20 Jan 2010
Unlike so many evolving art forms, the roots of classical ballet technique remain deep and unwavering. As writing, music, and the visual arts have moved forward with each social progression, classical ballet can at times seem a significant yet somewhat static reminder of the past. However ballet and dance offer a greater opportunity to perceive the progress of women than any other art form. Ever since August Bournonville created the otherworldly Sylph in La Sylphide (1836), audiences have imagined the ballerina as a gauzy and delicate fantasy. Much like the carefully disarranged gardens of the Romantic era, she appeared in sweet disorder. What muscles she had were somehow hidden within a veil. How could someone so slight possess such graceful strength? In almost every classical and romantic ballet, it is the ballerina who needs the ‘prince’ to rescue her, to redeem her, to set her free. From Aurora’s need for an awakening kiss, to Manon’s desperate last few clutches at her lover, it is the vulnerability of women that links these enduring ballets.
Hurtle forward to 2009 to The Australian Ballet’s recent Concord season, in which Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 proved that in modern choreography, the depiction of masculinity and femininity in dance is almost a fluid concept. Defined muscles draw shapes at speed. The gender boundaries blur and the stage thrives with the power of the human body. And in Sydney Dance Company’s latest work Mercury by Kenneth Kvarnstrom, the women are independent travellers, secure in their fate without the sworn love of a man. The modern, tangled relationships between man and woman are portrayed and tender emotions are conjured underneath the stage lights. All of this while the women twist, manipulate, and lift the men with inimitable power and poise. The sheer absence of fragility in the women is undeniable; the fleeting sylph, from whom all ballerinas were born, has left the theatre. Mercury and Dyad 1929 are the newest avatars in the evolution of women’s role on the dance stage. There is no sign of Giselle in Kylian’s Petite Mort, not a flutter of Odette in Forsythe’s In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Ballerinas have evolved into lithe and fierce creatures. Perhaps this evolution could be said to have begun with a certain hedonistic Russian by the name of George Balanchine.
Balanchine once stated “Ballet is the female thing. It is woman.” Balanchine’s love of women was clear, however he encouraged a new kind of unattainable dream. On first glance Balanchine did not really nurture ‘the female thing’; he did not seem to support what it means to be a woman. He liked small boned, small-breasted girls, not the sensual curves a woman would naturally possess. His ballerinas appeared verging on the physically adolescent yet their approach was that of a femme fatale. Balanchine’s ‘women’ displayed superior strength, implausible given their lanky frame, and an innate seductiveness. A Balanchine ballerina looked like a Lolita but danced like a siren.
There is another contradiction in Balanchine’s words. If ballet is ‘the female thing’, then why are female choreographers so outnumbered by their male counterparts? The imbalance means that men have the power to create the woman on the stage, yet only through her is his imagination able to take shape. The movement, born in his mind, cannot be fleshed out without the woman he creates it upon. He reveres her yet controls her.
The struggle that faces modern choreographers and today’s female dancers lies in finding the point of equilibrium between the exquisite, gauzy girl and today’s resilient and powerful woman. Perhaps it can be seen in the contrast of bodily grace and relentless fortitude with the personality of the ballerina. She will rarely indulge, forgoing some of life’s unshackled pleasures in order to maintain absolute perfection on stage where she becomes a symbol of sumptuous poise. Her allure on stage can be found on the other side of the footlights too. Do men not watch in wonderment as women carve out their lives with independence and effortless grace? One day I hope to ooze perfect elegance and determination from every inch of my skin. Until then, included in my daily costume of black dress, boots and jewellery, a flower in my hair restores my inner Aurora and I am at once defiant and delicate. There is nothing unattainable about that.
Annie Carroll is a former ballet dancer of The Australian Ballet. She is now a freelance writer and can often be found roaming Melbourne’s laneways.