I had originally been interested in reading ballerina Gelsey Kirkland’s 1986 expose of the ballet world, Dancing On My Grave. I’ve never been interested in dancing myself, having found out early that I was born with two left feet. However, middle age has found me reasonably well read in the areas at which I excel, and that has given me the freedom and interest to read about sports, ballet, and other things that have never been a part of my personal universe. I already know about my interests; now let’s see about someone else’s.
I became more interested when I found out that the physical therapist I’ve worked with is a ballerina with Pacific Northwest Ballet (NW USA). I was shocked! I asked her whether that wasn’t pretty terrible for the body, but she said things were changing, and indeed, although she is a slender person who walks with the distinctive grace of a ballerina, she is not emaciated, and appears to be the picture of health. So when I ran across Kelly’s e-book, given me as part of a gift bundle, I decided to have a look.
Kelly has done a lot of research, and for the most part (and in all ways central to the ballet), she really appears to know her field. She begins with the French “Opera rats” of the 1500s who were either recruited or often, promoted by their mothers as dancer-prostitutes during the dark times. (Its roots are in Greece, where fencing began.) The first publicly famous ballerina was La Fontaine, who starred in “Le Triomphe de l’Amour, at the Academie Royale de Musique, the first recorded appearance of professional ballerinas on the proscenium stage”. However, the moneyed class of men showed up for these performances, not to watch the pretty dancers, but to choose a courtesan, and the girls were taught at early ages to preen themselves to this expectation. On the one hand, those who proved themselves desirable got to eat, and so did their families; on the other, they worked like slaves, and in at least one case, a ballerina died young of venereal disease (early 1700s). Though it was possible to live at home and not become a courtesan while dancing ballet, it was unusual. This dubious opportunity had spread across Europe by the 1700’s, to Sweden, Italy, and Prussia. The French dancer Camargo created the first dancing slippers, and offered erotic promise as well as improved physical movement on the stage by moving her hemline up nearly to what fashion magazines now refer to as “ballerina length” (comparison mine, based on the photo in the book and her reference to raised skirts). Camargo also choreographed her own works, & not until I had read the full book did I appreciate how much power this represented. Guimard was the last famous French ballerina prior to the revolution.
During the “second empire” of the 19th century (a backlash against the French Revolution), Emma Livry declined to wear flame-proofing on her costume because it interfered with the other-worldly appearance she wanted to project as a Romantic dancer. (Here I found myself wondering whether the word of a 14 year old ballerina would permit the exception to be made today!)At a dress rehearsal, she fluffed her gown out and was instantly consumed in flame. She was saved by a stage hand only to live out 8 more months in horror and agony, and then die of her wounds.
“Russian ballet was rooted in the culture of the disenfranchised,” the author explains. Here is where we move off of Kelly’s turf and onto mine; she all but ignores the effect of the Russian Revolution, merely noting that there was experimentation with the dance during that period, and that the revolutionary “angry mobs” were outraged when the tsar (here I would add, as brutal a dictator as ever lived) let the peasantry freeze but sent 4 military trucks full of coal to his ballerina mistress, Kschessinska. Consequently, Lenin chose her balcony, which had become a symbol of the effete ruling class, to address his audience after the revolution. (Lenin did not revel in the luxury, but had contempt for it, using her sunken bathtub as an ashtray.) Kelly does point to changes in Russia such as “emancipation of women” and “mass democratization”, but does not comment much on how this changed ballet, apart from no longer pushing women into concubinage. I found this glossing over a bit strange, since she had just stated that Russia was the center stage of ballet; it could be she had difficulty obtaining more material. By 1931 (and Stalin), international ballet superstar Pavlova was able to dance her way to an early grave by dancing while very ill against her doctor’s wishes.
The 20th century introduced the choreographer as the new, higher power in ballet. Kelly puts more voice and less detachment into the second half of this ballet history, taking serious exception to New York’s late star director, George Balanchine, whose emphasis on frailty among his dancers and caustic remarks about the appearance of individual dancers in front of others created the toxic culture of anorexia and bulimia which gradually took over the world-wide stage for ballerinas everywhere. Numerous cited instances of ballerinas starving, yet still feeling too fat, and of instance after instance in which ballerinas were simply fired from their low-paying but hard-won positions if they attempted to advocate for themselves. Gelsey Kirkland’s memoir (the one I had originally set out to read, but couldn’t find) says that Balanchine told her “repeatedly” to “eat nothing”. Ballerinas were subsisting on coffee and chewing gum, and in addition to many other health problems, experienced more fractures because their bones had been deprived of nutrition.
One small error was the author’s nod to women’s rights issues and their effect on ballet. I understand that her realm is not feminism, but ballet, but once she decided to include it, she needed to avoid making errors. She says in this volume that “Everywhere,women were burning their bras” but this is one case where there is no citation. This is because it is myth and legend, rather than fact. Again, she has moved out of her field and into mine (contemporary U.S. and Russian history), and offered a non-fact to bolster her own arguments.
The arguments themselves are well-taken here, and are well argued in the book. Though there are progressive companies, mostly, it appears, on the US west coast and Canada, as well as Australia, where dancers are offered nutritional expertise and encouraged to envision a future without ballet, abuse and eating disorders continue. Most problematic may be that the very ballerinas who need work teaching, are those who previously starved themselves in the “old” Balanchine-rooted style, are coaching the new ballerinas and mis-teaching and mis-training them to harm their own bodies.
I won’t go into more detail about the latter half of the book, because something should be left to the reader. There are myriad outstanding quotations that make this a very interesting read.
The jury is still out, in my opinion, as to whether there is any wholesome way for a ballerina to practice and earn a living while taking care of her body. Companies that embrace modern dance, such as Alvin Alley (California, USA) seem to fare a little better, but that is my take merely from the little knowledge I have, put together with having read this book. If the history of ballet interests you, I encourage you to read it yourself.