Fat Is a Feminist Ballet Issue

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A lot of people are firing back at Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times critic who opined that Sugarplum Fairy Jenifer Ringer had eaten one too many holiday sweets. “This didn’t feel, however, like an opening night. Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.” The drive to lose weight hits home not just for dancers, who strive to be ultrathin, but for women in general, and many readers apparently took Mr. Macaulay’s remark more than just a zinger. It was hurtful. He attempts to explain himself here in a second column called “Judging the Bodies in Ballet.”

Among his critics: the blogger at Haglund’s Heel, who says,

Macaulay did not like the physical appearance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.  But he did not have the tools, knowledge, or experience to equate it to the effect on their dancing – which is their work product.  If Macaulay had made similar statements to a colleague at The New York Times, he could have been fired with cause.  It is regrettable that Macaulay doesn’t have the skill or craft needed to explain how a dancers’ dancing has been adversely affected by what Macaulay perceives to be substandard conditioning.

From La Flaneuse,  

The central, serious problem of Macaulay’s review is not only about misogyny and size-ism, but about bad critical practice. This is not a simple case of calling a ballerina fat, which, of course, is reprehensible, tacky, and, often, downright dangerous—Gelsey Kirkland’s Dancing on my Grave is the ne plus ultra of anorexic-dancer stories, but it’s hardly necessary to point out the extreme standards to which ballerinas must push themselves. And those standards are not the problem: the ballet is an art form that is premised upon a certain aesthetic (one which has become, for better or worse, ever stricter and more demanding since Balanchine’s time). To those who say that the ballet discourages ballerinas from eating like regular people, I offer the (perhaps inflammatory) rejoinder that they are not regular people, but artists whose odies are in service of a very particular visual vocabulary. Whether Macaulay meant the dancers actually looked fat or was commenting on a general sluggishness is neither here nor there—the main issue, counter to Jezebel’s reaction, is not one of body image or the judgment and oppression of women, but, quite simply, of poor criticism.

The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins sums up:

It’s a tricky area, this: bodies, after all, are the material for the art form of dance and come under intense scrutiny. But there is a general agreement among critics that commenting on body shape is not done, unless it relates directly to the interpretation of the work.

Macaulay defends himself:

The issue of scrutiny came up this week in a review of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet. I wrote that Jenifer Ringer, cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy, “looked as if she’d eaten one sugarplum too many,” and that Jared Angle, as her Cavalier, “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.” …This has caused a certain brouhaha online, and a minor deluge of reader e-mails, in many cases obscene and abusive. The general feeling was that my characterizations went beyond the pale of civilized discourse. …Notably, the fuss has been about Ms. Ringer’s appearance. No one took issue with what might be considered a much more severe criticism, that the two danced “without adult depth or complexity.” And though I was much harder on Mr. Angle’s appearance, scarcely a reader objected. When I described Nilas Martins as “portly” in The New York Times and Mark Morris as “obese” in the Times Literary Supplement, those remarks were also greeted with silence. Fat, apparently, is not so much a feminist issue as a sexist one. Sauce for the goose? Scandal. Sauce for the gander? No problem.

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. (For the record, I have sometimes observed in print that certain dancers of either sex look too thin.)

Size in ballet is not only a modern obsession. In the mid-18th century at the Paris Opera, the ballerina Marie Allard was dismissed for her inability to lose weight (and the frequency of her pregnancies), while her contemporary Marie-Madeleine Guimard was nicknamed “the skeleton of the graces.” History remembers both, however, as exceptional artists. And it enshrines Marie Taglioni, the archetypal Romantic ballerina of the 19th century. Yet Taglioni as a student was derided by her classmates as a “hunchback.” In due course she became “Marie full of grace” (the echo of the Virgin Mary was intentional), the supreme sylph.

Some correspondents have argued that the body in ballet is “irrelevant.” Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. 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.”

To be fair, Mr. Macaulay does point out that both sexes must keep up their bodies in order to do justice to the art. I note that size is also an issue in opera performance. Several years ago, the soprano Deborah Voigt lost a contract with Covent Garden to sing in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” because of her weight. She slimmed down, made a comeback and is now singing Minnie in the Met’s revival of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” this season. Do audiences care if the heroine looks the part, even if she can sing the high C, D, and F? The management thinks so. The days of the willing suspension of disbelief seem to be over, and sopranos are hitting the gym and the diets just like dancers.

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