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Political correctness and ballet


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Correct me if I'm wrong, but this may be one of those topics that some balletomanes would rather not "go there"...From the familiar vendetta against George "I want to see bones" Balanchine to ostensibly problematic portrayals of "exotic" cultures--think La Bayadere, Le Corsaire, or Bugaku--there are plenty of things in classical ballet that could be read as offensive to our enlightened sensibilities. That ballet is not supposed to be realistic is apparently common knowledge here, but I sometimes think that these issues need to be addressed in order for there to be a solid case in support of ballet--for someone who is convinced that ballet is socially backward, a simple statement of "Well, ballet isn't supposed to be for the masses" is not going to do much for the image of classical ballet. The result of all this, I think, is the proliferation of well-meaning directors and/or choreographers who attempt to draw audiences by proclaiming to subvert the classical paradigm. My concern is that by attempting to escape the inequity of the classical paradigm, one might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I hope that made sense. :)

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No, it made sense, Ballet Nut.

The problem is, it's hell to answer. I think the question is analogous to asking what to do about Shylock, or the relationship of Petruchio and Katharine in Taming of the Shrew. But those are only specific instances, and I think you were asking a broader question.

I think it's important to believe that classicism can reflect every society it lives in - that it never becomes irrelevant, simply because it does step out of time. It's also important that while we do create ballets and classicism for our time, we recognize the timeline we live on. Something came before us, something will come after us, we can't know the future, but we can at least know what came before us.

As to Politically Incorrect ballet - I think everyone has got to find their own way, and there will be huge debates. I also agree with you that they should be discussed openly. It's better for everyone. A classic example are blackface roles. Other people might still stage them, I would be inclined not to - it doesn't bother me that a divertissement from La Sonnambula once done in blackface has been changed - but I could also argue for a setting where the blackface was part of the decadence of the Baron's household. If nothing else, as you implied, taking it for granted is not a good option.

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I know this is a tough topic, but I hope it provokes some discussion, so here are some questions.

You're taking an intelligent, well-meaning friend to the ballet. At the end of it, s/he asks you any of the following questions:

  • Why are the women always so thin? Do they have to be?
  • Why are there so few minorities involved?
  • How come the men manipulate the women but not the other way around? Why are the women always muses and never creators?
  • Why does it have to emulate as politically repressive system as monarchy? Why isn't ballet more egalitarian?
  • It just doesn't seem relevant. What makes ballet relevant?

It wouldn't hurt to have some answers handy, now would it? (For those of us who are Jewish, it reminds me of the "What says the Wise Child?" section of the Haggadah!)

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Yes, Leigh, it would be great to have some answers to those questions handy, because the art is under a lot of pressure, even under attack, as being anachronistic, stagnant and oppressive. Why do I have to constantly apologize for my art? It is what it is! We can also ask if those who work in classical ballet will be able to or even feel compelled to make ballet harmonius to the current paradigm (Politically Correct ballet, what would that be? Does anyone do it now?) Or is classic ballet unable to bend and flow with the times? What will the direction be for ballet in the 21st century? Evolution, revolution. or oblivion? Ballet has always had its reformers, Noverre, Fokine, Balanchine, Tudor, and DeMille. Can ballet be reformed to be more PC? Does it need to be? With the exception of Forsythe's radical revisionism, reform attempts always seems to lead to a hybid/fusion of ballet/modern. Some feel that these options are inadequate or usuitable.

I wonder sometimes if ballet is and easy target for today's PC witch hunts. Does Opera, Theater, Music or the plastic and visual arts get the same knocking? Does it depend on what lens we are taught to look at art through? Having worked in a modern dance university environment, I know that a lot of misiformation about ballet is being spread as knowledge. It comes out mainly as Modern = good, Ballet = bad.


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I think you can take just about anything and make it politically correct. But considering nothing about politics is correct....

I look forward to the day when a woman heads a ballet company for a length of time. How we'd answer these questions.

Did Graham have these problems?

Ballet is in a sense a field of dictators, an AD, a choreographer a composter and a dancer. All doing what they individually think is correct/right.

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To be fair, women have headed ballet companies, both here and in other countries. Ninette de Valois at the Royal Ballet, Marie Rambert at Ballet Rambert, Brigitte Lefevre at the POB (and several other female directors there previously), Virginia Williams at Boston Ballet as well as Anna Marie Holmes, Lucia Chase at ABT, Victoria Morgan at Cincinnati Ballet are some names that come off the top of my head. Certainly the power is disproportionate, but it isn't unheard of.

