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Thorough history uncovers ballet's dirty little secrets

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THIS provocatively titled, impeccably researched history of the ballerina romps through centuries' worth of ballet's dirty little secrets.

As much as some people like to think of the art form as high-minded, author Deirdre Kelly, a well-known Toronto dance critic, makes it clear that its appeal has often been to the lower regions.

"Almost from the beginning, professional ballerinas were sexualized," Kelly writes.

Around the time that ballet moved from palace ballrooms to the theatre stage in the late 1600s, placing dancers "facing toward an audience, their legs turned outwards from the hips for maximum frontal exposure," the ballerina "moved from decorative object to object of desire."

Indeed, Kelly reports that sex was so linked to the Paris Opera of the 18th century that the "ballerina-as-concubine was an open secret in French society."

It was so open that the opera kept a registry with the female dancers' names and the corresponding names of their male "protectors" -- members of the French elite, nobility and at least one bishop.

No doubt there were many victims of this system, but Kelly provides intriguing examples of dancers who successfully manipulated the system for their own gain.

Kelly argues that "ballerina-courtesans were among the first independent women ... not passive victims of patriarchy, as some might want to think, but active participants in the shaping of their own destinies."

Ballerina is narrower in focus than American dance writer Jennifer Homans' 2011 doorstopper, Apollo's Angels, which is a cultural history of the entire ballet art form.

Still, Kelly deftly explains the various aspects of ballet's evolution from Paris in the Romantic era to Russia and the classical ballet, and then on to North America via Les Ballet Russes, Anna Pavlova and the arrival of director-choreographer Georges Balanchine in the first half of the 20th century.

Kelly is obviously not a fan of Balanchine the man. Her character assessment is backed by stories from his favourite ballerinas -- even if they themselves are trying to flatter him.

Kelly also convincingly blames Balanchine for the unrealistic physical ideal for which the ballerina is still expected to strive.

Along with body issues and potential eating disorders, injuries are a constant threat lurking in the wings for ballerinas, especially with the increasingly athletic demands of today's choreography.

While there is now a dedicated dance medicine field, Kelly quotes practitioners who admit its science is "20 years behind sports medicine," and they are "years away from saying this is what we think is useful."

While the modern ballerina need not fear the physical dangers associated with the antiquated stagecraft, which resulted in deaths in the Romantic era, she may dread the psychological and mental anguish that so often accompanies retirement.

Today, the average ballerina's career ends when she is but 29. And no matter how impressive her resumé may read to the dance world, in the "real" world, that resumé reads as an empty page.

Professional athletes also face this unenviable reality. But unlike highly paid athletes, "empty" also often describes a dancer's bank account.

Kelly shares the most recent Statistics Canada report, which states a dancer's average yearly salary is a scandalous $19,767.

The end of a dancer's career can signal the convergence of a perfect storm consisting of financial fears, retraining for the real world and redefining self.

Kelly quotes the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's most celebrated ballerina, Evelyn Hart, admitting to "a loss of identity" upon the conclusion of her career in 2006.

Kelly suggests that Hart, who was hailed as "one of the greatest Giselles of the 20th century," is herself "not unlike Giselle, a ghost of her former self."

There are many engrossing stories in Ballerina. Ballet lovers will not be disappointed by this compelling read.

 

CindyMarie Small is a former soloist with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 J8

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