Finding freedom and feminism in ballet. (It's possible.)
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Finding freedom and feminism in ballet. (It's possible.)
The choreographer George Balanchine, far right, while working on “Bayou,” circa 1952. With new books and a podcast taking another look at the legacy of George Balanchine and the culture of ballet, where does a modern ballerina stand? (Sam Falk/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Ballet requires — no, demands — devotion. But what is the price of that devotion, especially for women? Ballet these days is under fire in some quarters, and the very idea of devotion to it has become suspect. A myth has grown around it: That its price is physical and mental abuse, eating disorders, bloody toes, suffering, pain and blind subservience to patriarchal leaders.

And it’s not just ballet, but George Balanchine’s vision of ballet, which seems to be, again, causing controversy as familiar stereotypes are revived, including the idea that he preferred extremely thin dancers with tiny heads and long legs.

With the recent release of a biography about Balanchine, a memoir by a former ballet student who failed to advance at the School of American Ballet — which Balanchine co-founded, along with New York City Ballet — and a podcast anchored on Balanchine, the choreographer and his legacy are floating in the air.

Balanchine told dancers, “Don’t think, dear, do,” which inspired the title of Alice Robb’s memoir, “Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet” — though she leaves off the most important word, “do.” But what did Balanchine really mean? He wasn’t telling dancers to turn off their brains, he was urging them to dance in the moment. It was meant to quell overthinking, as in, Get out of your head.

A dancer’s mind is just as important as her body; the one guides the other. To dance fully without hesitation, without self-consciousness, sets the stage for dancing of power and flow — to witness such unforced abandon is one of ballet’s greatest gifts. It’s almost as if the mind and body conjoin in a spiritual melding that manifests as a feeling: sensation woven into silken motion. Dancers, in such moments, are celestial beings. Manners and decorum are stripped. It’s not about beauty or grace. The feminist case for ballet is right there onstage: It’s freedom. In his choreography, Balanchine made a space for women in particular — and for each woman — to be free.

Line, proportion, coordination are part of a dancer’s body, but dancing isn’t just about how a body looks. It’s bigger than that. When a dancer is completely in tune with music and steps, something intangible takes over and, as strange as it sounds, the physical body almost disappears. It’s magic, but it isn’t random: After years of training, after hours of repetition, the body becomes a conduit for emotion. Grit meets glory, the body meets the mind. That is Balanchine’s “do.”

What is the feminist knock on ballet? That dancers have no agency. That ballet companies are like cults in which women are starved and controlled by men. That gender biases in dance reduce women to objects, especially when it comes to male-female partnering. That, in ballet, women are referred to as girls long after that ship has sailed.

Balanchine these days is seen by some as fostering that culture. In the podcast “The Turning: Room of Mirrors,” Erika Lantz explores the legacy of Balanchine and ballet culture with former company members and writers, who, at times, attack the art form with opinions delivered as received wisdom.

“One of the things that you learn in ballet is what a good woman looks like,” Chloe Angyal, the author of “Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself,” says on the podcast. “How you’re supposed to look, how you’re supposed to move, how you’re supposed to behave, how you’re supposed to tolerate pain, how you’re supposed to conceal labor, who you’re supposed to obey, who you get to have power over.

“You learn all that in the ballet studio,” Angyal says. “But the reward for all that is accomplishing this very particular kind of femininity.”

Are all female ballet dancers the same kind of feminine? The dancers that I know are not holding on to a little girl’s definition of femininity; they’re independent, strong and, as far as I can tell, they don’t suffer in silence.

And it’s important to remember that Balanchine’s female dancers didn’t all look the same and, even more crucial, that they didn’t all dance the same. What they had — and still do, generations later — was different kinds of femininity, and all of it athletic. Balanchine made ballet faster, sleeker, more daring. But it wasn’t just athleticism alone, it was how that allowed for a more urgent, even wild, expressiveness. He turned dancers into athletes, and athletes into dancers with a mind-body connection so profound that to be able to “do” was not a robotic regurgitation of steps, but a new kind of speaking, of singing with the body. That is still true today — it’s in the choreography.

