It's time to get "woke" about classical ballet

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

New York City Ballet Moves, at Northrop this Saturday evening, offers plentiful opportunities to experience the aesthetic pleasures of Western classical and contemporary ballet.

New York City Ballet


A 1970 piece from Jerome Robbins, “In the Night,” has three couples engaged in discreet dance dramas. “Sonatine” by George Balanchine, from 1975, also features a couple who move with fluid linearity to a piece by Maurice Ravel. Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” again focuses on a couple in a work intended to honor Balanchine.

Justin Peck’s 2012 “In Creases,” for eight dancers, has been described as dreamlike and steeped in classicism, with an emphasis on the male dancers. The highly theatrical and entertaining works of Angelin Preljocaj have been performed at Northrop before; “La Stravaganza” reportedly ups the ante by juxtaposing 17th-century cultural aspects with contemporary mores in a work for 12 dancers.

Such a program also offers multiple chances to watch what occurs on stage from a 21st-century perspective, in which issues of sex, gender, race, equality, compassion, and social justice are top of mind.

“Ballet is important and significant—yes,” Balanchine said, “But first of all, it is a pleasure.”

Perhaps. But it’s time to ask: At whose expense?

“Everything is beautiful at the ballet,” sings the cast of A Chorus Line. They are reflecting, in part, on the fractured bones, bleeding toes, torn ligaments, aching muscles, and starvation diets they are expected to endure -- and let’s refer specifically to the women in classical ballet here — in order to float on stage in ephemeral representations of such fairy-tale characters as sylphs, dolls, and somnambulists. As classical ballet has evolved, that suspension of reality and belief in the pursuit of beauty has become, in most cases, a de facto expectation.

Historically, in Western-European ballet, with the exception of such iconic ballerinas as Maria Tallchief (Native American) and more currently Misty Copeland (African American), classical ballerinas are white and, well, have a lean (read: often emaciated) physique, small head, long legs and arms, small hips, short torso, small bust and ribcage, and a long neck.

We owe that to Balanchine, whose declaration, “Ballet is woman,” encompassed these characteristics, which, with some exceptions, still hold true.

And yet, for ballerinas to move with weightless grace at tremendous speed while on the tips of their toes requires heroic levels of unflinching stamina and strength. In much classical and contemporary, the women are reliant on their male partners for balance, sky-high lifts, and open-legged expressions of submissiveness.

In an article for the New York Times earlier this year, Siobhan Burke pointed out this aspect of ballets old and new. “... not just depictions of violent acts but also the kind of forceful partnering that’s become so ubiquitous, so gratuitous, so banal in ballet — the yanking, dragging, prying open of women’s bodies by men — both with and without a narrative pretext,” she writes.

Given the political climate in which we now live, could it perhaps be time to get “woke” about ballet?

How much reality, truly, can we suspend? Or afford to? Can we see ourselves in what’s depicted on stage at all? And if we do, should we be pleased or troubled?