Falling out of love with ballet

I think I was nine when my father bought a debenture (i.e. a season ticket for a posh activity) to the Australian Ballet. We seemed to be there every other week, and it probably wasn’t far off. Giselle made a big impression, mainly because the storyline of a woman abandoned and driven to insanity and suicide by a man was really super weird, and not really very child friendly. Of course I had no idea that as a fallen woman in the 19th century, her life prospects would indeed have been grim. We saw Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Les Sylphides, and I can’t remember what else.

I was completely captivated by the beauty of it, the perfection of their bodies, the lines, the effortlessness. I would endlessly draw ballet shoes in notebooks, read books outlining the steps, biographies of famous ballerinas. And of course I asked for ballet lessons. These were consistently denied, on the basis that ballet is not a sustainable career, causes joint damage and apparently osteoporosis. Seemed perhaps a bit of a heavy-handed reaction to a fairly normal hobby request for a little girl, but maybe I’m starting to see why.

I have spent a lot of time watching ballet clips on YouTube, because of course having watched one, YouTube serves up a rich smorgasbord of other content I never knew about. There is a whole series of videos showing the exam process for entrance to the Vaganova academy, which is the ballet school attached to the Kirov. It deliberately emphasises in a way that many other documentaries don’t that thousands apply, a tiny fraction are accepted, and even of those, a much smaller fraction will ever make a decent living. They show tiny, frail girls practicing exactly the same movement hundreds of times and being chastised. Even for the graduation exam, it is quite striking to watch dozens of girls in identical outfits doing exactly the same thing, and knowing that the majority of them will disappear into obscurity. It is probably quite a Russian thing, the hagiography of suffering, but it is also there in the more glowing, wholesome American documentaries. Disney made one season of a show called On Pointe about the School of American Ballet in New York. They show lots of successful dancers, but they also show a little girl so painfully thin she has furry arms. This is something which happens to people whose body fat is too low to maintain their core temperature, and is not a sign of good health; and yet this girl was chosen for a solo in the Nutcracker, and constantly praised for her artistry.

The truth is that the vast majority of children who start professional ballet training will earn next to nothing even if they get a job in a major corps de ballet. Of course they can go on to a teaching career, and perhaps it is wonderful to follow a passion. I thought that was a better way of spending their time on earth than I do, a wage slave who will do anything for money; maybe it is, but the scales have fallen from my eyes about the supposed beauty of it, or really the nobility of any job. I once earned a considerable day rate from a job which transpired to involve artful lying about the readiness of the software. I wasn’t improving or expediting the software development process (as advertised), but telling convincing stories about “testing” to the client who had bought a supposedly completed product. We were at least six months away from being able to ship a working product, and I was there to keep diverting attention with other minor details of the service provision. So who am I to say that breaking one’s toes and getting arthritis is a bad way to earn a living? It does however change my ability to muse in the beauty of bodies when I watch Macmillan’s Requiem, which is easily the best ballet there is.

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