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Originally posted by Calliope

I look forward to the day when a woman heads a ballet company for a length of time.  How we'd answer these questions.

Do you mean "as a choreographer"? Because there have been several examples of female artistic directors, at least in Europe (Lefevre, Hightower and Verdy in Paris, Haydee in Stuttgart, Pietragalla in Marseille, Glushak in Toulouse,

Terabust in Milan, Bjorn in Denmark and Finland, Gielgud in Denmark and in Australia... and also

in the past Dame Ninette de Valois, of course).

"Politically correct" isn't a common notion in French (here when people use "politiquement correct" it usually sounds negative, like "very conventional" or "hypocrit"...) but the questions Leigh asked are quite common. I've sometimes replied to "ballet is relevant" something like "is Mozart relevant?" (and often the people who ask such questions about ballet criticize classical music far less, perhaps because it's not narrative). Also, not so many people ask "why do basketball players have to be tall?" or "why do swimmers have to be tall with muscular shoulders?"...

(Leigh, it seems that we posted at the same time :) )

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I'd add to "Is Mozart relevant" the fact that I think classical ballet goes beyond relevance by stepping outside of time. Formalism (something that encompasses more than just the classical here) remains durable because of its abstraction. It becomes a text that can be reread 200 years later, just like Mozart. The Four Temperaments was choreographed in 1946, and I think it has an amazing impact even today. Perhaps that isn't relevance, but it certainly is durability.

Anyone care to add to the handy answer on relevance or try for some of the others?

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Isn't this along the same lines as asking if A Tale of Two Cities is still something worth while to have on our reading lists? And perhaps this is why the Christian religions decided not to use the King James Version anymore - on to the common denominator of the Revised Standard!:):rolleyes:

Estelle, I think here, we too, think of "politically correct" in a negative way! It's all about keeping up the appearances that are currently deemed acceptable isn't it?:)

I'll be back to check the rest of the responses after I ponder my next answers.

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I think we should try not to be too defensive here; it's perfectly fair to ask why "ballet is woman" and yet (notwithstanding the examples given above of women running companies and choreographing), the great names in ballet choreography have been men, for example, and why it is that retired dancers who run companies in general tend to be ex-danseurs, while their former partners tend to wind up running the school when they run anything. It's also perfectly understandable that someone would go to the ballet and wonder why quite a few of the women have scrawny arms, jutting collarbones, and sticklike legs, or why African-Americans are out in force for Ailey or Bill T. Jones, while at the ballet it often seems to be ain't-nobody-here-but-us-prosperous-white-folks, and could it be possible to bridge that difference somehow? It's not attacking ballet to ask Leigh's questions; it's just, well, asking the questions.

For myself, I use the term "politically correct" sparingly, if at all. It once had its uses as a characterization of excessive forms of sensitivity in relation to racial/sexual matters, but nowadays it seems to be deployed as a denigration of virtually any such sensitivity.

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There's cultural sensitivity and then there's what I can only refer to as "the mushy middle cop-out.";) The latter is what usually gets referred to as Politically Correct these days, and in my opinion it does absolutely nothing to remedy society's deep seated injustices. Rather, it's only a palliative for the privileged groups to feel tolerant without examining their own beliefs, some of which are--horrors!--prejudiced. :rolleyes:

I think we have already established that this kind of thinking is problematic at best. Lest anyone think otherwise, I am a feminist and a registered Democrat. I love ballet. And I don't want a discussion of tolerance, egalitarianism, and dance to turn into a session of feminazi-bashing, liberal-bashing, or Balanchine-bashing.

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Gee, please forgive me, if what I wrote sounded defensive - as, I assure you, I didn't mean it to come off that way.


These are all worthy questions and, I think, deserve thoughtful answers. In bringing up literature from our past, I thought it was a fair way of dealing with the relevancy question.

In re your points about injustice - there's no doubt about it. Let's just look at the price of a ticket, unless one wants to be up in the fourth ring! And then, you really do need a pair of good binoculars. Actually, we should go back to the ballet classes that the dancers had to take in order to become the artists that they are - ballet classes aren't cheap either! Nor are music lessons! This being said, not everyone who's in a "minority" is necessarily poor or unable to afford these things. We all know that in this country the minority is made up of people who hold the arts in high esteem. :) Actually there was someone on this board, I think, who is involved with an organization that brings dance into the classrooms of the most disadvantaged ... and then there's Eliot Feld, and Jacques D'Amboise and their organizations that work with the inner city youth.

