Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Deirdre Kelly Discusses Her New Book: Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection

Deirdre Kelly (Photo: John Cullen)

Deirdre Kelly has been obsessed with dance and the ballerina since she was three years old. Much of her professional writing life has been devoted to looking at ballet and dance. Now, in her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers), she pulls back the curtain and gives us a rare peak behind the scenes at what it means in the past and the present to be a ballerina. She sat down with David Churchill recently to discuss her book and the history of the ballerina. Tomorrow, we will run an excerpt from her new book.

dc: What was the inspiration for writing the book?

dk: There's a macro and micro reason. I've been a professional dance critic for close to, gulp, 30 years. I truly have been fascinated by ballerinas from since the age of three. One of my first memories was incessantly drawing ballerinas together with flying fish and other powerful creatures of nature. Then I started writing about dance when I was 15 before taking creative writing in high school and going to University of Toronto. I first started to professionally cover dance at The Varsity, the University's oldest newspaper. Then I went to the Globe and Mail right out of university and was the dance critic there for 16 years. So, I actually identify myself as a dance lover, dance writer, dance critic. Someone who thinks about it a lot and writes about it.

There are other reasons I became fascinated with this topic. I was concerned with a kind of schizophrenia that I saw in this particular culture which came in the form of a major seed planted by the Kimberly Glasco case at the end of the '90s. [The late] Frank Magazine broke it, but I took that story out of the gate for the Globe and Mail and it became an international cause célèbre. It also sparked a national debate in Canada about just what the role of the ballerina was in the 21st century, and what was the role of the artistic director. However, I also learned that that wasn't the whole issue. At the time I remember being quite fascinated, saddened and horrified that while Glasco had a real right to voice her complaint about perceived injustices within the company, The National Ballet of Canada took umbrage. Now she was entitled to raise those concerns at board meetings as an elected dancer's rep, and yet, her company tried to silence her by firing her. But more to the point it was the reaction of the Canadian people that really surprised me. People seemed very uncomfortable about a ballerina opening her mouth to say anything, but especially to complain about injustices within her profession. I even saw headlines describing her as an “uppity ballerina,” and other almost antediluvian things said about her. It became an unbelievable backlash against this woman who opened her mouth. It was so antiquated and frankly quite shocking in this day and age. And it really did drive home that the iconography of the ballerina as the 'delicate, lilly-white being' is so deeply entrenched in the popular imagination that people cannot seem to brook a ballerina “stepping out of line/stepping away from the ranks.". It got me thinking about the metaphor of the ballet itself where it is celebrated as being a culture of uniformity and conformity.

dc: How long ago was this?

Kimberly Glasco
dk: Glasco was fired at the end of 1998, but the case peaked in 1999 and continued into 2000 while I was on a maternity leave. It was such a hot story that my paper pulled me off my leave and I was in a court room. It was a pretty serious case and an important labour relations matter. At the time I never thought I'd write a book about it, but the seed was certainly planted there. I thought about the two-pronged reality of the ballet world. Here we have this perception of 'sugar and spice and everything nice' on the stage, and then you look behind the scenes and you discover that more often than not this woman is controlled, dominated, degraded, silenced. But as I said, I had loved dance for so many years, and so when I became a professional writer on dance, I was afforded all these encounters behind the scenes. I even talked to someone recently who said “but ballerinas don't sweat.” I had to say, 'all right, let me take you behind the scenes.' On the stage, from behind the wings, she looks like a goddess on earth. She becomes quite radiant under the spotlight. She is beautiful. Still you cannot even get close. She wears iconic costumes and it's like armour around her. She's on this steely edged point; she's taller than everybody. She is in command of her own body and the audience. And she's doing it all to music. And then she glides effortlessly, after taking a bow, off the stage. And as soon as she's out of sight of her audience, she's clutching her guts, keeling over, gasping for air, vomiting. She might even be bleeding. She also may have sprained an ankle, and she's dancing on a swollen appendage. She gulps her air quite animal-like, far from this creature of the air we had just seen moments ago. And she then actually has to go right back out on stage for her encore. She pulls it miraculously together and the audience is none the wiser for the effort. And I think one of the things that intrigues me about the ballet if you look at it as an art form, it is all about masking the effort. Even when they breathe, they are smiling and breathing [dk makes the sound of air being pulled rapidly through gritted teeth]. You have to have training how to breathe through gritted teeth. Cast inside a smile. You are not to look like you are sweating, and you are not to look like it hurts, but man, it really really really does hurt.

dc: Let's go back to the beginning. Why do you have to learn ballet when you are so young?

