Classical Ballet: An Athlete’s Realm or an Artist’s?

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The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure-Mikhail Baryshnikov, Former principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet and New York City Ballet

It may please us, it may disgust us; it may move us to tears, or invoke our stifled laughter. Walk down any street and you may well find it in a beautifully designed church, or in the piercing eyes of a gilded lion door knocker; pass through any gallery and you may stumble upon it in the troubled look of Frida Kahlo‘s self-portraits, or one of Renoir‘s absent-minded women lost in the idealism of provincial France; flick through Tolstoy‘s tragedies and you may utter it from your lips; wander through any shop and you may hear it resounding from the radio, but only when you step on stage to enact Le Corsaire or The Dying Swan may you feel it in your flesh, may you truly become it. Still, even as it moves within our feet, we never cease to quietly question it. ‘Is this its greatest form?’ the papers ask us. What is its weakest? Unconsciously we endlessly ask ourselves What is art?.

Perhaps art is everything the human mind offers in terms of making human emotion and our understanding of beauty and ugliness tangible and sensorial through creativity and imagination. Dictated by discipline, dedication, high stamina, agility, muscle-tone, teamwork and concentration, for some ballet is but a sport like any other; indeed, even Manchester United  player Ryan Griggs admitted that the intense physicality of ballet frequently helps him to condition his body for sport. Yet for those who have once bourréed behind rich velvet stage curtains, or surreptitiously fouettéed while the lights were down, a ballet dancer is not an athlete; far from wailing in pain before onlookers like an agonised broken-nosed rugby player, or wincing as she strains like a Wimbledon finalist – a ballet dancer is a far stronger creature. Her muscles may be aching, her toes may be bleeding and her nose may be freshly broken, but she gestures to her partner with a smile as if she is pain-free. Like any great architecture or masterpiece, is suffering after all a necessary factor in the production of what we term great art?

Concealing physical pain behind elegance and artistry, a ballerina is at once the artist and the artwork, she is the violinist while her body is her violin; through the contours of her body she channels music, human emotion and her own suffering. From Louis XIV’s balletic début as Apollo the Sun God and Edgar Degas‘ infamous studio dancers through to Russian Anna Pavlova‘s ethereal interpretation of La Bayadère and the quick-footed touch of French étoile Sylvie Guillem as Esmeralda, Ballet has become an art form that has harmonized mind, body and soul. With its perfectly choreographed sequence of movements it has shown us all that the human mind can create, all that the human soul may feel and all that the human body can achieve. It is an art form that combines the stamina of sports, the drama of opera and the passion and illusion of theatre into an amalgam of seemingly effortless grace and aesthetically pleasing body positioning. It is no wonder then, that so many become so intoxicated by it that they may sacrifice their youth to such a strict discipline. 

Despite the alluring nature of ballet and the seemingly cast-iron ambition and determination of classical ballet dancers though, it seems that all the while many dancers struggle with their decision. ‘From four and a half I went to gymnastics and from there I went to ballet school’ explains Ukrainian former Royal Ballet Dancer Sergei Polunin who resigned from the company aged 22 with vague hopes of opening a tattoo parlour; ‘ballet was not my choice, it was my mum’s choice; when you’re young you don’t really know what you need in your life and what you want…when you grow up you start to think for yourself and you think is this the right thing you’re doing? Is this what you want to do?’. Former principal dancer Judy Madden also confirms this existential quandary ‘I think there comes a point for every dancer when you start to think what’s the point of standing on one leg?’. For former East German principal ballerina Sylvia Armit, the harshness of ballet begun at age 8 when she began attending Berlin State Ballet School, ‘my teachers were strict, one of them once shouted that my feet were not turned out enough and broke my big toe trying to force it into position’.  Later when she became a professional dancer the sense of ‘camaraderie’ between the cast was often second to none she recalls, however ‘we were scared of our theatre director everyday and it’s awful to go to work scared’, while the physical exhaustion brought on by the profession was ‘horrendous’, she explains. Indeed the long-term physical consequences of spending one’s youth chasing perfection and training as much as 10 hours a day may be seen in her own body, as she takes off her shoes to show me her bunions she reiterates her point, ‘I am only 60 but I am already having trouble walking’.

Is ballet more artistic than it is athletic? What is the essence of an art form? Where do the boundaries of art lie? Does art equate to beauty and suffering? Do we sacrifice too much in the name of art? Is a dancer’s fleeting achievement on the stage worth a lifetime of discipline, self-doubt, physical fatigue and eating disorders? Does one single appreciative onlooker turn a painting into a work of art? ‘Dance for that one person in the audience who knows something about ballet’ says former prima ballerina Sylvia Armit – for a classical dancer, does one single member of the audience suffice to transform a dancer into an onstage-artist?

‘I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dancer is his ideal.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

Sylvia Armit practices her arabesque aged 14 whilst attending the best ballet school in the country during the late 60's, the Berlin State ballet school.

Sylvia Armit practices her arabesque aged 14 whilst attending the best ballet school in the country during the late 60’s, the Berlin State ballet school.

Pre-performances classes were rigorous, some would start at 10 am, with short breaks in between they would sometimes not end until nightfall explains Sylvia pictured here rehearsing for her variations en pointe.

Pre-performances classes were rigorous, some would start at 10 am, with short breaks in between they would sometimes not end until nightfall explains Sylvia pictured here rehearsing for her variations en pointe.

