says. “In terms of generations,
we’re still in a situation where the ones teaching the
younger dancers are those who came through a system where
there wasn’t much being offered in the way of physical training
or even healthy dance practices. In their day, you just did
what you did, and if you got hurt, tough. It really comes down
to you teach what you know, and if that includes suffering for
your art then that’s what’s also being passed down. It will take
a major paradigm shift for the average ballet teacher to want to
teach ballet in a different way.”

In other words, what often needs fixing most is a mindset.
Besides dance teachers, Russell’s biggest challenge remains
convincing dancers to set aside time for strengthening and
conditioning exercises that will help lessen the number of
injuries they sustain in the course of their work. “There are
only twenty-four hours in a day, and I understand that for a lot
of dancers carving out time to do cross-training isn’t a priority.
The typical dancer is going to spend the bulk of that day perfecting
the craft.”

But reducing the amount of time given over to technical
training in favor of core physical training actually does result
in making dancers better artists. Heightened technical achievement
in dancers can now be proven to be directly related to
a stronger physical foundation. But that’s just the tip of the pointe shoe, so to speak. Russell says more needs to be done to help ballerinas of the future become even stronger as artists and more gifted as athletes. “We’re about twenty years behind
sports medicine,” Russell says. “In terms of research, we’re still
a number of years away from saying this is what we think is
useful. And it will still be a difficult thing to get across to people
used to working in the old way, especially because ballet
has traditionally not been an area attended to by science. So
it’s tough. But I’m going to stick with it. It’s my calling. I do see
that I am making a difference. I think I am helping the ballerinas
of the future.”

It is a clarion call also to companies to make it their mandate
to safeguard the art of ballet for future generations. It
starts with a shi5 in perception, seeing the ballerina not as a
slave to her art but as a valuable employee within the juggernaut
of the professional ballet company. Such is the thinking of
an enlightened troupe like the Australian Ballet. There, ballerinas
are perceived as elite athletes and are treated as such.

National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Kimberly Glasco

In 2007, the Australian Ballet implemented a companywide
Injury Management and Prevention Programme aimed
directly at dancers’ health. The program came about as a result
of ballet culture as a whole becoming more aware of medicolegal
and liability issues. According to the company’s published
mission statement, the aim is to do away with the days
when ballerinas would bleed into their pointe shoes and no
one would care, replacing a culture known for its abuse and
neglect of dancers with one that sincerely cares about their
overall health and well-being: “The Australian Ballet is committed
to the health (physical and psychological) and safety of
its most precious asset, the dancers. This commitment stems
from the Board and extends to all levels of the company. The
Australian Ballet has facilitated a change in behavior over the years, which has directly influenced the culture from one that poses a high risk to health to one that embodies health and well-being. As a result, the company has experienced fewer injuries,dancers are recovering faster and morale has increased.” Management regularly counsels dancers that injuries are not to be swept under the carpet or ignored for fear of reprisals. This concern for dancers’ health is written into the company’s policy: “The Australian Ballet has demonstrated to the dancers that reporting injuries does not disadvantage them in any way; on the contrary, everything is done to ensure that dancers are not restricted from their pre-injury status.”

David McAllister / Photo by James Braund

But it’s a two-way relationship, says Australian Ballet artistic
director David McAllister, a former principal dancer with
the company: “I see it very much as a shared responsibility.
We have tried to build a culture within the company where
the dancers are proactive about injury prevention and report
any niggles early so we can treat them and avoid long-term
periods away from the stage,” he says. “We have also built a
great collaboration between the medical and artistic teams so
we have shared responsibility about workload for dancers, so
that we can keep them dancing but modify their load to avoid
progressing to a major injury. But you can only do this with
dancers who present early and don’t hide injury. They also
need to make sure they are doing all the strengthening and
technical coaching work and take responsibility of their own
bodies; otherwise you will only be able to patch up.”

The Australian Ballet takes a multidisciplinary approach to injury prevention; in the wings, at the ready, is a kind of Team Ballet, composed of various physiotherapists, myotherapists, masseurs, sports doctors, rehabilitation facilitators, body conditioning
specialists, psychologists, and alternative medicine practitioners doing needling and other forms of acupuncture, devoted to ensuring that all dancers are performing at peak condition. Addressing dancers’ needs extends also to ordering special pointe shoes for a ballerina whose feet might be vulnerable to tendinitis or stress fractures. Great care is taken to ensure that they have healthy and strong bodies, a balanced diet, and sound nutrition. Dancers are also encouraged to have open communication with management in discussing their needs and concerns.