dk: Because it is unnatural, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, it is a true art form. It is artifice. The human body is the tool, but that body can't be human, or as nature wanted it to be. In order to perform it well, children have to go into ballet very young because you have to distort and in a way disfigure the human body for it to be practised correctly. The hip sockets have to be opened up, the feet permanently splayed. If there was a ballerina in this room right now you could tell because she would walk permanently like a duck. And that is because her body is deformed. So it is very very harsh and as I say unnatural. And yet it is also meant to look like it is effortless. That value of effortlessness has tended to hide a lot of sins. It has to literally suppress pain. Suppress the reality that goes into it, and that idea permeates the culture as a whole. So you have created an art form where many hideous things can take place in the name of art. And one is not to protest; one is to just accept it. And the audience, for a long time has gone along with that. There are signs, now, fortunately, where times are changing and audiences are wising up. Let's say they are growing less tolerant of the tyranny and starvation. And that tyranny? Most of that are modern notions.

dc: George Balanchine, for example?

dk: Yeah, Balanchine. I didn't even know that the notion of the anorexic or skinny ballerina was a late 20th century phenomenon. And this was happening (and maybe not coincidentally, perhaps) at the same time that women in Western society were continuing to gain freedoms, but in ballet it had gone backwards. And it became entrenched until, really, the Glasco case came to light. It was one of those defining moments. I think now after her we can talk about change, and how it cannot continue like that.

dc: As you were doing the book, and up to its release, have you heard of any backlash about what you were discussing in it?

dk: No. That's a great question, and I've not contemplated it before. I suppose now you'll get the exclusive, though it is totally not secret. Let me put it this way. I am also a victim of this punishment as someone within the "ranks" who dared spill the beans. So until this day I am still “punished” by the National Ballet of Canada management. Because of my coverage of the explosive Kimberly Glasco story – I'm so very glad I backed the right horse in that story –  to this day, I am barred from the National Ballet of Canada as a working member of the press [editors note: the NBofC shows Deirdre has covered for Critics at Large in the last 18 months were from tickets she purchased herself]. I am denied all press tickets; I am denied all access to dancers for professional interviews. It's not my imagination. It's fact. That said. I don't single out the NBofC in this book. It is not a vendetta. I can also point to changes that the NBofC has made in the wake of the Glasco case, not only with regard to labour issues, but in the whole other area of health care. The NBofC is one of a handful of companies in the world which now invests a lot of resources to taking care of a labour force within the company. That is not just smart from a corporate point of view, to safeguard a workforce, but it is also good for the longevity of an art form. I also wrote it so fast, that if anybody did want to stop me, by the time they knew about it I was probably already half way done. I only had six months to write this. So I had to go “real fast.” Nobody has stepped in my way. I'm really proud of the work, and at the launch [tonight] members of the artistic staff have all asked to come. They were the first ones to say they are coming. It means a lot to get the support of the artists. I wrote this book for them. And they are coming; and they are volunteering to come. And whatever the perception might be they are letting the consequences happen. I did invite Karen Kain, but she has politely declined, as a ballerina would, politely.

dc: When I was reading the Glasco material I saw no vendetta from you against the NBofC. You wrote it like a journalist. 'This is what happened.' There's no rancour in the writing. But I want to get back into the book a bit. What I found fascinating about the early part of Ballerina is that most 20th and 21st century men perceive ballet as effeminate, and yet as you outline at the start of the book, in the 17th century, ballet was actually born out of the techniques used to teach the aristocracy the moves for fighting with a sword.

dk: And militaristic manoeuvring. Soldiering.

dc: And it was all men.

dk: And can I give a little soupçon of reality to the current day. Do you know that most players in the NFL, the National Football League, are all subjected to ballet training. I don't know if they are going in and ponying up to the bar, but ballet people are training them.

dc: Why is that?

King Louis XIV - The Sun King
dk: Because you cannot get anything more virile, actually, than ballet in terms of it as a physical pursuit. You have to have stamina, strength and poise. Leaps, jumps, holding someone aloft, and you have to be precise. And you do it to music. I really want to mention that for all its athleticism, this is an art form. It is about drama. And it is about harmony and ideas. For me as a writer, I've always found dance intellectually stimulating. I get a lot out of it. But let's get back to that time. During the Renaissance, it was a manly pursuit. The biggest practitioners of all were the kings of Europe. We're talking Louis XIV of France.

dc: The Sun King.

dk: And how did he even get that appellation? Through a ballet. Even me, I got all excited reading about it. That showed that ballet was the message for at least one century in western civilization. Louis XIV started doing ballet at 14. The discipline of ballet was used as a political tool not only to extol the virtues of the state, but to really establish the absolute monarchy of the king of France. It showed he was no dilettante. He took ballet very seriously, practising for up to 8 hours a day. What the king did, the rest of the court followed. If you wanted to progress within pre-revolutionary France you did ballet. If you didn't you were unlikely to progress.

dc: The ballerina-courtesan era in the late 18th and 19th century. Which came first? The ballerina or the courtesan?

