Ever since Kate Winslet was airbrushed into emaciation by GQ
magazine, we have been ambivalent about jumping on the bandwagon of the latest body-image scandals du jour.
Although such fiascos are often genuinely appalling and expose the media's rabid curve-o-phobia and weight bigotry, one can never shake the feeling that they are thinly disguised publicity stunts.
For example, Winslet's GQ
controversy surely helped to sell tickets to her next film. The recent debacle about a Marie Claire
'blog (in which the writer stated that she couldn't bear to see heavyset characters embracing) sent droves of new readers to the magazine's Web site. And whenever plus-size supermodels shrink down to straight-size proportions, the outrage over their selling out becomes a cynically bankable "controversy."
The latest body-image furore involves a New York Times
dance critic named Alastair Macaulay who delivered a sneering insult to ballerina Jenifer Ringer for supposedly being overweight.
We were initially going to ignore this topic, because the timing seemed too serendipitous by half (coinciding with a big-budget Hollywood ballet movie starring a major Hollywood actress). The entire controversy was likely stoked to sell Black Swan
tickets. However, as we noted above, sometimes a situation is so appalling that it requires denunciation, even if behind it one senses the manipulative hand of marketing.* * *
To recap, Macaulay was reviewing a New York City Ballet performance of The Nutcracker, one of the greatest ballets ever written, and one of Tchaikovsky's finest scores. (Disney fans will recall The Nutcracker as an especially imaginative section of the 1940 masterpiece Fantasia.) In his review, Macaulay made the following snide, crass remark:
Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.
Bear in mind that while ballet is one of the finest achievements of Western culture and boasts some of the most glorious music ever composed, it is, in its current form, almost unbearable to watch, because the ballet establishment has mandated a skeletal standard of appearance for its female dancers that is every bit as toxic and crippling as the anorexic look demanded by the straight-size fashion industry.
As a result, eating disorders are the norm in ballet, not the exception, and ballerinas routinely end up afflicted with osteoporosis and other crippling illnesses, after having starved and tortured their bodies for years.
Therefore, don't get your hopes up that Macaulay's comment means that New York is currently blessed with a plus-size ballerina. Here
is a picture of the very slight Ms. Ringer as the Sugar Plum Fairy, taken on the very evening that the above insult was lobbed.
Obviously, the critic's comment is worse than ridiculous. Ringer is in dire need of more
sugar plums, not fewer. There is something deeply wrong with anyone who could look at a dancer with such a painfully thin frame and deem her overweight. Ringer has stick limbs, no bust, and veritably no flesh whatsoever on her bones. For anyone to state that such a harrowingly skinny dancer should be even thinner
is nothing less than an edict that she must become anorexic.
And it gets worse. Ringer is, in fact, an actual, recovering victim of eating disorders, having received medical treatment for her disease--a fact about which Macaulay, as a professional ballet critic, could not have been unaware. So not only was he telling someone who was already cadaverously thin that she was still
not emaciated enough, but he was saying this to an anorexia victim.
Forgetting for a moment the appalling lack of empathy that such a statement indicates, how could anyone actually view Ringer's wizened frame and consider that
A tiresome interview
with Macaulay from earlier this year contains a pertinent bit of information about this reviewer. Macaulay says:
I'm homosexual, but my reason for revisiting "Swan Lake" is certainly not because I hope to fancy the Prince.
How predictable. In her book Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet,
author Suzanne Gordon notes the following:
It is an uncontested fact that most choreographers and company directors are gay. Even if they claim to "love women," homosexuals often have very ambivalent feelings about them. And a dislike of the normal female form might easily lead to the desire to distort it, ostensibly in pursuit of aesthetic goals.
Macaulay's original comment was bad enough, but once the public outrage over his cruel insult erupted, he wrote something that was far more offensive than his original infantile slur. He penned a grotesquely self-important justification
for his comments. And here is where he truly becomes intolerable.
First, he resorts to an underhanded bit of sophistry to justify his degenerate aesthetic:
The nudes of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt and Renoir show women with curves that are no longer part of any fashionable idea of beauty.
Ballet demands sacrifice in its pursuit of widely accepted ideals of beauty. To several readers that struggle is, regrettably but demonstrably and historically in the case of many women, concomitant with anorexia.
So Classically curvaceous femininity is not part of "any fashionable
idea of beauty"? And how does he define what is "fashionable"? As whatever accords with his own freakish taste? The fact that the majority of commentators on this issue have stated that if anything, Ringer looks too thin, not too curvy, means that what Macaulay defines as a "fashionable idea of beauty" isn't fashionable at all to most people. Therefore, what he is actually saying is that women with curves are merely not a part of his
idea of beauty, an idea of beauty that the public overwhelmingly rejects.
