They say compromise, we say evolution. Can the value system of ballet be broader than it currently is?
Matthew Paluch reacts to recent, decisive opinions.
As a former dancer, a teacher, and dance writer it's always with great pleasure when I see dance, and specifically ballet, being discussed in the pages of any broadsheet, especially on a philosophical level.
Discussions about ‘freedom of expression' and the ‘right to offend' seem to be in the news on a daily basis of late – and understandably so, as they're delicate, fluid topics.
For that reason, The Telegraph's Chief Dance Critic, Mark Monahan, has every right to use his platform as he sees fit, and more specifically to share his opinions and experience in relation to an article published in The Times on 12 March entitled “Ballet boss to pirouette stick-thin stereotypes into the wings”. As do all of us: to engage directly in dialogue with Monahan's musings, and the bigger questions they present.
The “ballet boss” in question is Aaron Watkin – see quote above – the new Artistic Director of English National Ballet from Autumn 2023. Watkin actively promoted the notion of “elite” dancers in the article, as opposed to stick-thin specimens when considering evolved accessibility: “representation is key and we realise there's a need for change in our art form. There is lots of work to be done.” And one can assume this is where people and their (hopefully subconscious) fixed value systems started to panic in earnest.
Below are some quotes from Monahan's article: “Ballet will never be able to represent ‘all body types'” published in The Telegraph on 15 March. I've taken the liberty of sharing some personal thoughts from my own thinking in relation to them, through a “They say compromise, we say evolution” lens.
“Nor, just to be crystal clear, can any right-minded person have the slightest issue with “relatability” in terms of race: the importance of having as ethnically diverse a line-up of dancers as possible in pretty much any given ballet company is morally, practically and artistically beyond debate.”
I'd argue even though Monahan proposes the above, his overall rationale concerning appropriateness for ballet doesn't truly substantiate the stated rhetoric i.e. different races* are different in a multitude of ways and not just where “leanness” is concerned. To quote a fellow dance colleague's reaction, “Until recently black bodies were not considered the ‘correct' shape for ballet. It's all about readjusting your eye and keeping an open mind.” And as ugly as the concept of ‘incorrect' is, it's what unfortunately emanates from an ‘it is what it is' style doctrine steeped in Western thinking.
(ballet is)… ”entirely unnatural and decidedly unforgiving”
There goes any valuable consideration of dance science research and pedagogy undertaken in the last 40+ years. I'm not proposing that all academies of classical ballet, and their current deliveries of teaching methods, are ideal, but any institution with real ethical responsibility isn't using words like “unnatural” and “unforgiving”. And it's not about denial of safe practice, it's about people trying to make things work through developmental thinking. We don't want to keep repeating past mistakes as it runs the risk of our beloved art form becoming untenable and therefore extinct.
“good looks certainly never hurt”
The Kardashian philosophy seems to have moved beyond Calabasas. Brain-dead beauty trumping artistic integrity. Very dangerous territory.
If some consider “elite” as inappropriate (basically not ‘slim' enough), then “physical lightness” could be a metaphor for an intangible, unattainable expectation (see “apartness” below) that's potentially ‘never enough'. This corporeal notion of ‘perfectionism' can often only be reached through unhealthy methods, both physically and (consequently) mentally.
“constantly maintained physical leanness”
Similar to the above point. “Elite” is the proposition, as opposed to basically dying and it being sanctioned and encouraged.
“As one former Royal Ballet dancer has told me, the less flesh there is around your hips, the less resistance there is when you have to get your leg up to “six o'clock”: it's just easier.”
Who is this individual? What's their age/generation/training context? All play a massive role in their hyperbole. And how did their value system evolve so, considering their workplace? A “six o'clock” agenda isn't very Ashtonian! Dance is meant to be about much more than just empty flexibility and extension… whatever Instagram trends might suggest! What of choreographic style and individual interpretation? Aren't these the kind of emphases we should be championing? Therefore, if elasticity is the exclusive end game, I'd suggest either gymnastics or contortionism are more appropriate. Baffling.
“the lighter you are, the easier you are to lift”
Hooray for equality. Hooray for agency. Hooray for self-worth.
“the entire “point” of ballet is surely its specialness, its apartness from real life, the magical stories”
The “entire point” of ballet (or anything) according to an individual – me included – isn't the entire point. Ballet can and should be many things to many people. That's of course if we want it to have longevity. Consequently, perhaps “apartness” and “magical” need to be aspects, as opposed to the be all and end all of ongoing reasoning. Does anyone, or any art form really want to permanently reside in a fairy-tale or museum?
“Odette-Odile who struggles to take to the air or a hodge-podge of wobbling swans”
This remark is problematic in many ways, but let's keep it simple for now. “Wobbling” is offensive, extreme, and totally unhelpful. In fact, comment, in the broader sense, needs to be considered contextually i.e. empathetically and with feasible “kindness” (imminently below).
“Discipline is the absolute essence of these art forms: compromise on it, and the whole edifice starts to collapse.”
The theory of “discipline” in dance is multifaceted, and therefore difficult to define. Does ‘a' perspective align with all understandings and interpretations? Does discipline (both mental and physical) differ from Beijing to Moscow, Paris, London, New York etc – as surely we can't deny the global, cultural nature of dance/ballet. Analysing further:
(mental) Discipline as a concept in individual minds; of both dancers and the professionals ‘in charge' needs constant, critical observation. Foucault's “docile body” theory is an important reference point, when considering how a certain mould of ‘in charge' disciplinarian can take advantage of the (largely) current, some may say enabling, behavioural frameworks.
(physical) Discipline in reference to an aesthetic “edifice” of ‘defined' appropriateness (recall “black bodies” above), is exactly the (existing) mode of thinking we should be questioning, discussing, and evolving. Otherwise the overriding “essence” of ballet will remain unyielding and stagnant, allowing near total exclusion to (continue to) reign.
Therefore, whilst some may affirm “compromise”, others might propose dialogue and development (leading to evolution), acknowledging a continued, pressing need for less objectification-fuelled subjectivity, and more centrist, broadened possibility.
“let's not confuse “kindness” or indeed “relatability” with “compromise””
Yes. Let's not. But who is? And why? And according to what? They're the actual questions that need addressing and hopefully answering.
And regarding the (individual) opinion of individuals:
“rich experience” – undeniable.
“sound judgment” – in relation to?
“iron will” – consequence and fallout.
Consequence and fallout feel like appropriate words to finish on for now. If individuals and institutions (continue to) favour a ‘product versus process' approach we're basically doomed. Perhaps not in connection to the observer's (current) plastique pleasure, but definitely when considering the art form's possible development and conscience.
Huzzah for ballet being discussed at all, but let's aim to discuss, not determine. I adore ballet, but I also adore scope and progression. Some praise at the altar of Svetlana Zakharova, others Laura Morera, and those edifices couldn't be more different. Literally thank God for that – one size** doesn't, and shouldn't, fit all.
I wish Aaron Watkin the best of luck in his new role as Artistic Director at English National Ballet and hope the sector, in all its guises, keeps supporting (genuine) advocates who are aiming to envision a ballet for the… our… future. One that absolutely recognises its past but isn't wholly defined by it. It's called evolution I believe… not “compromise”.
I don't include this word through personal choice, as I'm aware of its complexity. Its presence is a direct reference (tool) to the text in The Telegraph.
This is not a direct comment on weight or body shape but rather the use of a familiar trope to highlight, and hopefully encourage the contemplation of individual physique and interpretation within ballet's rigid realm.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.