dk: They developed simultaneously. Sex and skill in dance have gone hand and hand since the days of Salome from the Bible. Salome was a prototypical dancer and she is deeply associated with sex. So I would think that sex pre-dates dance. And yet, dance is a primal expression. In fact, one could say dance is sex and sex is dance. There is a strong association. If you go back into ancient times, and look at cave drawings, and artefacts, the idea of a dancing body as a sexual thing is always there. Sex was built in at the get-go into the art as a professional pursuit. I need to caution you and me and anybody else that I was even shocked in the research I did. I could not imagine a world where the ballerina doesn't have just one lover. But he's not a sugar daddy. And she is not a kept woman. Yet these are ideas we currently have and this defines our sexual world. But you have to come up with a whole new vocabulary, as well as a whole new set of glasses looking at pre-Revolutionary French ballet because what I discovered was that the ballerinas had many lovers. They weren't actually called lovers, but rather 'protectors' or 'patrons.' Even though all her protectors and patrons are aristocracy, the ballerina is permitted her own real love. And typically that is the person of her own class. Usually he is a fellow dancer, actor or musician. That's her boyfriend. That's her real guy. The rest of the men are there for pragmatic reasons. And yes, no doubt, they were all having sex because there were illegitimate children galore. It was incredible. And you and me were raised in a post-Victorian world, and our parents were probably shocked, I mean shocked, by the idea of the girl with the illegitimate child. The bastard child. That permeated their consciousness. They had no such hang-ups about it in the 18th century. Look at the facts. The roll call of the 18th century of the Paris Opera, the ballerinas' names were listed along side the official patron. That patron was sleeping with her. But I also want to say, it was a built-in professional practice because the protector did look after her. He promoted her interests, as well as his own, within the state theatre. Remember, the king was still actively involved in this world. And ballet was really important and you had to gain access somehow. The men established their importance within the court by being involved with ballet and the ballerinas.

Marie-Madeleine Guimard
It is hard for a present day audience to understand this, but I hope my book helps them to think about this in those terms. As I say, the sexual part of it didn't necessarily ruin a dancer's reputation. In fact, it enhanced the dancer. No doubt there were unscrupulous types who did take advantage of some of the women (mothers prostituting their daughters to scummy men was not uncommon. And ballerinas were pimped with impunity). However, the ballerinas were referred to as the “daughters of the king.” And it was written into the statutes that they were exempt from overt control by the patriarchal aspects of society (be it their father or husband or lover). They were exempt from “all persecution by the law.” Why's that? That's a fascinating clause. It meant that anything goes. Therefore these women could do anything and get away with it. The ballerinas themselves took the advantage they needed to advance themselves and control their own destinies. And many are on the record of having done so with tremendous aplomb and success. And as a result, they acquired great wealth. And these weren't token second-level dancers. They were blisteringly talented and unbelievably successful artists. They were also “gentle” and “delicate” and “refined.” People like Marie-Madeleine Guimard. She went from being a prostitute to being the toast of the country as a ballerina and businesswoman. She used her string of high ranking lovers, including the Bishop of Orlean – come on, you don't get much higher than that. He even got all of Paris to pray for her when she was sick. But she was notorious courtesan who used the money of the patrons to create a series of pornographic, live-sex theatres in the suburbs of France. These were custom built and decorated by the best architects and artists in France. They contained private loges where audience members could partake and participate in the shows on those stages. These were performed by the dancers of, for example, the Paris Opera and the singers and the actors and actresses. It all sounds completely decadent, but I would have loved to have seen that. And Guimard was a vagabond street urchin who rose to the top of French society.

dc: What do you hope people get out of your book?

dk: Ha! How about this, oh boy, I hope people fall in love with these ballerinas the way I did. I was really honoured to discover and bring back into our consciousness these incredible women who were so forgotten by the time the curtain fell on their final performance. I think and hope I've resurrected many important and trailblazing females in the history of western art and civilization, and I want people to know about them. I also want people to rethink the role of the ballerina in the 21st century. I want people to see that ballet as a vehicle for anorexia (and other disorders) is a modern phenomenon and it never existed prior to 1963 because Balanchine got the all-important Ford Foundation Grant in 1963 after years of struggle. He could start to create a ballet company in his own vision and that vision included “toothpick women.” That was his ideal. It can be attractive, but it is one person's idea of what is an ideal, and it was oppressive. Today, ballet is making room for women with curves. In the book, I site Misty Copeland. She's around 28 and is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. She is extraordinary in a lot of ways, not just because she has curves, but also because she is a black woman in a very white, deliberately white art form (there's no nuance in Swan Lake, for example). Ballet is an art form of conformity, but there's always that one ballerina who breaks form from the line formation of her fellow dancers. She becomes the trailblazer. She paves the way for change and allows for the ballet, as an art form, to grow. 

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Dierdre, the book sounds fascinating. I should have paid more attention in ballet class.

    And it struck me, reading the article, how many successful and famous women started out as impoverished street urchins--Guimard, Chanel, Piaf---before this modern era. Maybe even in this modern era.

    Anyway, you've intrigued me. I'm hooked. Can't wait to finish "Ballerina..."

    Best of luck with it,