Dance is music made visible’ – George Balanchine

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Just as her Italian Comedia dell'arte forerunners, all costumed-out in colourful dress, Prima Ballet of Chemnitz's resident ballet company in the  80's, Sylvia Armit gestures with a smile as she plays the of part of Coppelia.

Just as her Italian Comedia dell’arte forerunners, all costumed-out in colourful dress, Prima Ballet of Chemnitz’s resident ballet company in the 80’s, Sylvia Armit gestures playfully  as she absorbs herself in the of part of Coppelia.

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I would rather dance as a ballerina, though faultily, than as a flawless clown. – Margaret Atwood in ‘Lady Oracle’

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Having retired from ballet some 25 years ago, Sylvia now spends her time nurturing creative expression in the younger generation.

Having retired from ballet some 25 years ago, Sylvia now spends her time nurturing creative expression in the younger generation.

Dancing can reveal all the mystery that music conceals. – Charles Baudelaire

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‘Music and Dancing, not only give great pleasure but have the honour of depending on Mathematics, for they consist in number and in measure…..Therefore, whatever the old doctors may say, to employ oneself at all this is to be a Philosopher and a Mathematician.’ ―Charles Sorel

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14 thoughts on “Classical Ballet: An Athlete’s Realm or an Artist’s?

  1. To me, ballet will always be an art form that expresses stories and emotions in ways words can’t, but these -days classical ballet is turning into a competitive sport with an emphasis on extreme skill / technique and beautiful form. That being said, the world’s most loved ballet stars are still those who touch us, and are artists at their core.

  2. I drew some paintings one a handsome Nureyev telling his GF he’ll never forget her, dancers dancing from island to island to see the world, and one an ode of thanks to ballet dancers feet in poem and painting. But I’ll never hand in my tutu. http:barb greene mann @barbrisingstar

  3. Very well-written and well-research article. It is true that when you watch a ballet performance, the emotion does get under your flesh and into the bones when you are touched, doesn’t it? The question of whether ballet is more athletic than artistic is a difficult one. The athleticism–or what we call “technique”–is there to serve the art form. It is true what “thebookybunhead” wrote above, that today’s classical ballet is turning into a competitive sport with an emphasis on technique. But if you look at ballet’s history, in the 18th century the Italian school is known for its “bravura.” So even within the ballet world there has always been varying degrees of emphasis on the artistry vs. technique. A true artist, however, would always place artistry above all else. With that said, I’d like to leave you with a quote by Albert Einstein:
    “Dancers are the athletes of God.”

  4. Who says one has to be one or the other? I’m not a fan of making ballet a competitive event. To me, it’s art. But it takes athletic skill to perform it at it’s highest level, and some of the best athletes I know are dancers. It takes a physical discipline to be both a professional dancer and a professional athlete. I’ve seen dancers do some amazing physical things, but yet still convey emotions in a story ballet like Romeo and Juliet.

  5. Thank you for your insightful comments, I did not mean to claim that ballet is dependant exclusively on athleticism or artistry, I was merely curious to explore how it is perceived and whether we as humans perhaps tend to sacrifice too much in the name of art & even athletics. Ballet differs from most other art forms in that no matter how much a dancer achieves, their achievement is ultimately fleeting & tied to their youth, a trait which it shares with most other sports- I find a quiet sadness in this. Perhaps the fact each performance is fleeting and unique makes it all the more moving?

    In case anyone is interested, the photos are of my mum Sylvia Armit, she was a principal ballet dancer in East Germany before the Wall came down.

  6. You made a totally valid and poignant point about the fleeting nature of ballet… but perhaps it is exactly that that resonates with the nature of what we see in ballet in a way? Deep respect to your mom! I am very curious about her life as a principal dancer in East Germany. Would you care to write an article about that in the future? Is she teaching or doing anything with ballet nowadays?

  7. Although I danced seriously to the age of fifteen and still sometimes miss ballet, this is not a question I can answer. I think they are indivisible. The dancer must be an skilled athlete (necessary but not sufficient) but must always come to the performance as an artist. We saw Scottish Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet yesterday and for the audience there was a difference, among the soloists, between the athlete’s and the artist’s performances.

  8. You certainly have to be an athlete with ballet in my opinion. It is a risky profession and one bad fall and you’re through. You have to keep your muscles toned and stretched, not just to keep up with the intensity of some of the choreography, but so you can try and prevent yourself from being badly injured. It also takes an artistic soul to be a ballet dancer. I like to think of ballet as a silent film, but musical style, haha. They have to tell the story with their movements and if you’re in the front row or watching live streams of performances, than also in your facial expressions. That’s difficult to do, but what a talent if you can make an audience emotional with a mournful looking pirouette. I love ballet and will always admire the artistic view as a performer; but there is definitely the athletic aspect that fascinates me as well. Great topic and love your blog. I am now a follower and thank you for following mine as well. Hope to read more of your work!

  9. For me, ballet and most forms of dance are an art form that require athleticism. You can’t have the art and the beauty without the strength, the training, and the ability to bear pain invisibly. This has become even clearer to me since I started doing aerial dance – just like ballerinas, pro aerialists make their movements look effortless and graceful, but that ‘effortless’ part is shattered the first time you try to imitate them!

    I like the variety of topics you write about on your blog, and the research and consideration you put into each post!

  10. In India, Music is Described as ‘Karn Priya,’ that is, That which is Pleasing to the Ears. Football or Hockey, or any sports for that matter, may give rise to injuries, but We accept that as Inevitable. Whereas, in Art, if Pain is to bring about Pleasure, In my opinion, one has to be a Masochist.

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