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.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.