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Ballet: An Art that Transcends Time, Communication, & Differences
I was in love for ten years. The kind of love that makes you lose track of all time, that makes you feel as if you’re in a dream. A love that grows inside you, a passion, the biggest piece of yourself.
My love was sore muscles, calloused feet, aching lungs. My love was red lipstick, dark eyeliner, slick hair. My love was the stage. It was waiting in the wings in a glittering costume, the counts of the music filling my head until-- suddenly-- my legs carried me onstage again, tugged by an unseen force, and the lights hit my face and I rose en pointe and my feet filled with pain and I danced.
I did this for ten years. Ten years of my life I was an outsider in school because I didn’t play volleyball or basketball or run cross country. I went home and put on pink tights, a black leotard, and twisted my hair into a bun.
Ten years of long nights and tiring weekends spent in the studio. I said no to weekend plans. I stood on the sidelines in gym class, not knowing the rules of any sport, but marking dances in my head and humming classical music.
I was a ballet dancer, and I loved ballet, and I fought for ballet. Boys would tell me it was stupid and girls didn’t want to listen when I told them my roles in The Nutcracker. But I talked about it constantly, never shutting up about the pointe shoes and tutus and variations. Ballet is a sport, I would shout, It is hard and it is beautiful and I am in love with it. It is the purest of art forms that deserves appreciation.
As my love only grew over those ten years, the public’s love shrank. The Nutcracker, my studio’s biggest show of the year, morphed from a beloved, sold-out, holiday tradition to a crowd of only parents, grandparents, and a few dragged-along siblings. Our spring and summer shows fared even worse-- even though we were thrilled to learn and perform different ballets like Giselle and Coppelia, other people just didn't care about dead lovers and dancing dolls.
The director of my studio was Ken von Heidecke, former dancer for famed choreographer George Balanchine and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. He told story after story about the New York City Ballet, the Chicago City Ballet, and ballet history and culture all throughout the world. We adored these stories and loved to imagine ourselves dancing in ballet’s American heyday in the mid-20th century. Ballet was our world, and we wanted the public to be just as in love with it as we were. We wanted ballets to be romantic, prestigious evenings out for the wealthy and posh. In reality, a ballet was just an overpriced ticket for supportive family members.
The heyday of ballet we all dreamed of began around the 1940s in America and England. Like most things, ballet was not invincible to the second world war. Karen Eliot in her journal “Starved for Beauty: British Ballet and Public Morale during the Second World War” detailed the plateaus and peaks of English ballet. As the fighting picked up, companies and theaters in England closed. The women traded their pointe shoes for telegraphs and thermometers, the men traded their tights for guns and uniforms. The English ballet world was put to a standstill.
British morale was low. Jewish panic was rising and the country was struggling with relocating children to the countryside to escape Nazis. Society was focused on contributing to the war effort. From this, unlikely heroes rose, tied their shoe ribbons, and pinned their hair buns.
Theaters slowly started to open again when dancers realized they could help their country by performing. The public needed a break from war-centered jobs and horrific newspapers. Male dancers that were called to military duty were given “occasional deferments or extended leaves for performance opportunities” (Eliot, 179). One man traded his military uniform for a single night in tights to perform Giselle. “Their skills, passion, and energy were turned outward as they heeded the mission to serve the public morale” (Eliot, 176).
The same began to happen in the United States. According to “The American Ballet” by Edwin Denby, theaters across America filled during war because people were “eager for the civilized and peaceful excitement of ballet.” Many new dancers had opportunities to perform here and abroad as it became a more popular pastime for everyday citizens. Audiences widened to people who had never before seen anything like ballet.
People were searching for a break, and they found it. They could watch stories of love, death, and fantasy unfold before their eyes in an organized chaos of lights, costumes, orchestra, and emotion. According to Denby, “in wartime the fact that no word was spoken on the stage was in itself a relief.” They fell in love with the same thing I did 70 years later: a strange yet ethereal form of storytelling.
Ballet has no words. This is likely what frightens modern audiences most. The story is not given to you with spoken lines and lyrics like plays, musicals, and movies. The choreographers, performers, and audiences alike have to work hard for the story to be understood. Dancers have to emit emotion from every movement, and audiences must pay close attention to understand what is being conveyed. The art of pantomime-- communicating through specific motions, almost like sign language-- helps this storytelling, but the average citizen doesn’t know the exact meaning of ballet pantomime motions.
Thus unfolds the strive for the perfect balance between pantomime and pure dancing to convey intricate ballet plots. Francis Mason in his piece “Ballet, English and American” discusses this objective by comparing the storytelling of twelve ballets. In many of the productions, pantomime explains intricate parts of the plot. According to Mason, “what makes it interesting, what makes the audience care about the fate of its heroine, comes… from the visible character the ballerina has developed before the spectator by her dancing.”
Instead of being moved by camera angles, close-up facial expressions, and dialogue, ballet audiences are brought to emotion by orchestra and the elegant, striking movements of a trained ballerina.
The first time I realized this was in 2012 when I performed in my studio’s production of Giselle. It is a heartbreaking, complex tale of a sick young girl caught in a love triangle. There is romance, surprise, death, and sorrow. After learning that Albrecht, the man she loves most, is an engaged aristocrat, Giselle dances to exhaustion and kills herself in a fit of love and devastation. She returns in the second act as a ghost in the realm of the Willis, spirits of women betrayed by their lovers. The women tell her to kill the men who wronged her, but she is still too in love with Albrecht to harm him. They dance a stunning pas de deux, a dance of two, the woman a ghost and the man a human.
