Is ballet porn? The Taliban would certainly say so. Can you imagine the moral harm that could come to the impressionable young from being exposed to all those half-naked bodies in their flirtatious writhing?
And don't take just the Taliban's word for it. The English Puritans opposed even acting on stages, let alone dancing in tights. In 19th-century Britain and France, musical theatre was seen as a lascivious entertainment, its female stars often appearing in states of undress that would not be permitted outside. Many of the female theatrical stars of 19th-century Europe would not have been invited to respectable houses. The great caricature of this courtesan-actress figure comes in Emile Zola's novel Nana, about a wildly sexual performer who drives men to madness in her flesh-coloured body-stocking.
Just as the Wilis, the ghostly wood nymphs from the 1841 ballet Giselle – one of the most respectable of the entire canon – drive men to their deaths with their dancing.
Now let's consider the Bolshoi, possibly the most famous ballet in the world. Do they fire its dancers for participating in lubricious commercial activity? On the contrary, they force them into it. According to prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who was fired from the company in 2003, second-rank ballerinas were frequently pressured to escort oligarchs to dinners and parties. She told Russian news services that the company was "a giant brothel" (echoing Zola's fictional impresario, Bordenave, who insists on calling his theatre a brothel). Since then Volochkova has done a lot of bikini shoots for popular magazines. Who can blame her, with a ballet-honed body like that?
How could these paragons of beauty, muscularity and grace not be seen as sexually desirable? How can an art form that produced such sensual narratives as L'apres-midi d'un faune (in which the faun, a sort of satyr, masturbates with a nymph's veil) think itself above the erotic?
Take a look at video of the recently dismissed Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer Jeppe Hansen as he practises his steps and does the splits, in his bulbous leotard, every muscle engorged. It's pretty much porn right there. But the poor guy was fired for making a little extra money on the side by starring in some explicit videos. Apparently sex is incompatible with such a purely cerebral activity as dancing.
Then take a look at some of his porn, made by a high-end production company called CockyBoys (okay, try to ignore the name). It's all extremely pretty boys in romantic couplings in lush rooms. They stand in windows, giving each other moody looks, as the gauzy curtains billow in afternoon light. It's inescapably … balletic.
When did the idea of ballet as highbrow spiritualism take hold? Do the wealthy few who now patronize the art have to think that their appreciation of young bodies is in no way voyeuristic, but a kind of abstracted aestheticism, so as to justify it?
It's tricky to talk about sex in ballet because so many children are taught classical dance. The ballet schools are filled with pubescent girls. I understand that one wouldn't want to make them overly aware of their sexual power, or the objectification that inevitably is visited on those whose art is their bodies. And yet they are being groomed as archetypes of conventional femininity. And they do have to go into that rehearsal room wearing very little.
"Sex will ruin ballet," thinks the protagonist of Martha Schabas's novel Various Positions. She is a young teenager who has been accepted to a prestigious ballet school; the dance is her life. She repeats this phrase to herself as sex starts to impose itself on her worldview, like a nasty virus she would be rid of. She too has come to the ballet on the understanding that it is above the world, that it is a pure and noble calling untainted by the tawdry things that "normal" teenagers have to deal with. She seems to believe that a life of ballet will delay indefinitely her entering the domain of sexual exchange. And yet she can't help noticing how her strong male instructor's arm brushes her buttocks as he positions her.
Sex does ruin ballet, in this cleverly written and subtle novel, as the girl's naive obsession starts to wreck the instructor's life. However, it is also shown to be so powerful and ubiquitous that it can't be ignored. Her mantra is overly simplistic, inadequate.
Highbrow as you may try to be, you just can't take sex out of ballet. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet looks provincial for trying.