Reviewed in this essay: Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, Deidre Kelly, Greystone Books, 2012.
Following the recent acid-attack on Bolshoi Artistic Director, Sergei Filin, and the scandals unfolding in its wake, the cracks in ballet’s veneer of perfection have never been more visible—or as puzzling—to those outside of the discipline. Dance critic Diedre Kelly’s book Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, by way of a concise, thoroughly researched portrait of the ballerina throughout history, grounds these events in the historically dark underpinnings of ballet’s otherworldly image.
The book begins by laying out ballet’s origins and describes its flourishing under the reign of Louis XVI. As ballet became gradually professionalized (though still under court patronage) women of low birth could use ballet to increase their social influence, bringing themselves into the protection of the court, and more often than not, into the beds of high-ranking noblemen. Kelly provides one juicy historical anecdote after another from this time when ballerinas were “wily creatures who knew how to manipulate their public image for private gain.” She is adamant that dancers during this ballerina-courtesan era were not necessarily exploited, but rather, used their highly trained bodies to gain financial independence that would otherwise have been out of reach. This relative autonomy did not last long, however. She goes on to describe the drastic changes brought on by the shift to private financing of the 19th century ballet during which low-level dancers were little more than the sexual pawns of wealthy patrons.
The remainder of the book details the power shift that occurred as dancers were forced out of the spotlight by rising (male) choreographers. For most ballet fans, myself included, the name “Balanchine” invokes instant reverence. However, Kelly shows us the dark side of Balnchine’s genius, painting a picture of a man who worshiped ballerinas for their synonymy with ballet itself, but simultaneously regarded them as mechanistic, dispensable bodies, useful only in so far as they could execute his artistic vision. Kelly attributes to Balanchine not only the origin of the abstract ballet, but also the industry’s obsession with stick-thin bodies, which has initiated a host of eating disorders that became the status quo.
Within such rigid institutional hierarchies, the ballet world is rife with power abuses and labour conflicts continuing today. Kelly devotes the larger part of a chapter to the 18-month legal battle between US-born Kimberley Glasgow and the National Ballet of Canada. Her abrupt dismissal came in 1998 came after she criticized the company’s allocation of funds. Glasgow eventually won her wrongful dismissal suit. Though an unprecedented victory for dancers, Kelly acknowledges that the mere existence of the case is significant given the rarity of dancers challenging their employers.
Kelly’s perpetual effort to connect the ballerina to the larger social forces of her time creates a book that easily reaches beyond the obvious audience of dance lovers to anyone interested in the historical relationship between art, politics and society. As funding cuts to the arts continue to place artists in increasingly vulnerable economic situations, Kelly’s book has significant resonance. It serves as a reminder about the dangers of regarding artists as ideal, transcendent beings rather than flesh and blood labourers—even Romantic-era stage sylphs need labour laws and job security.