Sunday, July 25, 2010

Female ballet dancers and stress

Natalie Portman, the new face of Parfums Christian Dior.

Ballet dancers and psychoses: You don’t hear much about it but the more talented a dancer the more likely she is to have mental issues. I think it’s because we are pulled in so many directions simultaneously and because we have the determination to succeed. I don’t think men are nearly as affected by the mental strain. That’s because women are not only judged on artistic ability (musicality, classical technique and dramatic presentation), but on physical beauty and body image as well. In addition we are pulled by societal norms between career and marriage and children by our non-dancer family and friends. We are talking about women who are comfortable playing dress-up portraying doomed temple dancers, enchanted swans and ghosts of betrayed virgins for a living while being expected to function flawlessly in a 21st centaury world. Sometimes that gets complicated.

Being a classical ballet dancer is a career (not a lifestyle) that many young women aspire too but few actually succeed in attaining, because the physical, societal and mental demands of the profession are so at odds with 21st century social norms. The 1948 film The Red Shoes portrayed some of the stresses that pull on female dancers. Today the film The Red Shoes is considered over-the-top by some because it stresses an either-or situation; dedication to the dance vs. marriage and family. Over the years not a whole lot has changed for most female dancers. It’s true that Stars of major companies can take a year off to have a baby but if you are a young aspiring dancer with talent having a family is something carefully avoided for fear of being overtaken and passed by your competition.

Sorted by scents: Forty years ago George Balanchine (of blessed memory) sorted his favorite women in the NYCB by scents, giving his favorites different perfumes so he could tell by the fragrances who was in the building. All his wives were dancers, women who were his muses: Vera Zorina (December 1938–1946), Maria Tallchief (1946–1952), and Tanaquil LeClerq (1952–1969), as was his girlfriend, Alexandra Danilova (1926–1933). Toward the end of his life a muse who resisted his charms and managed to get away (to the determent of her career) was Suzanne Farrell.

Farrell joined NYCB in 1960 and was promoted to Principal in 1965. In 1969 she married Paul Mejia, another dancer in the company, over Balanchine’s objections and the couple left the New York City Ballet in 1970. After a period of self-exile in Europe, where Farrell danced for Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, she returned to Balanchine and the New York City Ballet in 1975, where her partnership with Balanchine lasted until his death in April 1983; his last works were solos for Farrell.

Christ and the Magdalene: The Balanchine-Farrell relationship is the stuff of legend, a real-world fantasy that played out for all to see on the NYCB stage at Lincoln Center. In 1965 Balanchine choreographed his version of Don Quixote for Farrell. In the first performance Balanchine danced the role of the Don while Farrell danced Dulcinea. The ballet was not a critical success. However, it is remembered as a striking example of the real-world lust of a man for a woman presented as ballet. For me the most telling scene in the ballet is where Dulcinea washes the Don’s feet and dries them with her hair, a scene reminiscent of Mary Magdalene drying the feet of Christ with her hair, a relationship not much different than the one between Balanchine and the then 19 y/o Farrell.

Now, more than forty years later, even though Feminism has advanced women’s rights much further than in the sixties, the role of women in ballet while better has not changed all that much. That’s because the competition, mental focus and physical requirements necessary for young women just starting their careers are so intense that few can mix dedication to a career and life outside the ballet world. I don’t think Nina will be another Victoria Page, but it will be fascinating to see what Darren Aronofsky, Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis will do with Black Swan, a 21st century Hollywood film about a severely stressed ballet dancer.

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Powys , Wales, United Kingdom
I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort