Monday, June 26, 2006

Sleeping Beauty

Yesterday at the Royal Ballet's version of Sleeping Beauty, which was attended by a lot of little girls in their very best dresses as well as by regular balletomaines like my husband and me, I was struck by how powerful the lead character is--in this version of the folktale, she's called Aurora. There's an entire act in which Aurora is courted by four suitors, but she spends this act on pointe, balanced, unsupported. This is an exaggeration, but she really does an amazing number of unpartnered balances on pointe. All this in celebration of her 16th birthday, and her entry into womanhood. She's all we care about. She's the only thing worth watching, despite the considerable spectacle of the production. Story ballets of this warhorse variety are often seen as hopelessly bourgeois, locked in tradition. I wonder if that's their only message.


  1. I think you're right that there are many meanings that can be read into a single work, and they may well be contradictory.

    Was there not a time when ballet dancers were considered immoral, loose women (much like actresses and nurses)? So originally, a ballerina dancing like this might have been considered to be attracting male sexual attention. On the other hand, she's also got a profession, at which she works hard, and her body is clearly muscular. Then again, the body-shape may be unusually thin, and her ballet shoes damage her toes (maybe the equivalent of high-heels, which also lengthen the leg but may damage the toes).

    So you end up with a mixture of messages about female empowerment, beauty and fashion, sexuality, professionalism, suffering, art, gender.

    Not that dissimilar from the romance genre, then.

  2. It's true that dancers were once considered on par with "loose women" - much like "exotic" dancers today. However, as a former dancer, I don't really think that carries over much today. The choreography is reinterpreted with each production. Though the heart of the ballet stays the same and certain elements - like the 32 fouette turns in Swan Lake - that never change, but each ballet is arranged in a unique way, even if someof the choreography doesn't change. While it's possible that there may have been some undertones on the type of woman performing the role in the original choreography, I never heard or saw anything to that effect when I was dancing.

    This particular piece is all about Aurora coming into her own and being the center of attention - she is tall and strong and beautiful. She is courted by men, but they hardly need to be there because she supports herself. At least, that's what I took from it. Of course, I was also a dancing snowflake in the corps, so ...

    I don't know if the dancers' physical shape and body type can be a comment on beauty and fashion. Unlike fashion models, ballerinas have always been tall and thin. If you look at ballerinas from the early 60's (and earlier) through today, you'd find they're all of a very similar body type.

    I agree, however, that ballet isn't that dissimilar from the romance genre. I just think those things it tries to comment on are more inherent to each production than to ballet dancing as a whole.

  3. I just think those things it tries to comment on are more inherent to each production than to ballet dancing as a whole.

    You obviously know far, far more about ballet than I do. I didn't mean the comments about ballet dancers as 'loose women' to be taken as derrogatory, and I know that that past doesn't affect the perception of modern dancers. I was just wondering if romance, which is often dismissed as 'porn for women', may one day achieve the same respectability classical dance has.

    For me, what you say sets up even more parallels between 'classical ballet' and the romance genre. In romance there's the idea that romance is 'formulaic', and that every book's the same. Maybe that error is similar to making the assumption that every production of Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty is 'the same'. Each director, choreographer and company of dancers will reinterpret the ballet differently, just as each romance author writes a different story each time, even though each has a similar core structure (e.g. central love story, happy ever after ending) and some are 'Cinderella' stories, other 'Beauty and the Beast' etc. All that said, though, there are some things that all classical ballets have in common, or else they wouldn't be recognisable as classical ballet. And maybe I'm going overboard with the metaphor, but how about some of the more modern ballet as the equivalent of chick lit?