Recently, I heard a short piece on NPR, discussing the value of the arts and that finally their impact on an individual's learning curve has been studied - and it's a proven fact that if children are exposed to music, dance and fine arts at a young age, and that they are given just as much weight as academics, that their test scores show marked improvement. This being now "proven" may offer some hope for the public. Just possibly it will trickle down to the ballet companies who will start to offer certain, seasonal, special, cut rate prices so that more people will be able to come to see their performances. Hope springs eternal. :)

Now, as for the why the women are so thin? Well, thankfully they're all not skeletal, but am I correct in saying that the thinness factor really became the "norm" during Balanchine's time? Hasn't the NYCB been known for that, at least in the past? Today, I don't think that this is so true...although they are certainly not corpulent.

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Back to ballet itself, rather than the management and adminstration thereof:

Isn't judging works of the past by the standards and moral climate of today considered "presentism"? And like all those other "isms", isn't that Politically Incorrect?;)

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I LOVE your take on it, Major Mel. Hmm, Presentism - I look forward to bringing that up next time my friends disparage the classics.

I've thought a lot on this subject. It's interesting to me that ballet is judged on a PC scale by the very same people - my co-teachers- in a Montessori school- who strongly believe in presenting our students with a classical education. Our literature and cultural curriculum is heavily laced with Greek and Roman mythology. That's acceptable and laudable. Same with Shakespeare. Our elementary school kids perform Shakespeare plays throughout the year. We encourage it. We take our kids into the city for symphonies twice a year. The music teacher introduces them to opera.

But ballet? "It's degrading to women." "It's passe" ...even when the ballets are based on the very same myths and the very same Shakespeare stories.

:confused: Scratching my head on this one.

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I don't think people who say these things are either unenlightened or malinformed. The aesthetics of ballet do require explaining. It's not that hard to make a case for misogyny in ballet, which is the reason I posed those questions. The point shoe essentially hobbles a woman's foot. There's basically only a limited pallette of roles for a woman within it.

I think the most honest and respectful response is one that acknowledges people's reservations and tries to illuminate what's positive about it. Pointe work, to use the same example, doesn't allow a woman to do certain things (walk normally onstage or bear weight) but it does enable her to do certain things (balance or turn) beyond what is possible without it.

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel

I don't think people who say these things are either unenlightened or malinformed.  The aesthetics of ballet do require explaining.  

I agree with that. The "why are women so thin" is a question I've heard several time from (well-meaning) people who had attended their first ballet; for example I remember attending a perfomance of a Lyon Conservatoire with a friend and her boyfriend, and his first reaction at the intermission was "but they are so sick! Are you sure they're healthy? It's worrying to watch them." while my friend and I, who were more experienced hadn't thought about it...

Also among your initial questions, I think that there are some which are related to the art form itself ("what makes ballet relevant?"), and some others with the organization of companies etc.

("why are there so few minorities?") and the answers are different. A bit like my field of research, mathematics: asking if mathematics are relevant/ useful is a criticism of mathematics itself, while asking why there is less than 20% of women among the French mathematicians is IMO a valid question (but the fact that some changes might help doesn't mean that mathematics itself is bad).

vagansmom, I agree that some people criticize some aspects of ballet while accepting the same things for art... That's one of the reasons of my question "Is Mozart relevant?". I think that, in France, ballet isn't generally as "high art" as much as classical music, painting or literature, and so people criticize it more easily...

Leigh, I agree also that it's good to insist on the positive aspects of a work. Because convincing people that works of the past don't have to be judged by today's standards isn't enough to make them feel like seeing it... For example, a few years ago I had tried to read some novels by the Frnech novelist Henry de Monfreid, but found them awfully racist and colonialist, I realized that part of it could be explained by the fact that it had been written in the 1930s, but the book was so unappealing to me that I didn't finish it; on the other hand one of my favorite novelists is the Hungarish author Gyula Krudy, though I do find some of his books misogynic, there is so much else to enjoy in his works that it's enough for me to appreciate them.