Principal dancer Amber Scott credits the open-door policy
and the access to pertinent scientific knowledge as enabling
her to have a long and rewarding profession: “It’s a grand statement but I believe the medical team and body conditioning programs at the Australian Ballet have been paramount in keeping me dancing professionally for the past eleven years,” Scott says. “The combination of very specific treatment, body conditioning and coaching all unite in a way that educates the dancers to understand the capability of their bodies in a safe environment. The open channels of communication between all departments have been key for learning as much as possible from the medical team. This knowledge has taken away many of the fears I had about injuries. It has empowered me in my quest to maintain a long and healthy career.”

But even with injury prevention programs in place, accidents
do and will happen. Ballerinas can pirouette into the
orchestra pit, be hit by falling scenery, be dropped by their partners,
or, as was common in the past, catch fire. They can also
injure themselves from overuse and as a result of poor training
or unsafe choreography. Injuries are worrisome because they
can terminate a career before a dancer feels ready to quit. Claire
Vince, a member of the National Ballet of Canada’s corps de ballet
from 1989 to 1992, had to stop dancing after only four years
as a result of a deteriorating hip: “The cartilage on the right hip had worn out from repetitive use, “ says the Australian-born Vince, who trained at England’s Royal Ballet School. “Dancing was so painful for me at the end that I couldn’t do developpés.” After moving back to Australia, she had hip replacement surgery. But before that, while still in Toronto, she had what she calls “a big operation on both ankles,” to address os trigonum syndrome, a medical condition caused by repeated downward pointing of the toes, as is common in ballet. Surgeons had to remove excess bone from the back of Vince’s ankles: “Effectively, I had to have the ankles broken, the bones removed, then go in plaster for six weeks,” she says. It sounds horrific, but Vince is matter-of-fact about what she endured as a result of ballet, calling her injuries “a part of a dancer’s natural term.”

Today pain free, Vince has a new career in public relations.
But for most ballerinas, when the dancing stops, they often
are at loose ends. They don’t know what to do next. The pain
that lingers lies within. The celebrated Canadian ballerina
Evelyn Hart, formerly the prima ballerina of the Royal Winnipeg
Ballet, has described the abrupt conclusion of a dancing
career as a loss of identity, a loss of expression: “I feel I have no
voice left.”

Paris Opéra

When Joysanne Sidimus stopped dancing in 1970, she
plunged into a deep depression. “It was a terrible time,” she
says. “I went home to my mother’s and went to bed for six
months; I didn’t get out of bed because I didn’t have a reason:
My whole life was falling apart.” Having experienced firsthand
the pain and desperation endured by dancers forced to
leave their professions because of illness, injury, or incompatibility
with an artistic director, Sidimus soon inquired after
some of her colleagues, to see how they were coping with the
break from ballet. What she heard shocked her; fifeen of her former partners had committed suicide and another had been committed to the psychiatric ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital: “I wanted to do something.”

In 1985, Sidimus founded the Dancer Transition Resource
Centre, a forward-thinking facility in Toronto providing career
counseling, legal and financial advice, grants, and other supports
to dancers needing to regain their moorings after being
cast adrift from the stage. Since its founding twenty-five years
ago, the center has gone on to help more than ten thousand
dancers move into second careers in academia, arts administration,
medicine, law, graphic design, engineering, public
relations, and real estate. One dancer who went through the
center became a commercial pilot.

When it first opened, the center was radical for its time.
“When we began, the issue was taboo for most dancers,” Sidimus
says. “To end a performing career was something most
dancers feared and did not wish to discuss or face.”

The physical demands are so tough on the body and injuries
in ballet are part of the job description. To withstand the
wear and tear, a dancer needs youth on his or her side. The average
age of retirement for ballet dancers today is twenty-nine.
For modern dancers it is forty.

“More than any other professional, with perhaps the exception
of athletes,” Sidimus says, “dancers don’t have a choice.
Early retirement is built into the profession, and there’s no
way around it.” In general, Sidimus adds, dancers are forced
to give up their careers at a time when most other professionals
are just starting to take off in theirs: “As a psychologist who
works with us at the Centre says, ‘Dance is a downwardly
mobile profession in an upwardly mobile society.’ ”

David Tucker is a psychologist who worked closely with
retired professional hockey players through the Phil Esposito
Foundation in Toronto and served as a consultant to Sidimus when she was first establishing the Dancer Transition Centre. “The problem with professional athletes and dancers is that for all their lives they have been so focused on their careers, they
don’t know where to even begin looking for a new job,” said
Dr. Tucker at the time. “Often they feel desperate and will grab
the first thing that comes along. It’s important that they think
these things through so as to save themselves perhaps even
greater aggravation later on.”

