A short screed against the ballet

We went to the ballet last night, to see the English National Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty at the Coliseum. A family Christmas present to my wife from my sons and me. I bought the tickets. They agreed to go.

It was thoroughly enjoyable, but here are my brief observations on the form:

  • Dance is not a dramatic art. The human body in motion can be beautiful, but mime, even graceful mime (perhaps especially graceful mime) is naff in the extreme. All that hand curling around the face to show ‘woman’ or ‘beauty’ or whatever is just so unnecessary.
  • There is more not-dancing than I thought there would be, or remember. And a fair number of performers who don’t actually dance, but – in this show at least – merely walk elegantly across stage in ludicrous costumes and then stand and watch the real dancers do their stuff. Is there a name for these appendages, these eunuchs of the dance? Assuming they are dancers by training, or desire, can there be any more painful job? It seems somehow worse than being a mere spear-carrier in the RSC. In any case, they and their role remind me that ballet is no different to any other art – a lot of it is throat-clearing, makin’ ’em wait, the cynical building anticipation for the main event.
  • The main event: A single human body in motion is impressive. Two human bodies in motion together is beautiful. Many human bodies in motion is wondrous. By which I mean I was less taken by the virtuoso aesthetic feats of the solo dancers than I was by the patterns formed on stage by the corps de ballet, when they were doing their no doubt far less difficult moves.
  • In fact, the aesthetic feats of those soloists were probably as much athletic, or technical, as aesthetic. See how high that guy jumped and still landed gracefully! See how many spins she did! Ballet is an art. Synchronised swimming (and gymnastics for that matter) is a sport. But surely they exist on a continuum. If you can ‘judge’ the latter and award Olympic medals, why not the former?
  • The ideal of feminine beauty espoused by ballet is largely static, not to say inert. The real high points of the solos – their apogees – seemed to be not those moments in which the ballerinas leapt and kicked and spun, but when they held a pose, an undoubtedly graceful pose, on tip toe, arm elegantly aloft, spare leg extended, for our delectation. The body is put on a platter for the gaze to feast on at its leisure. The passivity seems integral.
  • I saw one pair of breasts, the whole evening. To clarify: I wasn’t looking for breasts, but at one point I noticed that one ballerina, a lowly member of the corps de ballet, had breasts (by which I mean the not very visible upper part of them) that bobbed slightly when she danced. I guess that tells you all you need to know about the body morphology needed for the art form. And that current ideals of feminine beauty still pull in more than one direction.
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