Is Ballet at Breaking Pointe?

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 28, 2010 | Go to article overview

Is Ballet at Breaking Pointe?


Byline: Jennifer Homans

As today's productions become more about flash than passion, dance critic and former ballerina Jennifer Homans (left) fears that ballet is in crisis. Here she recalls the inspiration that led to her lifelong love affair with the art form and how a return to classical values could be its saving grace

I have spent my life performing and studying ballet. I have always loved watching it. But in recent years I have found going to the ballet increasingly dispiriting. Too often performances are technically impressive but lacking in warmth and vitality: too safe and too pretty. Even in London, where the culture of ballet-going is strong and the art form has considerable stature, audiences are hard to get and keep: gone are the days when fans routinely queued around the block with their sleeping bags, or fought for standing room to see a favourite dancer. People enjoy ballet, but it simply doesn't have the explosive popularity it once had. I still go, but after years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now worry that ballet in general is dying; e that the occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope, but the last glow of a dying ember: we are watching ballet slowly fade.

Should we care? We should, but it is often hard to remember why. Too many people today think of ballet as a sugar-coated Nutcracker fantasy that appeals to little girls dreaming of princesses and tiaras; or as an astonishing athletic achievement, with dancers performing tricks and soaring like circus artists through the air. But is this really all that draws us to ballet? Is this really why we should care?

My own experience was quite different. Like so many children, I began dancing at our local ballet school. I liked wearing pink tutus and pointe shoes, of course, but that was not what made me love the art. I was a shy child, quiet and inclined to introspection, and for me ballet was a refuge from the strains and often unsettling moods of daily life. It was a private inner place, quiet and blissfully apart - like reading. When I stood at the barre in first position and heard the first few notes of the music, everything else melted away. Gone was the homework and gossip from school; gone were my parents' arguments and irksome quarrels with sisters; vanished were all of the timetables, chores and demands that seemed to clutter my days. It was even a relief not to be with friends.

Here, during this hour of ballet, I was alone with my body and the stringent requirements of ballet technique. It was pure concentration - not words but physical feelings - and every resource I had was focused on delving into my body and figuring out how to turn out my feet, rotating from the hips so that my pelvis and back would align, straight but easily poised, chest high. If I could just get it right, and capture the phrase of the music at the same time, the effect would be incredible. For a split second, everything would work: mind, body and soul in perfect synchrony. For that moment, I could let go - really let go, in ways that were not possible anywhere else in life. This is why, I think, so many dancers describe ballet as an exhilarating release. Being free.

Of course, at times I hated ballet too. The frustration of not being able to translate what I knew in my mind - how a step should feel or look - into my body could be extreme, and obsessive. This feeling was heightened for me, perhaps, because my first teacher had multiple sclerosis: completely paralysed, he taught us from a wheelchair, and I can still recall the sharp edge of frustration and urgency Of course, at times I hated ballet too. The frustration of not being able to translate what in my mind - how a step should feel or look my body could be extreme, and obsessive. feeling was heightened for me, perhaps, my first teacher had multiple sclerosis: paralysed, he taught us from a wheelchair, still recall the sharp edge of frustration and in his voice as he tried to explain meticulously, one last time, exactly how to coordinate the arms to achieve a particular turn or jump. …

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