Since "The Red Shoes" (and probably before) popular culture has displayed the message that Ballet Is Difficult. Sweaty, panting dancers remove tight, uncomfortable shoes to reveal bloody, blistering toes, and tyrannical teachers and artistic directors treat students as if they're soldiers and company members as if they're children. The ballet world has, apparently, come to believe in this mutilated vision of itself.
As with so many things, one can lay neither all of the credit nor all of the blame at Balanchine's feet, but he bears some responsibility. The emphasis on athleticism, giving 110% all the time, taking risks, not being "safe" or "polite" onstage created an incredible new era in ballet and gave us a treasure trove of beautiful, exciting works. However, the all-or-nothing mentality has spilled over into the classroom and classical repertoire, and now we have teachers who are not satisfied with their students unless they see perspiration and choreographers who create aerobic workouts and acrobatic contortions en pointe.
What happened to "everything is beautiful at the ballet?"
What happened to "effort must be invisible?"
What happened to grace, beauty, courtesy, and mutual respect?
Some of it is due to a lack of such concepts in society. When life was difficult for the masses, people wanted to escape to a world of exotic enchantment where fragile sylphs flew through the air and Turkish pirates stole beautiful harem girls from lecherous sultans. These days one barely has to lift a finger to change from watching America's Next Top Model to Survivor, anyone can pick up a fully prepared gourmet dinner at the supermarket that barely even needs to be microwaved, "sir" and "madam" have all but been replaced by "pimp" and "ho." Is it really any wonder, then, that when the majority of people live lives of comparative ease and luxury, they crave the opposite: watching others eat rats on deserted islands, "ordinary" people becoming overnight celebrities, and faceless, nameless people contorting instead of princes graciously offering their hands to refined ladies?
And since ballet must change with the times, why bother with reverance, port de bras, expressing any emotion other than, "Goodness, these steps are HARD!" Why bother teaching students manners and discretion (or exhibiting those qualities oneself) when it's "cool" to "keep it real" and be as refined and polite as a street urchin?
Because otherwise, "classical" ballet will continue down its present path of being relegated to the competition circuit, with high extensions, elaborate jumps, and dizzying pirouettes done for their own sake, and épaulement and port de bras performed meaninglessly, merely for "artistry points," with no relation to plot, character, or emotion.
Exciting energy or empty perfection--we need not choose between the two. Let's put the blood, sweat, and tears behind the scenes, where they belong, so that they fulfill their true function--to fuel a fire under the ice of dull perfectionism, to give meaning to the courtly deferences and elaborate etiquette of the dance. Let's make beauty exciting for what it hints at, not for what it throws in one's face. And as the saying goes, "make the audience gasp with joy, not relief."