His second assertion is therefore even more ridiculous. He claims that ballet pursues "widely accepted ideals of beauty." But if this furore has demonstrated anything, it is that what he defines as ballet's idea of beauty isn't "widely accepted" at all, but widely rejected.
It is only narrowly
accepted--by a tiny cabal of marginal individuals such as himself, and then shoved down the throats of the rest of us.
But the following comments expose the true shallowness and puerility at the core of Macaulay's criticism:
When a dancer has surplus weight, there can be no more ruthless way to demonstrate it than to dance in a tutu with shoulders bare.
In the 1970s Lynn Seymour’s weight was more pronounced, and her physique more curvaceous, than Ms. Ringer’s. And her upper arms wobbled considerably more than Ms. Ringer’s did last week. But they were like the wobble on certain notes in Maria Callas’s voice — unfortunate, controversial, but entirely mentionable in an artist who transcended her flaws.
In our own time many other female dancers with obvious physical imperfections have made impressions far greater than those whose bodies were ballet-perfect. ...Dancers with less than ideal shapes must bring other qualities to bear. Many have, and Ms. Ringer does, too, with several roles. This particular Sugar Plum Fairy — one of her rare tutu parts these days — was not one of them.
So according to Macaulay, Ringer has body "flaws" and "physical imperfections," such as "upper arms [that] wobble"; her shape is "less than ideal," and her weight is "surplus."
He piles on the insults like a six-year-old schoolyard bully.
Followers of plus-size fashion will immediately recognize the shopworn and offensive nature of his criticisms. His comments are of the same sort that fashion writers once employed to defame curves as something shameful, which must be covered up at all costs. This kind of hide-your-body muumuu thinking went out sometime in the 1970s.
Take away Macaulay's florid prose, and this is all that his sentiments come down to: a curve-o-phobic squeamishness about visible fullness. Behind his comments is merely his fringe belief that female fleshiness is unsightly, which he presents as some kind of incontrovertible fact, as if he were explaining mathematical laws, when all that he is doing is revealing his own prejudice.
To support this claim, notice how he shifts the agency from himself to "ballet," as if ballet were a conscious entity:
Ballet demands sacrifice in its pursuit of widely accepted ideals of beauty.
Dancers — even when sheathed in tights, tunics, tutus — open their bodies up in the geometrical shapes and academic movements that ballet has codified, and so they make their bodies subject to the most intense scrutiny.
The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion. I am severe — but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.
"Ballet demands"? "Balled has codified"? "Ballet is severe"? These "demands" and "severity" are simply coming from Macaulay himself and others of his ilk. Ballet
does not have a consciousness. Ballet
has no agency. Ballet is not a geological phenomenon with fixed properties. There is no Ballet God somewhere imparting divine revelations to critics. Rather, there is just a small cadre of size bigots too prissy to handle womanly curves, who impose their warped tastes on the rest of society, then absurdly claim that "ballet made them do it."
What Macaulay fails to acknowledge, either strategically (because he knows that it would crush his argument), or simply because he cannot comprehend this fact, is that emaciation is the true "imperfection," that a starving shape is "less than ideal," that visible bones (rather than visible curves) are the actual "flaws."* * *
And that brings us, finally, to why we have addressed this topic a week after it made the rounds of the Web. In their condemnation of Macaulay, commentators have stated that the critic should focus on the dance, not on the body. This gave Macaulay the opening to make his specious defense that in ballet, "the body matters."
Of course it does--but the problem with today's "ballet body" is the opposite of what Macaulay contends.
What none of Macaulay's critics have said, as they should have, is that the bodies of modern ballerinas can, should, and must be criticized--for being too thin.
The underlying motivation for Macaulay's remarks is his aesthetic antipathy to fullness, an antipathy that, as Gordon notes in her book, is rampant in the ballet world.
This antipathy must be turned on its head, and replaced with an aesthetic preference for female fullness.
Does the idea of plus-size ballerinas seem unlikely? Only because of our own modernist conditioning. The truth is that while ballerinas have always been smaller than the Classical feminine ideal, they were historically much plumper than they are today. The only consistently unnatural factor in their appearance is that they have always suffered from painfully narrow waists, due to that most appalling of all wardrobe devices, the corset. But in their busts, hips, and limbs, ballerinas were historically so much fleshier than Jenifer Ringer is today that the sight of these soft dancers would have made the pantywaists of the modern ballet establishment pass out and need to be revived with smelling salts.
Consider, for example, this ballerina, who was representative enough to have covered the French periodical Le Theatre in 1906. She may not possess the figure of a plus-size model, but she exhibits a generous bust and full, meaty legs. Jenifer Ringer would have to consume many sugar plums indeed to develop her shapely proportions.
