Yesterday marked the retirement from the New York City Ballet of one of the most recognizable bodies in ballet, the explicit sinew of the renowned Wendy Whelan. I know this body from having seen photos of her from every angle, often in austere black and white, an anatomist’s dream of a starkly articulated physiology. I know this from my only memory of seeing Whelan dance, a short frame the length of a camera flash: the spare Whelan whipping her leg around some forgotten partner’s torso like a spring-loaded trap snapping down in that possessive attitude penché in Agon, her ribcage forming the same cavernous void in space, like avaricious fingers clasped around the too-scarce air, the moment a percussive evacuation of oxygen suddenly extracted by a gaping crowd.
On October 3, the New York Times published an article meant to celebrate Whelan’s preternaturally long career that begins with Whelan self-deprecatingly remarking that any ballet dancer over 40 is a “dinosaur,” the article’s author, Roslyn Sulcas, like an auctioneer of livestock, describing Whelan as a “rare breed” with “thoroughbred… muscle and tendon,” and the rather repellent declaration, immediately following her assertion that Whelan is “the kind of muse who enables the best work from choreographers,” by American Ballet Theater resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, “I think I first fell in love with the shape of her legs. . . . The length from ankle to knee and knee to hip is perfectly proportioned, very graceful and strong.” When I read the article, I wondered whether an artist whose career has spanned thirty years might not deserve something better than an account of her anatomy, her hip surgery, her “idiopathic scoliosis,” the anomalous features of her face, her limbs, the impressive tenuity of her form.
One can become intoxicated by form in ballet as easily as one can succumb to all the mythologized parameters of feminine beauty: Scarlett O’Hara’s seventeen-inch waist, Kate Moss’s heroin chic, the legendary three-inch golden lotus of the Chinese bound foot, the body of such insubstantiality that it doesn’t shatter the glass shoe after a night of incessant dancing—denial, discipline, the body corralled and domesticated, blah blah blah.
Form was the focus of the panel discussion “Ballet and the Evolving Body Aesthetic,” on October 18, hosted by Cal Performances’s Rob Bailis, with Muriel Maffre and Julia Adam, both formerly principals of San Francisco Ballet, and Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister. Consideration of the body was inevitable; in fact, Bailis phrased one of his opening questions in such terms—“What has your body learned?” Though the event might have become another dialogue on the stringent somatic specifications of dance’s most exacting art, the resulting discussion broached the more crucial matter of where ballet stands as a formal art among the other systems of dance in our time.
That ballet is a formal art seemed to go without question among the interlocutors. Maffre described her training as “learning a code,” a code that had been invented in the past and, as tradition, was “prescribed.” That it has become more so was emphasized by McAllister’s description of contemporary modes of ballet pedagogy as a “science,” while Adam observed that her initial attraction to ballet resulted because it gave her “obsessive compulsive tendencies” a focus through endlessly “refining movement.” Yet Maffre, who began by saying that ballet initially brought her a sense of “empowerment” and “invincibility,” concluded, “at the end of my career, it was inhibiting me… My body inherited a huge amount of knowledge, but [it] was inhibited by the form. I’ve come to a crisis of this love affair. I’m still in love with the vocabulary, the training, the high level of skill. I teach—I love passing on knowledge—but now my own aesthetic has moved with respect to how ballet is shown onstage. Ballet is still created from the outside in.”
Adam also described her career as a struggle with and against form, describing the development of her individual artistry and transition to choreography as a discovery that ballet’s “refinement… could be broken or changed,” the most vital growth being “to digest” it and “make it your own.” “Classicism is a fight,” she declared. “I was always looking for the path of least resistance.”
“Is ballet dead?” inquired Bailis, refusing to name Jennifer Homans’s 2011 Apollo’s Angels, in which its passing was loudly proclaimed. McAllister answered, “If you have a narrow view of it. [Homans] was so blinkered by Balanchine. Would Margot Fonteyn get a job today? Maybe, but only for her special magic on stage.”
Maffre contended, “Traditional ballet is problematic. It was codified by monarchy of Louis XIV and contains all the qualities of the court. It is highly western, hierarchical—things we are moving away from. We have to rewrite the history of dance—think of the body as an abstraction, an emotional vessel—and then grow from there. Ballet needs to be discussed in a different context. Tradition can play against us without dramaturgy, without context. There’s a sociopolitical context for ballet—we can’t put the same things onstage anymore.” (Muriel, I fear you, but I love you!)
I am only another of those who could not contain an irrepressible desire to move, who loved ballet because it gave a form to those impulses and seemed a thing one could learn how to do. I go to class to reacquaint myself with the lines we imagine exist in the universe. But watching ballet performed often brings me more frustration than pleasure, even done by those who are said to do it best. I think the emphasis on form inhibits ballet. Where there is form, there is the illusion of perfection, of mastery. The emphasis on superior anatomy and absolute technique sets the body as a limit in a way that movement is not.
“Ballet is line,” explained one of my earliest teachers. “The most beautiful line is a curve. The most beautiful shape is the one you can draw with the fewest lines,” he would say, sketching out an arabesque with two quick strokes. Visually, the body abstracted, he is right. But because of this belief, he advocated locking the knees and hyperextending where possible to create this beautiful line, becoming, in his quest for perfect form, the kind of ballet master who destroys the material of his creations—though no one would deny that, in their moment, they are exquisite.
(Of course Fonteyn would have been a dancer—a modern dancer, because that’s where the ones who have the magic but not the feet end up in our time.)
Addendum, 11 Nov 2014: See my interview with Alonzo King for more on ballet’s history and value.