Joysanne Sidimus / Photo by Sian Richards, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

The stigma is lessening, and Sidimus sees that as another
sign that the ballet culture is changing in ways ultimately
beneficial to the ballerina: “The whole subject is now out of
the closet; people are now talking about it and they are doing
something about it. If a dancer has a transition plan at the
beginning of the career, knowing in advance that it is short, it
takes some of the anxiety away. It helps dancers be better at
what they do.”

Still, retirement for dancers is like death: a scary prospect.
Aware that dancers are spooked by the prospect of letting go of
the one thing they have trained their whole lives for, the center
and its half dozen branch offices across Canada offer its dancer-clients the services of onsite psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists to help them through a time in their lives that can be quite disorienting.

Indeed, in ballet, as one dance writer has wryly noted, “There are few stories like that of Nora Kaye, one of the brightest stars of American Ballet Theatre, who reportedly celebrated
the event by driving with her husband through the Black Forest
of Germany, happily hurling her old pointe shoes through
the window of their car.”

When Sidimus started investigating the post-dance lives
of her former colleagues for her 1987 book, Exchanges: Life After
, a collection of interviews with dancers who have successfully
moved on from the stage, she discovered instead that the majority were shell-shocked and destitute.

“Many of these people were founders of dance companies. They have the Order of Canada, and yet they have nothing to live on,” Sidimus says. “There aren’t hordes of them, but you would be shocked by the names.”

Evelyn Hart is a poignant example, as well as a reminder
that more still needs to be done to safeguard the ballerinas of
our time. Born in Ontario in 1956, she won the Gold Medal and
the Certificate for Artistic Achievement at the International
Ballet Competition held in Varna, Bulgaria, in 1980. During
her years on the stage, from 1977 until her abrupt departure
in 2006 as a result of arthritic ankles, Hart was internationally
regarded as a consummate artist; in the 1980s, she toured
Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries, where audiences and
critics alike hailed her as one of the greatest Giselles of the
twentieth century.

Evelyn Hart

Her artistry had come at a great personal price. Hart made
no secret of having approached ballet as an act of self-sacrifice;
she starved herself to be what she perceived as an expression
of balletic perfection and denied herself intimate relationships,
including marriage. She spent most of her waking hours in the
ballet studio, devoting every ounce of her being to perfecting
her craft. Those who danced alongside her at the RWB during
the 1980s still marvel at the single-mindedness with which
Hart pursued her career, to the exclusion of everything else.
“She was unique in her approach, almost neurotic but in a good
sense of the word; her process didn’t allow for anything else in
her life,” says Svea Eklof, who shared a dressing room with Hart
when both were with the RWB. “She was known to say, ‘You are
not as deep into this [meaning ballet] as I am; that’s why you
took time off to have a husband and to have a baby.’ She said it,
and she meant it: She is the best dance artist that Canada has
ever produced.”

But when the curtain came down on her final performance
in 2006, Hart, then fifty, was suddenly unemployable. Although
she was a recipient of the Order of Canada, she had no assets
other than a highly disciplined body blessed with a rare degree
of musicality. She tried acting but didn’t have the articulation. She applied for a job in a bridal salon, making and selling the fanciful headdresses that she used to craft as part of her onstage costume but was turned down for lack of experience. Save for a handful of students who have come to her privately for coaching, Hart’s own profession has been reluctant to hire her as teacher or coach; the perception within her industry is that Hart represents an old-school, tunnel-vision approach to ballet, which is contrary to the new emphasis on life-work balance that many of today’s ballet institutions say they want to instill in their students. Certainly, to see Hart is to see a woman ravaged by her profession—thin, alone, and invisible in a crowd now that her dancing career has ended. This is an artist who, just years earlier, had full houses leaping to their feet, cheering and showering her with roses. That she has been so abandoned by her profession and by society is a great scandal. Had she lived in another era, her selfess devotion to ballet might have been lauded. But today, she is no doubt one of the dancers Sidimus is talking about: a jilted female not unlike Giselle, a ghost of her former self.

