By Marina Wolf
STANDARDS OF DANCE beauty are far from universal. African, Caribbean, and Pacific Island cultures welcome women of substance in their dances. Women of all ages perform Eritrean folk dances, while Native American dance circles draw old and young alike to prove their grace. How, then, did Western dance come to depend so heavily on the very thin, the very young, and the highly athletic?
The answer may be found in the origins of ballet, the mother of most Western performance dances. Ballet was born in the Italian courts of the 16th century and went on to become popular in France in the late 1600s during the reign of Louis XIV; the king himself participated in the performances, as did other members of the court. Over time dance trainers and ballet stars appeared, and when private ballet troupes began to tour extensively, they had to offer something new and spectacular. Costumes and music went a long way, but athletic feats proved to be the main field of constant one-upmanship.
In the 1800s, ballet took on many of the aesthetic characteristics that we recognize today. This was when Marie Taglioni first went up on her toes in shoes reinforced with ribbon and established dancing en pointe as a crucial part of the ballerina's repertoire. This new move reflected the direction of the ballet aesthetic that was exacerbated by Romanticism. Art and literature in the early to mid-1800s glorified a human form that seemed almost without form, soul without body. The pale ethereal look came to represent spirituality, and consumption, or TB, became a status illness. Even those who were healthy as horses did their best to mimic the symptoms by whitening their skin and dieting.
Thus the balletic body was born: slender, wraithlike, with a swan's neck and reedlike waist. Giselle first appeared on stage in 1841, and the narrative--a lovesick girl dies after her love jilts her, and then comes back as a spirit to save him from vengeful girl-ghosts--offered the perfect platform to celebrate those physical ideals.
The late Russian dancer and choreographer George Balanchine is a landmark unto himself for cultivating a dance culture that valued a "perfectly tuned instrument" (the body) over any individuality of age or body type. When he helped organize the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1931, Balanchine refused to let his friend 27-year-old Alexandra Danilova into the new company because he thought she was "too old." Instead, Balanchine filled the leads with a trio of pre-pubescent Russian girls, ages 12 to 14.
Later in his career he would find slightly older and, in some cases, distinctly taller ballerinas to dance his roles, but always Balanchine's choices were dictated by his devotion to a long, almost two-dimensional form that could be bent to his artistic demands. He preferred young women who, by virtue of their birdlike figures "pared to the bone," as he called it, came as close as possible to embodying that line. That preference, combined with his technical genius, was handed down through his pupils and peers, and froze the Western dance body into its current form.
From the March 18-24, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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