Or consider this 1893 French poster advertising the ballet Le Fête de l'Argent. The ballerina (despite the ubiquitous corseted waist) has visibly full thighs, rounded arms, a notable bust, and even some fleshiness in her face. She looks nothing like the gaunt walking cadavers with whom the ballet establishment insists on populating the modern stage.
Is there any current ballerina who is even remotely as buxom as this Dancer in Casual Dress sculpted by Degas in 1919? Such prominent secondary sex characteristics would expose a present-day dancer to the harshest of jibes from curve-hating New York Times arts writers.
The tradition of fuller-figured ballerinas (fuller by today's warped standards) goes all the way back to the beginning of the art form. This paining of the famous 18th-century dancer Barbara Campanini may not reveal much, figure wise,
but observe her facial features. She has a round face with visible fullness, and even a curve under her chin. Today's ballerinas, by contrast, are so emaciated that their faces resemble skulls with a thin layer of skin stretched over them.
Another painting of "La Barberina" shows the fleshy curve under her chin even more visibly, and not a trace of a visible clavicle.
Alas, very few of the early ballerinas had their portraits professionally rendered, so all that remains of their likenesses are simple line drawings, which often pay little attention to human proportion. Nevertheless, this sketch of dancer Maria Taglioni (1804-84) discloses a fullness in her legs and arms which contrasts vividly with the stick-thin limbs that modern ballerinas possess.
This lithograph of 19th-century ballerina Fanny Cerrito definitely indicates how voluptuous she was--far, far more than someone like Jenifer Ringer, with her supposed "surplus weight" (not an ounce of which is actually visible).
That Fanny was likely even fuller than this drawing suggests is indicated by a contemporary account, which maintained that she
knows how to curve and soften her plump arms like the handles of an ancient Greek vase
(as quoted in the book Time and the Dancing Image
The cover of this collection of vintage ballet prints shows a dancer with arms and legs so round and substantial that they would scandalize today's timid dance critics.
Anna Galster, seen with her partner in this 1830 drawing, was quite respectably buxom--far more than a modern ballet guru would ever permit.
Even a painting from as late as the first half of the 20th century, a canvas by Francois Gall (1912-45) titled Dancer Adjusting her Tutu, shows a girl with a voluptuous bust.
We offer one final historical example, which is this work by Pal Fried (born 1893) titled The Ballerina. It shows little of her figure, but observe how healthy and robust her facial features appear.
She is young and pretty, girlish and soft. And this leads to an important consideration:
Imagine how much the ballet world would be improved if, at the very least, it returned to embracing the healthier, softer, fuller proportions of the ballerinas of the past--or better still, if it shifted to featuring ballerinas who were plus-size even by the standards of today's full-figured models.
Given that eating disorders are so rampant in ballet, and that ballerinas are so emaciated that their shrivelled frames distract the audience from their enjoyment of the performance, something is fatally wrong with ballet's current aesthetic, and that aesthetic needs to change.
Although it was a popular art in past centuries, ballet currently lacks a mainstream audience, and this is clearly for a simple reason: the public doesn't like what it sees. By restricting itself to such an androgynous, sickly aesthetic, ballet is self-selecting its audience to the narrowest possible group, limiting its appeal to people like Macaulay.
But if choreographers, critics, etc. were to adopt an appreciation of soft fullness rather than an aversion to such natural beauty, then the health problems that plague ballet would vanish, and the public would come to adore it.
Fuller bodies in ballet would be more beautiful to look at, adding to audience enjoyment, increasing the health of the ballerinas, and creating a superior art form.
In a post on this forum from 2007, we featured several images of plus-size model and trained dancer Courtney Legare (née Hanneman) striking a series of ballet poses.
To watch a girl of Courtney's size 18/20 proportions do ballet would be a voluptuous experience, an intoxicating display of feminine opulence and sensuality. To watch a modern dancer execute an arabesque is, by contrast, something cold and mechanical, no better than viewing stick-figure animation:
The following YouTube clip comprises Kailee O'Sullivan's videos for David's Prom from 2007. They show her doing elegant, graceful twirls in her prom gowns, which rather resemble ballet costumes. We have added background music from Adolphe Adam's Giselle, perhaps the greatest ballet ever composed, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. As you watch the video and listen to the music, imagine a goddess such as Kailee performing the beautiful movements of ballet, dressed in the figure-revealing attire of this art form, thus exhibiting the undulating motion of her soft figure as she gracefully dances in time with the music.
This is what ballet could be--something far more appealing than what it currently is, something much closer to its original conception (which held sway until the 20th century) as a voluptuous presentation of feminine beauty. And this is what androgyny-worshipping dance critics like Macaulay will never understand.