Sidimus says she has been lobbying for years to get funding
for artists like Hart, dancers she calls “national treasures,”
urging Canada to provide for them in retirement as other
countries have done for their senior dance artists. It would be
respectful, at the very least, to create for ballerinas who have
given their lives to their art the respect of a position worthy of
their experience and training, a chair within a university dance
program, for instance, where they could pass their artistry on
to the next generation. Shunning dancers because they are old and put out to pasture is a shameful way for any nation to treat its artists. “There’s something about a dancer in transition that is exceptionally difficult and painful and different from anyone
else in transition,” Sidimus says.

Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova

Previously, the ideal in ballet was to pretend that you would
keep on dancing until you dropped—as Anna Pavlova and
Rudolf Nureyev did. While romantic, this image of the swooning
dancer, shackled to the art, no longer cuts it in today’s
climate of economic restraint. “The average annual salary in
Canada is still under $14,000 for a dancer,” Sidimus says. “They
can rarely put enough money aside to live on while they study
something else for a second career.”

Sometimes a dancer has to leave dance because of an injury
that never quite heals.

“In the past twenty years I’ve seen a lot of heartbroken
people,” former National Ballet of Canada dancer Karen Kain,
now the company’s artistic director, has said. “They had trained,
almost killed themselves, given 150 per cent—and suddenly
it was all over. There was nothing for them. I’ve seen nervous
breakdowns when people’s dreams were shattered. There were
people who came into the company with me, and I’ve seen
them fall apart.”

Leanne Simpson was one of those dancers, devastated
when the dancing was over. The former ballerina with the
Alberta Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens who quit
dancing in 1988 said in an interview, “I was very depressed.
After five months, I called the Transition Centre.”

Through the center, Simpson received counseling and then
went to university, where she chose a new career, teaching
in an arts school. To help her, the center gave her grants that
helped cover expenses for two years of her post-dance training.
“I feel much better now,” Simpson said. “I still miss performing,
but I feel that I fit into the real world now.”

Mary Jago-Romeril

Mary Jago-Romeril sees many dancers like Simpson in her
position as a national representative of the Dancer Transition
Resource Centre, a position she has held since 2002. From her
vantage point, she is able to see how dance has changed since
she was a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada,
from 1966 until her retirement from the stage at age thirty-eight
in 1984. During her illustrious career, the British-born,
Royal Ballet–schooled ballerina was celebrated as one of the
Fabulous Five, a group of top-ranking female dancers, each of
whom had been handpicked in the 1970s by guest artist Rudolf
Nureyev to dance as his partner in his extravagant and costly
version of The Sleeping Beauty. The others in this pack of elite
ballerinas were Nadia Potts, Vanessa Harwood, Veronica Tennant,
and Karen Kain, all of whom toured with Nureyev as
part of their National Ballet duties, an experience that inspired
camaraderie among the dancers: “In my day, being in a ballet
company was like family,” Jago-Romeril says. “You looked out
for each other.”

Touring isn’t as common for ballet companies anymore; the
costs have grown prohibitive, and few companies can afford it.
As a result, today’s dancers don’t get to play the field as much
as Jago-Romeril once did; they have tended to become more
specialized, dancing full-out only a few times during a performance
run, not every night, as Jago-Romeril used to, under her
stage name, Mary Jago. She wonders if that is why she is seeing
an increase in injured ballet dancers. “There’s not enough
consistency,” Jago-Romeril says. “Dancers no longer get to
dance every day, which puts them at greater risk of hurting

Although it is definitely beneficial to committ resources to
helping dancers cope with the inevitability of injuries in the
course of their profession, perhaps a more effective approach
for companies to take would be to address the problem of injuries at its root, get dancers more exercised, expose them regularly to performance opportunities, large or small, so as to keep them resilient. This would require a rethinking of how
ballet is organized and produced. There’s innovation now in
choreography. How about a similar level of innovation applied
to ballet administration? But there are no easy solutions. How
do you get dancers to dance more, when ballet companies
in general struggle to make ends meet? How do you keep
them from being injured when taking physical risks is a key
component of the profession? How do you strike a balance?
Jago-Romeril doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but she
does express concern that the current emphasis on experimentation
in ballet puts dancers at a greater risk of injury, especially
when their bodies haven’t been trained to perform the new
multi-step, hyper-frenetic, acrobatic-style creations being produced
by some of today’s cutting-edge choreographers. “What we have noticed today,” continues Jago-Romeril, “is that choreographers are pushing dancers more than they did in previous years. In my day it was basic classic. Today’s choreographers are emphasizing a contemporary approach, and actually I feel sorry for the dancers performing it: Ballet is now very hard.”

