Two recently published memoirs by prominent U.S. ballerinas, New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer and American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, part the curtain on the ballet’s central illusion: that it is empowering for the female dancers at its centre.
Providing a behind-the-scenes look at the glory and gore of ballet, both books, in their own way, uncover unjust practices in ballet which for decades have tended to be tolerated, if not excused, in the name of art.
In Dancing Through It, Ringer’s chronicle of her years as an elite ballerina at one of the world’s most esteemed classical dance companies, eating disorders are at the foreground as the ugly underbelly of an art form that encourages extreme thinness in ballerinas at the cost of their physical and mental health. Ringer, who recently retired from the stage, almost went mad wrestling with the demon of a perfect body image, and her first-person account of her struggles is graphic, unsettling and sad.
Copeland, on the other hand, is a naturally curvy ballerina who never succumbed to the epidemic of anorexia and bulimia, which today affect ballerinas and young ballet students more than any other segment of the female population worldwide. As she documents in Life in Motion, her story is about what it is like to be a black ballerina in an art form where white swans rule. Her problems have always been more socially based.
When growing up in Los Angeles, she lived in poverty and was constantly on the move, living out of cheap motels and eating junk food for dinner. She was discovered on a basketball court when she was in her early teens, already old for ballet. But Copeland was so extraordinarily and innately talented she soon was soaring through the ranks of her local ballet school.
Copeland today is an in-demand soloist with ambition to become a principal dancer, and if she realizes her dream she will make history. To date no major ballet company has advanced a black ballerina to the top of its ranks. And so you find yourself rooting for her, because like Ringer she is a ballerina with tenacity and guts, a true survivor. The Globe and Mail interviewed both dancers.
You have struggled with eating disorders much of your career, a common enough ailment for dancers but until recently rarely discussed in the open. Why did you want to go public with your struggles with body image?
Really because it is such a common problem, not only for dancers but for women in general. The ballet world is a microcosm of the real world – there is a standard of beauty out there, held up to women daily in the media, that is truly impossible to attain. We are told what we must look like in order to be ‘beautiful’ or what we must do to attain ‘beauty,’ and our culture holds this physical beauty up as the symbol of someone’s worth. It causes women to be critical of themselves and each other for falling short of this standard and results in so many women being dissatisfied with their appearance. and ultimately feeling like they are not as important as someone else that they feel is more ‘beautiful.’ I feel like it is a real problem and distracts women from thinking and caring about how to develop their inner beauty and true feelings of self-worth based on traits like honour and courage and integrity. I think of this often as a mother of a precious little girl – I think about what patterns I want to set up for her, positive patterns that will encourage and nurture a healthy self-esteem.
Let’s talk about sugarplumgate. When The New York Times dance critic publicly accused you of having eaten one too many sugar plums in his 2010 review of The Nutcracker, you were hurt, of course, but your public was outraged. Are audiences today more accepting of different body types in ballet than some critics are?
The great thing about that whole incident is that it got people thinking. And the fact is, though the myth of the ‘perfect ballet body’ is out there and continues to be perpetuated, if you look around at the principal rosters of the major ballet companies, you will see a wide variety of bodies out there. Of course there are a great many ballet dancers who do have the quintessential ballerina body. But off of the top of my head, I can think of principal ballerinas that are too much of something: too tall, too short, too broad, too long of a torso, too athletic, too womanly, too crooked. And no one cares when they are dancing, because they can move so incredibly.
Fascinating in the book are the glimpses you offer of the behind-the-scenes world of the ballet dancer, including the spills and falls. Ballet is glamorous on one level but quite brutal and stark on the other. How do you view this dichotomy?
For a dancer, ballet is a combination of so many things – it is an elite, highly specialized athletic endeavour, it is an art form that requires all of your emotional energy, it is a life, it is a job. And people are people, whether they are wearing tutus or suits.
You recently retired from the stage. Can you describe your last dance?
I loved my last performance. I felt so much joy and resolution and gratefulness and satisfaction. I think writing my book actually helped me to retire – I got a lot of closure about a lot of things. I had so much fun, dancing one last time with those incredible artists that were my colleagues and friends.
Why is colour in ballet still a contentious issue, even in this day and age?
I think the access has been limiting for diverse communities. Underprivileged communities. So when you get to the top-tier companies, there aren’t enough dancers of colour to choose from. In addition to the history of ballet being predominantly white, it’s hard to be accepted and fit into the unison of a corps de ballet, especially when the audience isn’t used to seeing it.
For whom did you write this book and why?
I wrote this book for everyone. I know that my story is an unlikely one for the path of a ballet dancer. I wanted to share my personal life story for people to be able to relate to me, coming from a very typical American upbringing of modest beginnings and dreaming beyond the means presented in front of you. An American success story. Also the detailed, intimate nuances of a dancer’s life. I wanted to be true to the ballet terminology to expose this world to people who aren’t knowledgeable of it and for the dancers to connect to it.
You describe the fact that you were poor, that your mother wasn’t always the best at choosing fathers for you kids, how you lived in motels, and at one point petitioned to become free of your mother’s care. How did where you came from prepare you for where you ended up?
My rocky upbringing gave me a very thick skin that is a tool every dancer needs. I also think it helped me to build character from a young age, which helped me to be able to bring my life experiences to the stage through the characters I portray.
You are curvier than most ballerinas have been since the Balanchine effect took root in ballet in the 1960s. How have you avoided the edict to be thin, and how do you think body types are changing in ballet today?
I wouldn’t be capable of carrying out the duties of an athlete if I were thinner than I am now and looked like the dancers did in the Balanchine era. Choreography today has become so extremely athletic that it has forced the ballet world to adapt to the way our muscles develop doing the more contemporary works we do today.
You once told me that racism is still very much practised within ballet and that you have had to work harder than your white counterparts to get ahead. Is that still the case?
I have seen a shift in the way companies look today. There are more dancers of colour because we have opened a dialogue to the world beyond ballet. It’s as though the ballet world has been exposed and forced to make changes. I think because minority dancers are few and far between we have to be that much stronger and talented to be accepted in a company where we are going to stand out. I still hear from ballerinas from previous generations who say I’m going about my career in the wrong way. They see me as a self-promoter using my voice to be seen and force the artistic staff to promote me to principal. It’s hurtful but I have to accept everyone’s opinions when I’m this visible in the media. I think I will be proving myself and talent for the rest of my career.
Your goal is to become the first black principal dancer in the United States. How close are you to achieving that?
Actually having the opportunity to go on stage and perform principal roles in Coppélia, Manon, La Bayadère, Firebird and now preparing Swan Lake, make it seem much more real, attainable and possible. This is the first time that it feels like more than a dream.