I will always remember watching this pas de deux. The DVD of our performance finally arrived at the studio, so we sat on the old couches and watched ourselves dance on the outdated TV. The music slows to a soft cry of a violin as the star-crossed couple dances together in a heartbreaking in-between world of life and death-- a romantic purgatory.
We were transfixed in that moment, watching the principal dancers our director hired tell a story of devastating love through movement and music. Everyone on those old couches was holding their breath. Emotions filled us as the couple danced across the stage.
This pas de deux, to me, is the purest form of ballet. The audience feels for this desperate girl so in love but so hapless. We have all, in a way, felt so desperate for something so out of reach. To see these emotions played out with movement more accurately reflects what we feel inside ourselves than if they were conveyed with words. The turbine of emotions inside of us cannot be articulated with mere letters and syllables.
This portrayal of real-life emotion is seen throughout a wide variety of ballets. In fact, Mary Magada-Ward wrote an article about famous choreographer George Balanchine titled “He Saw What Was Going to Happen in the World and Put It on Stage.” After growing up in Russia and dancing and choreographing in Europe, Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet in 1934, which trains students for the New York City Ballet. His is a household name for any performer. One famous and controversial ballet of his is Agon, first performed in 1957 (Magada-Ward 177). The climax of this piece features one black man and one white woman dancing together in simple black and white costumes. They mold and sculpt each other, trading dominance. This ballet was shocking to the audiences of the pre-civil rights era. To see a black man perform with a white woman as an equal was unheard of. To see the genders change roles and switch dominance was inconceivable. This performance pushed boundaries.
Magada-Ward notes that Agon raises the question “whether the man is the active or passive partner” and if these roles are even true “characteristics of the difference between male and female.” She goes even further to question “whether indeed we know satisfactorily how to think about the difference between male and female.”
This minimalistic ballet has the power to stir up these intriguing and powerful questions. Again-- this is all done without words, camera angles, and close-ups. That is the beauty of this moving art form. With intelligent choreographers, fantastic composers, and professional dancers, ballet can be a powerful tool. It can be shocking and groundbreaking; it can make audiences emotional and uncomfortable.
Ballet does this not only on stage, but in its own society and culture. My director, Mr. von Heidecke, would always talk about the “ballet world,” a place of beauty, history, scandal, and culture. What I figured out for myself is that the ballet world is also significant and important for its progressiveness. It seems almost oxymoronic that such a classical art form could have a progressive culture. But that’s just another layer of its intricate fabric.
The homosexual stereotype of men in ballet held true in my studio. The first gay men I met were the principal dancers my director hired for The Nutcracker. According to journalist David Remnick in his article “Danse Macabre,” “homosexuality is common and generally accepted in the Russian dance world, but, in large measure, it is taboo in Russia.” According to The New York Times, Russia passed a bill in 2013 that outlawed propaganda of nontraditional relationships. Since this wording is very broad, it could even “ban expressions of affection by same-sex couples in public places with children.” Just earlier this year, gay men were assaulted by police in Chechyna, a federal subject of Russia.
These events are in stark contrast to the diverse, accepting, and progressive culture of ballet all around the world. That even in such a regressive country can ballet culture flourish truly shows the power this art form has. Maria Tallchief, America’s first prima ballerina assoluta, is another example of ballet’s progressiveness.
Tallchief was born into the Osage Native American Tribe in 1925 in Oklahoma. Shortly after, her family moved to California where she began studying ballet. According to Jacqueline Shea Murphy in her article “Far from the Powwow,” Tallchief rose to fame as she danced under Balanchine in the rolls he created specifically for her: leads in The Nutcracker, Firebird, and Swan Lake. Her name will live on in ballet history forever; according to Murphey, her rolls and performances were “a crucial part of the transformation of ballet into an American dance form.”
To have a Native American woman accomplish such great feats was remarkable for the mid-20th century. Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924, one year before Tallchief was born. In the 1940s when she was rising to fame, some Native war veterans were returning home to states that did not allow them to vote (Nativeamericannetroots). Yet Tallchief flourished onstage, proud of her heritage. According to Murphy, she was encouraged to “Russianize” her name to “Tallchieva,” but refused. Tallchief was proud of her name and what it represented.
I adored her as a young ballet dancer. I loved hearing Mr. von Heidecke tell stories about her classes and performances. I met her daughter at my dance studio and was awestruck. I cried when she died in 2013. Tallchief’s ability to succeed and accomplish great feats as a Native American woman further proves that ballet is progressive and ahead of this time. Even when the rest of the country discriminated against Natives, Tallchief was a superior citizen- a star, a queen, a beloved household name.
Ballet is old. It is quiet, it is classical, it is difficult to perform and to watch. Audiences are losing interest, and the ballet world that my old director spoke so lovingly about is becoming more and more niche. But we must not lose this art. How unique it is to affect audiences so deeply with only movement and music, to transcend time and differences and language. It strikes our minds, hearts, and even political opinions. It drives us to think more deeply about life, stories, and how we express emotion. It is a perfect and intricate balance of storytelling, it put a pause on the daily wartime misery, it brought our differences to attention but pushed them aside at the same time.
My first love is falling in the shadows of art forms less diverse, less meaningful, less creative. We must not let it completely slip.