Ida Rubinstein of Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

But on the bright side, and partly as a result of diminished
touring opportunities that have turned ballet dancers from
nomads into people who can lay down roots, Jago-Romeril
says that there’s a greater acceptance of the need for dancers
to balance their workload with a life outside the studio. She
cites the example of the National Ballet, where several principal
dancers in the company over the past decade have started
families, while still pursuing a full-time dancing career. These
new-generation ballerinas are now taking advantage of paid
maternity leaves and job protection. “And that’s a huge step
forward,” Jago-Romeril says. “Today’s dancers have families if they want them, they have children. I think that’s important because it puts a different focus on your life, it’s not all about ballet. Human beings need balance,” Jago-Romeril concludes, “no matter what they do for a living.”

The advancement of workers’ rights has liberated women
in all professions, including ballet, where pregnancies among
professional dancers are increasingly common. Increased
wages combined with guaranteed paid maternity leaves as
required by law have provided incentives for dancers to want
to start families while still pursuing a dance career. These relatively
recent changes in labor law and general societal attitudes
have brought artistic directors on board in giving ballerinas
leave to have babies in the understanding that their jobs will
be waiting for them when they are done. “For me it’s a miracle,”
says Sidimus who, at seventy-three years of age, is a member
of ballet’s all-or-nothing generation, having waited until her
dancing days were over, at age forty, to have a child. “In my era
it was a much more isolated view. You were expected to be a
ballerina and not anything else. Today when I look at a dancer
like [National Ballet of Canada’s] Sonia Rodriguez, a principal
dancer who is also a mother of two, I really do wonder how she
manages to do it all.”

It’s not entirely a mystery. Advances in health sciences like
nutrition and body conditioning have enabled dancers to fully
recover their dancing form after childbirth. Cross-training
involving Pilates, yoga, and weight lifting has also helped ballerinas
cope with the demands pregnancy places on their bodies,
enabling them to stay supple and dance well into the last trimester.
Some ballerinas claim that motherhood has made them
better dancers, physically, mentally, and emotionally: “I feel
stronger,” said Julie Kent the American Ballet Theatre ballerina
who, in 2004, posed pregnant on the cover of Dance Magazine, dressed in flowing white chiffon and a skintight white leotard that showed off the voluptuousness of her rounded figure. She was thirty-three. “Motherhood has changed my priorities and
impacted my performance,” Kent continued. “It has liberated
me and broadened my perspective. I don’t apply as much pressure
on myself and I have blossomed.”

Motherhood, muscle building, and healthy weight gain are
changes directly affecting the ballerina’s body, making it feel
more in balance. But ballet is not composed of just one body; it
is also a social body, a tightly knit network of human relationships
where imbalances have for a long time been allowed to
proliferate unchecked, in the mistaken belief that to change
one aspect of ballet is to change the culture as a whole, killing
in it what has long been regarded as beautiful. This is especially
true with regard to racial imbalances within the ballet culture.
For centuries, and continuing into the present day, ballet has
widely been regarded as a white, elitist, European pursuit. Its
symbol is the ballet blanc, literally the white ballet, an ethereal
dance performed by white women in white dresses and pointe
shoes pretending to be ghosts or swans or something equally
vaporous. But society today is rapidly diversifying, especially in
immigrant-rich North America, and this image of a white ballet
is deeply unreflective of the social composition.

Julie Kent / Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Ballerinas of color, especially black ballerinas, tend to be
rare. The thought is that audiences won’t readily accept a black
Giselle or a black Aurora, thinking she is too obviously cast
against type. It’s a ridiculous premise: ballet is theater and theater
is make-believe. Of course a black ballerina isn’t Giselle: it’s
a role. But there’s another prejudice at work: black women on
the stage are perceived as naturally earthy and robust; they are
not the airy sylphs more easily embodied by their white counterparts. There perhaps is a reason for this: scientific research demonstrates that black ballet dancers typically have not fallen prey to the anorexia epidemic that swept the ballet world during the Balanchine era. According to one study, black female ballet dancers had a more consistently positive body image than white female ballet dancers, leading to the conclusion that anorexia nervosa is “a disorder of the white upper-middleclass, where a premium is placed on the pursuit of thinness.”

