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The Shape of Things to Come

The premium that classical ballet places on ultra-thinness is an outdated concept and is no longer worth its considerable risks.

April 01, 2001|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

Bony is still great and chunky still awful in the obsessive realm of classical ballet, with women continuing to suffer everything from heartbreak to death if they don't measure up.

However, the realities of evolving taste may force the dance world to abandon the kind of thinking that perpetuates its most enduring scandal. The robust look of women athletes could be prompting the Euro-American dance world to rethink its unquestioning adoration of extreme thinness. Furthermore, a number of recent legal actions have turned the uncompromising and often dangerous physical standards of classical ballet into a public issue.

In June, for example, the mother of the late Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Gunther sued the company, alleging that pressures from staff members to lose weight caused her 5-foot, 3-inch daughter to starve herself down to 97 pounds, resulting in her death at age 22 from complications of anorexia (in mid-March, the case was dismissed on a technicality, but an appeal is under consideration).

In another case, the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School was charged with unlawful discrimination under a new city ordinance for rejecting 9-year-old Fredrika Keefer because she allegedly was deemed too short and chunky for admission.

The school has denied the charges, although its published criteria mandate "a well-proportioned, slender body," a phrase vague enough to cover a number of different body types as well as conceal a multitude of sins.

Sex discrimination, for starters. As the Keefer complaint alleges, height and weight standards are far more stringent for women in ballet than for men. Beyond sexism, the reasons for this disparity have to do with lower numbers of males to choose from, but also include the emphasis on virtuosity that defines male excellence. Because bravura feats and partnering abilities (e.g., lifting) prove more essential to a male's career than any other factor, male dancers are allowed to look like athletes. Women, however, rise or fall by how closely they resemble incorporeal, weightless and wholly imaginary sylphs and wilis.

"Ballet condemns itself by enforcing the deformation of the beautiful woman's body," modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan warned nearly a century ago, describing a situation she found to be "the result of the training necessary to the ballet."

At the heart of this training is something one might call natural selection, or anatomy-is-destiny. This principle holds that ballet isn't just a matter of a woman mastering difficult steps, but of being able to define an idealized silhouette, that flowing, unbroken, sculptural arrangement of hyper-extended limbs and torso called ballet line.

In other words, if you happen to be born with the "wrong" body, all the classes in the world won't make you look right in a tutu-the uniform for classical conquest and symbol of the sylph sisterhood. Alas, the small, compact Fredrika Keefers just don't fit the mold.

Of course, it sounds unfair to say that an aspiring ballerina shouldn't be allowed to do 32 fouettes, or even learn them, because somebody says her legs or waist or neck may be too short or her frame too large, but that's exactly the issue. And it doesn't matter that such "unsuitable" trainees might be talented enough to land positions with Nederlands Dans Theater, Mark Morris or other nonclassical ensembles that now define the art of dance. Dancers' physical proportions remain the gauge of acceptance in the classical arena.

Moreover, as those proportions became unnaturally stylized in the late 20th century, a breastless and all-but-fleshless vision of femininity emerged on our stages. That vision, in turn, made radical weight management and, with it, rampant eating disorders increasingly visible to the general public.

A year ago, the Hollywood teen-oriented feature film "Center Stage" depicted weight issues bedeviling three aspiring ballerinas-with two dropping out of dance and one switching to a less classical form. And since Hollywood seldom talks about things that people don't already know, a plot that depicted adults repeatedly forcing adolescents into actions and ways of thinking destructive to their health and self-esteem signaled a shift in popular consciousness.

Sometime after 1977's "The Turning Point" (a hit film about ballet with no reference to weight issues), the vast moviegoing public learned enough about classical dancing to begin to think of it as intrinsically oppressive.

This awareness had been a long time coming. In 1933, just before he left Europe to work in America, George Balanchine choreographed "The Seven Deadly Sins," a satiric opera-ballet by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in which one episode depicted a dancer forced to constantly diet in order to keep her job.

The sequence ended with the repeated warning that "Gluttons never go to Heaven," a nasty jo ke on middle-class morality in Brecht/Weill, but something that might have served as holy writ for dancers in Balanchine's own New York City Ballet.

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