The books and the podcast are focused on Balanchine’s era, which ended with his death in 1983, and into the 1990s. But ballet culture has been going through changes, more quickly than I’ve seen before; companies have become more racially diverse — incrementally, but at least it’s an improvement — and greater attention is being paid to dancers’ well-being. In the past few years, changes have also been made in artistic leadership and accountability. (At City Ballet, Peter Martins retired after accusations of physical and mental abuse; he was later cleared by an independent investigation.) Issues revolving around injury and mental health are taken more seriously; they are no longer sources of shame.

Part of the current reckoning with ballet seems to have much to do with the heartbreak of having to give it up. Midway through “Room of Mirrors,” we learn that Lantz, the podcast’s host, was a ballet student who made the decision to quit. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she says. “I think it just meant a lot to me at the time. It was like one of the hardest decisions I ever made.”

Robb writes about a similar situation in her memoir, in which she recalls her experience at the School of American Ballet and dips into the biographies of others, including Misty Copeland and Margot Fonteyn. And while there is certainly sadness in Robb’s story, it’s not atypical: At a certain point, she didn’t advance at the school and had to leave; eventually, she quit ballet.

On “Room of Mirrors,” Wilhelmina Frankfurt, a former City Ballet dancer, says: “When you finally do move on, there’s a recovery period. And I think the recovery period into the quote-unquote ‘real world’ takes about 10 years.”

For many, it is never the right time to leave. That includes students whose bodies can betray them in adolescence and professionals at the top level whose bodies betray them by giving out. Dancers aren’t instruments, but their bodies are their instrument; without the body, the art form doesn’t exist. What other art form relies so entirely on the body?

And there’s something else that tends to be left out of the discussion: Ballet is hard. It’s not democratic; while anyone can study ballet (do it!), there is no question that only a rare few progress through years of rigorous training and then join a company. And it’s even more competitive for women — there are so many more of them. But how many Little Leaguers dream about making it to Major League Baseball or young tennis players of winning the U.S. Open?

I’m sensitive to dancers; I see them as people, and while it’s a fine line, I try to be as holistic as possible when writing about them. Musicality and proportion mean more to me than the size of a thigh. Coordination is key — it’s what allows a dancer to move with true abandon. Dancing well, dancing without restraint, is not about a body, it’s what you do with that body.

When I don’t discuss a dancer’s body — and, no, the idea of line isn’t only a veiled way to talk about weight — it’s a choice. I care most about how the person dances. I don’t fetishize a foot; I care about how the foot moves. I’m also not delusional. Are there physical standards in ballet? Of course. The body, like it or not, is part of the art form, and bodies develop in different ways. Ballet is punishing. There are injuries. It’s not for the weak — of body or mind.

But because it is an art form, ballet exists on another plane, where there is room for mystery and mysticism: So much is said about the silence dancers must maintain, but the body isn’t silent as it seeks harmony with the mind. The freedom in ballet comes when the body is so trained that it relaxes. Again, that’s the do.

The subject of flow came up in a 2022 talk about ballet and basketball with Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors head coach, and Alonzo King, the choreographer and artistic director of Lines Ballet in San Francisco. King spoke about dancers who are so absorbed in the moment that “they’re not self-conscious, they’re not thinking about themselves because that prevents the entry,” adding that, “You stop thinking about yourself and then something comes in — it’s that surrender thing that makes openings possible.”

Animating the body to a point in which it surrenders to the moment was part of Balanchine’s magic. He could probably see the potential of dancers more clearly than they could see themselves. But ballet isn’t one-sided. No matter who the choreographer is, it’s the dancer that finds an opening, a dancer that surrenders in real time. It’s a private moment in public, and it requires strength and courage; that’s a kind of feminism. A dancer’s world is neither little-girl pink nor black and white, it’s full of color and nuance and texture. When a dancer is onstage, she is in charge.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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