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’.