Misty Copeland supports the statistic. A ballerina of African-
American descent, she says that she never suffered from an eating disorder, even while her teachers and her white classmates chided her for being big—“big” being relative given that the dancer stands five feet two inches and weighs a mere hundred pounds. “I never had an issue with an eating disorder,” says Copeland, a rising star at American Ballet Theatre who is also the first black ballerina soloist in a major company in decades. “I can’t imagine dealing with that or having to speak up about it,” she continues. “But I’m definitely not fat; I just have a different body type than all the rest. I am thin, but I have muscles and I have curves and I have a breasts—I’m a size 30D.”

Her curves allow Copeland to stand out on stage, which
ultimately is a good thing: “I think it has given me an advantage,”
she says. “It has allowed me to develop as an individual,
which is often hard to do for ballet dancers. From a young age
we are groomed to be in a corps de ballet, all trained in the same
technique and expected to look the same. I tried as a student to
be the dancer others wanted me to be but I found that it was
better for me to be me; it’s what has enabled me to become a
soloist and, hopefully, it will help me become a principal dancer,
which is my goal.”

But to get ahead, Copeland says that she has to work extra hard to appear worthy of promotion: “My skin color was never before a factor for me,” says Copeland, one of six children born to a single mother who raised her kids in Los Angeles after moving there from Kansas, the dancer’s birth city. “I only saw my color when I started to dance. Still, I was a dancer. I wasn’t a black dancer. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City and joined ABT was it talked about. I wasn’t aware it was an issue. And then I looked around me—and oh my gosh—there were no other black ballerinas but me. I still wouldn’t have thought it mattered, but then I watched as others were promoted ahead of me, given roles that I could easily have done but wasn’t allowed to. And that’s when I realized that my natural talent wasn’t enough. As a black woman I have to work three times harder. I have so much to prove. I’m extremely exhausted. I’ve been doing this now for eleven years.”

Misty Copeland / Photo by Jade Young

But her hard work and tenacity are paying off. In December
2011, Copeland received word that Russian choreographer
Alexei Ratmansky, said to be the most important choreographer
working in ballet today, had cast her as the lead in his
new production of Firebird, which had its world premiere in
Los Angeles, Copeland’s hometown, in April 2012, to glowing
reviews. “I’m ecstatic,” the dancer says. “Ballet will never be
perfect, but for me this is about as good as it gets.”

Another indication that ballet might be moving in new
directions is the increased popularization of ballet as entertainment.
These days the art born in the courts of kings is showing
up at the movies, on the fashion runways, and in rock and rap
music videos by the likes of Kanye West, whose 2010 single,
Runaway, came with a thirty-four-minute promotional film featuring
ballerinas aggressively stabbing the ground with their pointes: “I was just moved by the classic dance,” the rapper told MTV News, “I just wanted to crash it against the pop music.”

As a black ballerina trying to break down barriers herself,
Copeland understood what the pop star was after, saying in
an interview that by mixing ballet with pop music, West was making classical dance “relatable to the audience that’s viewing those videos.” The expectation was that it would increase audiences for ballet, one of the reasons Copeland agreed to dance in the 2009 fever-dream video for the single Crimson and Clover by Prince. Copeland was also the featured ballerina in the pop star’s Welcome 2 America tour, which played Madison Square Garden and New Jersey’s mammoth Izod Center in the early part of 2011. Copeland says working with Prince was both a career and a confidence booster: “It signaled my growth as an artist; it made me more visible to others as a role model.” Her bravura style of dancing was readily accessible to stadium audiences for whom ballet remains a foreign word. Copeland lured them in. “I think that there’s so much history when it comes to classical ballet—it’s not going to change overnight . . . [but by] inviting people in and exposing them to the fact that classical ballet doesn’t have to be uptight . . . I’m hoping that change can happen.”

“Classical ballet needs great interpreters,” says Sylvie Guillem,
the former étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet and principal
guest artist of London’s Royal Ballet, the ballerina other ballerinas
still look to for inspiration—a YouTube darling. “It can’t
be done in a mediocre or average way, even if danced very well.
Like it or not, ballet comes from the past; we have to drag it
from the past into the present, and if it is not danced intelligently,
not danced with beauty, the people will no longer come,
and ballet will not survive into the future.”

