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Essay: Body fascism and physical perfection

Thanks to the ballet thriller 'Black Swan,' with its rail-thin dancers, and the recent death of an anorexic model, the notion of placing a value on one's appearance is a hot topic.

January 30, 2011|By Victoria Looseleaf, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Jenifer Ringer as the Sugarplum Fairy during a performance of "The Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center in New York.
Jenifer Ringer as the Sugarplum Fairy during a performance of "The… (Paul Kolnik / Associated…)

With Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated ballet thriller, "Black Swan," lasering in on rail-thin physical perfection (as well as molting hangnails, shattering toenails and lesbian lovemaking), coupled with the firestorm created by New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay's sniping that ballerina Jenifer Ringer looked as if she'd "eaten one sugar plum too many" in a recent "Nutcracker" performance, the notion of body fascism — placing a value on one's physical appearance — is flaming on today's cultural radar.

Times have changed since 1948, when Moira Shearer, in the balletic masterpiece "The Red Shoes," was tormented by having to choose between her art and her lover and not obsessed with purging her foie gras to create a sleek line.

Weighing in on the discussion, then, the following questions come to mind: Is it the critic's job to judge the body or the performance? Are they inextricably intertwined? When does the aesthetic pronouncement become personal? As the Guardian's Judith Mackrell recently wrote, "To some extent dance critics are all body fascists." And Macaulay, sticking to his ink-stained guns in his rebuttal, posited that ballet is the one art that makes dancers' bodies "subject to the most intense scrutiny."

Granted, how that body is viewed has decidedly changed over the years, though the packing on of pounds and other fleshly flaws have played a recurring role for several centuries. In the 19th century, Marie Taglioni, branded a hunchback by fellow students, endured dictatorial training by her father, Filippo, to become the period's quintessential Romantic dancer. In so doing, Marie transcended the corporeal to embody grace and beauty in "La Sylphide," choreographed expressly for her by her taskmaster father.

The early 1900s saw the rise of the frail but elegant-looking Anna Pavlova, who though not a supreme technician was a sublime artist. Thus the reigning classical ideal took root, culminating in the Balanchine ballerina, a code for the achingly thin but racehorse-strong dancer populating George Balanchine's New York City Ballet beginning in the 1950s.

Curiously, City Ballet is also home to Ringer, who earlier had suffered from an eating disorder and more recently had had a baby, compounding the sting of Macaulay's words. Appearing on the "Today" show last month to discuss the issue, Ringer was asked whether her body should be written about. She replied that as a dancer, her body was part of her art form and was therefore subject to criticism, adding, "At the same time, I am not overweight, [but] I do have a more womanly body type than the stereotypical ballerina."

To reject or revere the uber-skinny balletic paradigm remains a personal choice; Russian troupes, including the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg and the Perm Ballet, with their coteries of "heroin chic" dancers, cause both wagging tongues and groupie swoonings.

And while body fascism has long ruled modeling — French model Isabelle Caro, who had suffered from anorexia since age 13, died in November at age 28 in a Paris hospital — the opera world has recently jumped on the body bandwagon too. In 2004, soprano Deborah Voigt was famously fired from a Covent Garden production of "Ariadne Auf Naxos" because the director claimed she was "too fat to wear a sleek black cocktail dress," prompting Voigt to undergo gastric bypass surgery that year.

One wonders whether Isadora Duncan would have reacted similarly. The iconic grandmother of modern dance had her admirers even when she was in her 40s and some 25 pounds overweight. In 1921 — six years before Duncan died at age 50 — a 17-year-old Frederick Ashton was transfixed by a performance she gave — despite what he called her "blowsy" appearance. Years later, it inspired the choreographer to create "Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan."

By ushering in the modern dance era and changing the nature of ballet in the process, Duncan helped revolutionize how the moving body was perceived, even if she didn't alter the perception of how dancers' bodies should look.

These days, gender also accounts for a certain amount of body fascism, with men getting off easier and some even making use of their imperfections: The erstwhile bad boy of dance, a plump Mark Morris, didn't raise eyebrows as a performer because his world-class moves and choreography trumped his girth; Lawrence Goldhuber is a 350-pound dancer-choreographer whose size, according to one New York Times review, is "of almost no account." Then there is Ringer's Cavalier, Jared Angle. While Macaulay wrote that Angle seemed "to have been sampling half the Sweet realm," the ensuing chorus of disapprovals was not directed at that slight.

Because "fat," as Macaulay also wrote as part of his rebuttal, "is not so much a feminist issue as a sexist one."

Finally, with the mirror and the scale both feeding the inherent narcissism of dance, appearances are often the reason for landing a gig. Thus the anthemic lament "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" from "A Chorus Line."

Unlike opera, which is over when the fat lady sings, in ballet, the business of body-critiquing will continue to be part of the conversation.

Victoria Looseleaf is a longtime dance writer who occasionally reviews for The Times.

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