So for example when some people tell me "but the plots of ballet works are stupid, they're simplistic fairy tales", instead of trying to convince them that fairy tales can be great I try to convince them to see a non-fairy tale ballet, or to enjoy some other aspects of fairy-tale ballets like the musicality, the great technique of the dancers, etc. (hoping that, if they get attracted to ballet enough, they might reconsider their initial views).

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Hello, I've been lurking, but when I saw this post, I had to register and post a reply. My daughter (and our whole family) has found a great sense of meaning from classical ballet. This is part of a reply that I wrote to TIME magazine last September when they had an article on home education. They used the example of a dyslexic dance student to 'prove' that home education did not work and that it was undemocratic.

> Dance, in particular, has a meaning to girls and young

> women. By adolescence, a growing girl knows that she

> is a second-class citizen. She knows she will never

> been seen as fully human because her body will always

> be objectified. Ballet, more than any other art, is a

> humanizing activity because it allows her to use the

> very object that ensnares her to create beauty. Our body is our voice.


> In ballet after ballet, the condition of women is

> symbolized. We are half-human/half-woman (Swan Lake,

> Chopiniana), poor and exploited by the rich (Giselle),

> enslaved (Le Corsaire, La Bayadere), young and under

> the thumb of older people (Romeo and Juliet), under

> the curse of an evil spell (Swan Lake, Sleeping

> Beauty, The Firebird), or a victim of men's whimsies

> (Coppelia, Manon), and in many ballets, love enslaves

> and liberates in turn, or women are in love and unable

> to do anything about it because of external

> circumstances. In every single case, our beauty and

> dignity, and our transforming ability to love even

> after death shows through. We are essentially human

> even in oppression. It is a wonderful message for

> growing girls, and one which they will not find in

> poetry or literature or art. The frailties of our personalities are

> cloaked in white tulle rather than blood and violence,

> as they are in Euripedes's plays, so the lessons are easier to take. I think of ballet

> as 'our' art.


> I should also like to dispute your claim that the

> function of a liberal education is to, "Expose people

> to fields they normally wouldn't investigate." The

> function of a liberal education is to be able to use

> one's mind, senses and feelings (and body in dance and

> drama) to explore what it means to be human, and thus

> be free to decide for oneself what it means to live a

> worthwhile life. The arts go one step further: they

> teach one to portray that meaning to others.


> It takes a long time to understand just one of the

> arts. Levels of meanings of works percolate

> only very slowly into our hearts, and ability to

> express meaning must be nurtured on its slow way. The

> knowledge of human frailty, our similarities, and

> understanding of why we are different are what one

> gets from the arts, and that is precisely what is

> needed to shape character in a democracy.


The pointe shoe can be compared to a steel-toe boot. One wears them for safety. Steel toe boots are horribly uncomfortable. One of my little toes was almost cut off by one once.

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Moira, thank you so much for your thoughtful post, and for de-lurking. Hope to hear much more from you! Your points about the value of a liberal education are well taken.

It certainly is depressing to look back on all of those unhappy ladies of ballet, living and dying for love. I think it depends on whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. You could regard those heroines and those stories as relics of a bygone time, or as symbols of transcendence. Hearing from both sides increases our understanding (and certainly makes for, ahem, lively discussions)!

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I can't figure out quite how to tie this thought to specific posts in the rest of the thread, so I'll just leap in ...

In terms of its perception by various "publics" (the audience for "mass entertainment," the academic world, etc.) ballet may be encumbered by the very visibility of its "oppressions": the toe shoes, the thinness of its artists, its distortions of the human body, etc. are all right out in front for everyone to see and are part of its presentation. The "oppressions" inherent in other art forms may be less apparent: when was the last time you worried about the toxic materials many visual artists are literally up to their elbows in day in and day out? (My mother-in-law is an artist: I've seen what's in her studio and I can't figure out why she doesn't glow in the dark.) Wander the halls of any music conservatory, and you'll note in short order that every string student sports an angry looking red bruise under his or her left chin from 3+ hours a day of practice. When a famous rock guitarist was asked to give his advice to young aspirants, his comment was: "practice until your fingers bleed." (He might have added: "and wear earplugs on stage to ensure you're not hearing impaired by 30.")

