Female Fragility

Un, oh -- here I go again, courting charges of sexism. But bear with me. The other night Maria Kowroski stepped back onto the New York State Theater stage, dancing with her usual sovereign command in Mauro Bigonzetti's underrated new ballet "Oltremare." Kowroski, who a couple of seasons ago had missed a big chunk of her inevitably short time as a New York Ciity Ballet prinicpal (given the limited career spans of all ballet dancers) with mononucleosis, has been injured of late. Exactly what the injury is, I know not. But she was the poster girl for this season's Jerome Robbins Celebration, smiling in all the ads, and she wasn't dancing. An unusual number of dancers at both City Ballet and American Ballet Theater seem to be suffering of late, men and women, but maybe more women than men.

Injuries are part of a dancer's life, and probably this has just been unlucky coincidence. Nursing injuries is an intergral part of the ethos and camaraderie of any ballet troupe. But then I recalled a front page story in the New York Times recently in which educators worried about the plethora of injuries to high-school women athletes, especially soccer players, in beefed-up female sports programs. And then there was the Kentucky Derby, in which the only filly in the field of 20, Eight Belles, heroically finished second and then collapsed with two broken front legs and had to "euthanized" on the track, as they say in horse-racing euphemism.

That in turn prompted a spate of hand wringing from PETA and others arguing that horse racing was a cruel sport in which big, heavy animals are bred for speed, with bones too slender and fragile to support all that weight. And then one thinks of ballet training, which is properly muscular and athletic but also puts female dancers at risk with toe shoes, one step up from Chinese foot-binding, and constant pressure to lose weight. Ballet dancers today look different from photos of dancers from decades ago or the 19th century; they're thinner.

A ballet dancer, or a female athlete in most any sport (me, I'm partial to women's tennis, but the same thing holds true for basketball or sprinting or any sport that doesn't put a premium on brute strength, like steroid-pumped Soviet female shot-putters of yore). The Women's Tennis Association has been plagued with injuries to its top players the last few seasons, commonly attributed to its incessant tour schedule.

Slim, strong women can be marvelous exemplars of skill and speed and aesthetic refinement. Male athletes get injured, too, since they are subject to the same pressures to excel. Though they may have more muscled bodies, they also subject them to often more strenuous demands. But at least they don't have to dance on toe or epitomize the lightness of air. We won't even broach the possibility, vigorously denied by dancers and companies, that some may use performance-enhancing drugs of whatever kind.

One would hardly want high schools to drop female sports programs or horse racing to ban fillies or ballet to become the exclusive territory of Ted Shawn or Eliot Feld  and his Mandance project, which in any event cheats to include some females. "Ballet is woman," said George Balanchine. But competitive or careerist pressure, for all the greatness it may inspire, can also push bodies past the point of common sense. One wonders if that point hasn't been reached on our ballet stages today.  

June 1, 2008 1:36 PM | | Comments (2)


Read your post this morning, and tonight saw this article in my local Hartford, CT newspaper:

As a former ballet and modern dance student turned publicist in the performing arts in NYC (1981-1995), at Jacob's Pillow (1995-97), and briefly with Hartford Ballet before its sad demise (1996-97), must say I have been troubled by the severe injuries dancers incur, especially by women.

Without data to support my observations of dance in recent decades vs. early to mid-20th century history, I'm on a slope more slippery and steep than any ramp used by Eliot Feld in his choreography, but I'll say the first part of my opinionated digressions....

In 1978 I took a course in dance history at Hunter College. One written examination inelegantly and inaccurately posed the question, if memory serves, "Do ballet dancers and modern dancers have different bodies?" I wrote yes, and my professor told me I was wrong. She may have studied with the modern dance greats, but no way would she ever have been ballet material, even in the 1940s.

Female physical types accepted for ballet were gradually narrowed and heightened as the 20th century progressed. I cannot lay the blame solely on George Balanchine. Some of his ballerinas were slim and long-limbed from the 1910s until his death in 1982, but not all were will o' the wisps. To name a few: Danilova, Toumanova, Adams, Hayden, Verdy, Farrell, and von Aroldigen, who all had pelvises associated with healthy womanly builds. Other members of the company were petite in frame and height, and you wouldn't find their likes on the stage today.

Also, at American Ballet Theatre from the 1970s until they opted for retirements, Cynthia Gregory and Martine van Hamel were regal on the stage: tall, strong, womanly bodies.

As for legends of yesteryear, Margot Fonteyn, even Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, had hips.

So what's my point? These women were students of great teachers who taught them how to work strenuously yet safely within ballet's unattainable ideal. In earlier days, turnout and extension weren't as important as flowing and harmonious line in space. In recent decades, the emphasis has been placed on extremes: 180 degree turnout from the hips (and knees, ankles, and feet), high extensions that would have once been considered vulgar (a battement or develope by a dancer's ear is sublime. Sounds cheap

If the revolutionary spirits of Isadora Duncan and Michel Fokine could see ballet today, both would be more appalled at its increasingly hidebound character.

More later.

I tend to agree. My son attends a well-respected arts boarding school in the Boston area where he studies ballet. Each year I'm surprised at the percentage of injured ballet students, who seem to suffer predominantly from overuse injuries. Between injuries and illnesses that are difficult to overcome because of students' overfull schedules (school, class and rehearsals), the school frequently has concerns about whether students will be perform when needed.

I believe the head of the school's dance department currently is spending his sabbatical studying what he too believes are a heightened number of injuries in recent years. My understanding is that he thinks it has some relation to the predominant use of floating floors, which seems odd to me, but I can see there are some ways in which they might contribute.


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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on June 1, 2008 1:36 PM.

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