Eighteenth-century ballerina Françoise Prévost

But ballet is not breaking with its past; it is renewing itself,
while at the same time drawing inspiration from a long tradition
of classical dance. Embodying that feeling of continuity
and regeneration in ballet today is former ballet star Gelsey
Kirkland, among the first to lift the veil on the art of the ballerina
as a punishing life of self-deprivation and self-sacrifice in
the name of beauty. To many observers, Kirkland is the poster girl for all that is wrong with ballet—eating disorders, injuries, insecurity, exploitation, and a dissolute lifestyle. Kirkland lived it all—and more. She altered her anatomy to make herself more closely approximate the ideal ballerina. The sad irony is that Kirkland was already a rare specimen of balletic excellence—and a beauty as well. A dancing prodigy who entered New York City Ballet in 1968, at the tender age of sixteen, after being trained by George Balanchine at his School of American Ballet, Kirkland was born with the requisite long-limbed body type, the swan neck, the hyper-flexible feet. Her speed, grace, and agility survive in films and videos of her earlier performances, especially the 1977 film version of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, in which she dances opposite her former onstage and offstage partner, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Often referred to as the female Nijinsky for her genius for
dance, this American-born ballerina was one of the great ballet
artists of the twentieth century. Ballet patrons who remember
her when she was at the peak of her powers shake their heads
and speak of her as the ballerina who squandered her talents.
They want to think of her as one of the neurotic pinheads of
the Balanchine era, a malcontent who exaggerated ballet’s
dark side as an act of morbid self-promotion. They see her as
twisted and irreparably disconnected from ballet as an art of
beauty and transcendence. But the opposite is true. After dancing
in the trenches of ballet, Kirkland has emerged, scarred but
wiser, and is today channeling her remarkable gifts into her
own Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, which she
founded in New York in the fall of 2010, at age fifty-eight, to
train young dancers for a professional dancing career.

Located on Broadway, in Manhattan’s industrial TriBeCa
district, the dance school perches incongruously over a dusty
fabric shop and next to scaffolding emblazoned with graffiti. It’s only a subway ride away from Lincoln Center, where Kirkland once ruled as one of America’s reigning ballet superstars, but in many ways it is light years away from the life she once knew. She runs the school with her husband, Michael Chernov, an Australian-born former dancer and Broadway actor, who trained at the National Ballet and Theatre School in his native Melbourne. The interior walls are covered in framed oversized vintage posters from the Diaghilev era; another image, of Kirkland dancing opposite Baryshnikov in Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son, serves as a computer screen saver. There are four studios spread over 8,000 square feet of high-ceilinged space, in addition to an exercise room teeming with workout machines and balls and bands for core training. The Russian-based training is rooted in the Vaganova method of teaching ballet, a combination of French lyricism and Italian virtuosity as developed early in the twentieth century by former Imperial Ballet dancer-turned-pedagogue Agrippina Vagonova. Each day begins with a morning yoga-inflected stretch class using mats on the floor. This is followed by classes in ballet technique and also, unusual for a ballet school, voice and drama.

The emphasis in her pedagogical approach is on storytelling
through dancing. Abstract ballet, such as Kirkland knew
in her Balanchine ballerina days, is not the objective. Kirkland
wants her sixty-four registered students to learn how to
move from the heart, to connect with audiences emotionally
as artists using their bodies expressively, not as athletes performing
acrobatic tricks. The divide between expressiveness
and pyrotechnics has existed in ballet for centuries, at least
since Camargo, the technician, and Sallé, the poet, ruled the
stage. Kirkland has no doubt as to which rival she supports. In
conversation, she uses words like pure and truth to emphasize
that her training is less image oriented, more focused on inner
states of being.

Gelsey Kirkland / Photo courtesy of Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet

“You can’t drive the body from its form,” she says. “There are
other ways of creating a stage life.” She wants her students
to connect to the inner core of ballet and not be distracted by
the allure of the superficial attractions of the art, a lesson she
must have learned herself the hard way. One technique used
at the school is to have students dance in the studio with the
mirrors covered, getting young dancers to concentrate on what
it feels like to dance, rather than on how it looks to somebody
else. It is the opposite of how Kirkland and other ballerinas of
her generation learned their craft, and she is determined that
her students don’t make the same mistakes. Taking her place in
the studio on a busy Manhattan morning, Kirkland is dressed
head-to-toe in black, over which is layered a button-down shirt
flapping around her small, birdlike body. She moves silently
around her cavernous academy, looking as if she could suddenly
take flight. Kirkland covers most of her face with large
Jackie O–style sunglasses; her fine auburn hair is tied back in
a chignon. When she opens her mouth to speak the words
come out nasally and in staccato bursts, pushed through the
cushiony contours of distorted lips, a reminder of her days as
a tortured artist. It’s her reputation as a complex ballet genius
that draws students to her from across the United States. They
choose her academy over larger and more prestigious schools
like Juilliard or Kirkland’s own alma mater, School of American
Ballet, because they believe she has something valuable to
teach them, no matter how negative her own past experiences
of ballet.

