By Paula Marantz Cohen
15 April 2019
I just came from a performance of Giselle, the classic ballet in which the heroine, a peasant girl, falls in love with a prince and then dies when she discovers that he is betrothed to a noblewoman. I love this ballet and watched it with rapt attention, but I was struck, in the context of our #MeToo moment, of its problematic appeal and that of other ballets that I love like Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake.
Not for the first time, but more strongly, I was brought up short by the contradictions inherent in what I was seeing. One cannot separate a classical ballet of this kind from its reliance on extreme, stereotypical gender representation. The tutu is a frilly exaggeration of a woman’s hips and the longer skirt is its more romanticized extension, not to mention the diaphanous nightgowns that figure in sleep-walking scenes and bedroom encounters. The male dancer is the support, the prop and pander, to this gauzy female caricature. Often the ballerina dies — in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet there is a duet, if it can be called that, with Juliet’s lifeless body. Ballet also demands rigorous physical conformity from the female dancer. She must be of a certain height and weight, must have a certain leg length, and must possess good turn-out and feet. (My teacher informed me that I had none of these at age 12.) The male dancer, by contrast, is mostly defined by his bulging codpiece and delineated buttocks. So long as male dancers can jump and support their partners, they can be more variable in their physique.
But what strikes me the most as dramatically regressive, while also being the locus of my fascination, are the pointe shoes that ballerinas wear. (Male dancers don’t wear them, except in the most unconventional circumstances.) I have always been besotted by them. Despite having been told early on that I had no future as a ballerina, I somehow managed to acquire a pair and take a few lessons in them in my late teens. Just looking at those pink satin contraptions, or if you will, cages, for the feet still gives me a jolt of pleasure.
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