My point is, most (I would say all) art forms 1) require a considerable level of effort and discomfort on the part of their practitioners, 2) present a "distorted" (perhaps "heightened" would be a better term) version of human experience, and 3) rely extensively on conventions peculiar to the art form in question in order to do so. And I think that the depth of one's pleasure and appreciation depends on the extent of one's familiarity with (and comfort with) the conventions in addition to one's knowlege of the form's materials generally. (For example, many people who are knowlegeable about and enjoy classical music can't stand opera. In some cases this is because they just don't like the sound of a classically produced voice, which seems very "unnatural" to many people. In others it's because they aren't comfortable with opera's various conventions as a dramatic form -- e.g. its often overt and in some cases sensationalized emotionality. As a well-indoctrinated fan, I really don't "see" this latter convention "from the outside" so to speak -- but my husband does and it drives him nuts. But I digress ...)

I think that the conventions of ballet can be a barrier to its appreciation and make it easy to dismiss by someone whose appreciation of other art forms is quite sophisticated. The plot of a story ballet is really just an armature to support an expression of some facet of human existence via the materials of ballet as an art form -- but if one isn't familiar with ballet's conventions or materials, one might be inclined to think that a response to the story in and of itself was the point of the evening (as it is in a play, for instance) and one would be justifiably disappointed at the end of a long evening of swans in tutus and von Rothbart waving his cape. Even when distilled into a "plotless" ballet, some of these conventions can still be baffling: at the end of Ballo della Regina, a friend I'd dragged along turned to me and said "was that a coronation or a wedding?" I suggested that it was the celebration of a magnificent woman, but that didn't seem to help her sort things out. Her comment at the end of Opus 19 / The Dreamer was "well, I guess they ended up together after all." As an art form, ballet was simply opaque to her at an emotional level, if not formally (she picked up many of the formal characteristics right away, but didn't know what to make of them: "do they always try to look so light? Why?" she asked. It was a good question and I didn't really have an answer.)

I also think that the "serious" version of all art forms just isn't that easy to get into because it does take time and effort to master its conventions and to learn how to appreciate its subtleties. (Even a popular form like rock has a serious version with a tiny audience -- as any devotee of the Obscure Alternative Band You've Never Heard Of But Really Should Know Because They Are Taking The Guitar Anthem As Far As It Will Go And Subverting It At The Same Time And Besides They Can Really Play Not Like That Swill on K-Rock will tell you. And it will usually take at least three beers for them to get to the end of the lecture.) Anyone familiar with the prices of tickets to sporting events or pop concerts knows that mere expensiveness isn't necessarily a barrier to entry.

Enough! I don't think I even came close to addressing the central topic of the thread, so I think I better stop. And besides, I have to go practice now ;-) ...

(For the record, I can't sit through either "The Merchant of Venice" or "The Taming of the Shrew" without gritting my teeth and clenching my fists; my traversal of "Paradise Lost" was frequently interrupted by a savage hurl of the book to the other end of the room out of sheer irritation. "Incoming!' my roomate would bellow.)

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Kathleen, Thank you for taking the time to write that post. You've really helped me to formulate a response to my well-meaning friends when they denigrate ballet. Your points about the "oppressions" of ballet being visible as compared to those of other arts may be very helpful.

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There does seem to be an appeal in performing arts to depict foreign cultures. You see it from Shakespeare's Verona to La Bayadere. I don't mind misconceptions about cultures, as long as there aren't trivializations or tokenism or a paternalistic attitude.

It is quite nice, actually, to look far from one's own world and realize that whatever their class or culture, people still have the same struggles. They love and hate, their infants die, they have petty jealousies, they objectify other people--- just like we do!

There is a famous ink drawing of a rhinoceros by a European artist who had seen a rhino once. The drawing is full of inaccuracies. Obviously, the farther one is from a culture in space and time, the more innacurate the depiction. I could write about Americans and many Americans would protest that I was saying incorrect things about them because it has been two years since I've lived in America. On the other hand, my depictions of British people would probably be even more inaccurate because I've lived here only two years. I would probably make a mess of describing the neighborhood I live in, with its Muslim women draped head-to-toe and its punks in black leather, because I know nothing about those cultures/subcultures. I still do try to describe them.

Even people living in a culture, and native to that culture, make mistakes. A Greek friend objects to the dramatists' idea that ancient Athenians exposed the babies they didn't want. He says, "It is drama-- it is not supposed to be true." As it turns out, we have more evidence than just Athenian playwrights to show that the Athenians did expose their babies.

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