“I am inspired by her,” says Jacqueline Wilson, a twenty-one-year-old dance student, who traveled halfway across the country to study with her ballerina idol. “I grew up with a blown-up poster of her on my bedroom wall. She represents ballet to me.” In Kirkland’s morning technique class, Wilson takes her place at center floor in front of the watchful eye of Kirkland, sitting like a Buddha on the edge of a stool at the front of the studio. The dancers come in all shapes and sizes—tall, short, svelte, muscular. Kirkland is easily the tiniest person in the place; her waifike look definitely marks her as senior, her body having been shaped by the eating disorders that have plagued her profession. But she has moved beyond the tyranny of that aesthetic. During a lunch of a homemade sandwich laced with onions—“You’re not bothered by the smell, are you?” she asks, betraying the kindness that those who know her say is one of her most unsung attributes—Kirkland explains that the point is no longer to create dancers who all look the same. It’s about creating dancers who are unique, with something of their own to say. She had learned the hard way the mistake of trying to conform to someone else’s idea of what a ballerina should look like and is now passing on the benefit of that experience to her own students. In one of her studio’s classrooms, in fact, a curtain has been drawn over the mirror to get the dancers to find meaning within themselves, not in a reflected image. “A perfect body can be dead as a doornail,” chimes in Chernov, allowing his wife another bite of her brown-bagged meal. She sits beside him, nodding in agreement. “The idea is to get people out of ballet’s image orientation,” he adds. “The ideal,” says Kirkland, swallowing, “is to explore what’s true.”

Back in the classroom, Kirkland provides an insight into
what she means. Perched slightly forward on her stool, ready
to pounce, she watches her dancers in ominous stillness as
strains of Tchaikovsky fill the air from the accompanist in the
far corner. “Draw the line on the way out, open the door,” she
shouts above the music, her hand beating time on one thigh.
But the dancers are having difficulty understanding. She leaps
up from where she has been sitting to give an impromptu demonstration. The once famous body pulls up and lengthens. All the weight is pushed forward onto the balls of the feet, and she rises slightly into the air. She opens her chest wide, her arms blossoming into an elegant port de bras. Her head is slightly tilted; her eyes are raised. “To the king,” she says. And then she bows slightly to this imaginary being in the room, looking down from on high.

It’s an extraordinary gesture. In that moment, all the
minutes, the hours, the months, the years, the decades, the
centuries go whizzing by. We are no longer in traffic-clogged
Manhattan, with the horns blaring outside the window, the
graffiti spray-painted on the wall, a pretzel cart on every corner.
We have gone back in time to the opulent court of Louis XIV
where this glorious art of ballet first flourished more than four
hundred years ago.

Kirkland provides a link, a ballerina who through her own
training, stage experience, and tortured past is showing the
way for how the art can proceed from a troubled history into a
more hopeful future—a ballet survivor.

“There’s a lot of rigidity that frees you,” Kirkland says. “There
are ways of using tradition to move forward and not sideways.
It’s about knowing what matters, and following the right path.”
In Kirkland’s hands, the catastrophes that have befallen ballerinas
through time have been channeled into catharsis.

Excerpted from the book Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, © 2012, by Deirdre Kelly. Published in 2012 by Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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1 comment:

  1. Wow fantastic excerpt! So many topics to discuss! I am very intrigued to read this book. As a professional ballet dancer myself, it's always encouraging to read and hear about ballet evolving with a more healthy and educated approach. Finally it's time to veer away from the anorexic look, and recognize dancers as healthy and muscular athletes! The choreographic demands of today are far more challenging then ever, and dancers must be healthy athletes in order to meet these technical requirements. Knowledge is power, and it's great to hear that young dancers are being educated about health and injury prevention in school. The Dancer Transition Resource program is definitely a step up to help dancers transition smoothly into other careers paths - a huge fear! It's too bad that most of these resources are only restricted to the bigger ballet companies. Coming from a smaller company, the approach was still very old school. Health was jeopardized and injuries were very common. Been through it all!