Deirdre Kelly is the author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, and Paris Times Eight: Finding Myself in the City of Dreams. She is a staff writer at The Globe and Mail newspaper writing on dance, fashion, interior design and lifestyle trends.
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When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."
Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.
With her delicate movement quality and a silken jump, at age 17 Natasha Sheehan became the youngest winner of the International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize this past November. The rookie San Francisco Ballet corps dancer flawlessly embodied the ghostly Giselle, and her emotional performance stood out in an arena typically showcasing athletic prowess. The spellbound audience and judges agreed: Sheehan's profound artistry and self-assurance belie her years.
Dancers take control by commissioning their own choreography.
Wendy Whelan and Joshua Beamish rehearsing Conditional Sentences. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Whelan.
As a prominent New York City Ballet dancer, Wendy Whelan worked closely with leading choreographers who created original ballets inspired by her long lines and kinetic intelligence. The Kentucky-born ballerina loved the feeling of being “tapped into” as a source of inspiration. To ensure she could relive the experience, late in her career the ballet icon started hiring choreographers to work with her, initiating the creative process herself rather than waiting for a choreographer to hire her.
Dancers who take artistic control by commissioning choreographers turn traditional hierarchies on their head. The experience can be empowering and liberating. But it’s also a new kind of balancing act, requiring dancers to double as impresarios working hard behind the scenes to bring their projects to fruition. The demands are mental as well as physical. But those dancers who do it see it as a way of transforming their careers. “It’s about finding out what you want to explore in continuing your development as a dance artist,” says Whelan.
From Muse to Manager
Going from being told what to do to calling the shots requires great forethought, planning and self-assurance. Your traditional role as interpreter has shifted to one of producer. You are in control of the entire process, from fundraising to forging relationships with presenters who will help you secure a venue for getting the finished work seen. You will need to be a strong communicator with an unwavering belief in your project as you are the one leading a team of artists, starting with the choreographer with whom you wish to work and including sound, lighting and costume designers; tech crews; and publicists. “Find people to collaborate with who support your vision in order to grow and build your ideas,” Whelan says.
Making the Hire
When choosing a choreographer, ideally you want a collaborator, someone confident enough to take direction from you. For her first commission, Toronto indie dancer Danielle Baskerville brought on DA Hoskins, an award-winning Canadian choreographer whom she has danced with for 15 years, often serving as his muse. The resulting abstract work, Jackie Burroughs is Dead (and what are you going to do about it?), debuted in April to critical acclaim. Baskerville both performed and produced it. “Our work is so collaborative and fluid, so it felt incredibly natural for me to take on the role of the initiator,” Baskerville says. “Commissioning DA was really just the next step in our artistic relationship.”
The classically trained Whelan opted for four contemporary choreographers for her 2014 Restless Creature project. “I chose Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Joshua Beamish and Alejandro Cerrudo to lead me on this new path,” Whelan says. “The experience was incredibly challenging, but that’s what I wanted, to be shaken up. After 30 years with NYCB, I knew I needed that for myself if I wanted to continue growing as an artist, and not as a ballerina.”
Bringing these projects to fruition requires dancers to get strategic about finding funding. In 2006, maverick contemporary dancer Louise Lecavalier founded Fou Glorieux to commission new works of contemporary dance. To fund the creations, she secured government grants and forged partnerships with presenters interested in backing her work. She paid her choreographers a flat fee based on the length of the piece, plus royalties for each performance.
Whelan also relied on outside funding, including arts foundations and patrons happy to support her endeavor once she personally reached out and told them about it. “I sent a lot of letters and emails seeking support from people I thought might be able to help or guide me toward others who could,” she says.
To fund her commission, Baskerville applied for all three levels of government grants, receiving installments of between CDN$5,000 and CDN$10,000 at a time over a four-year period. She worked accordingly, continuing with her project only when certain she had the funds. She constructed a budget, paying her artists 35 to 40 percent above the minimum CDN$26 hourly wage recommended by Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists, the union on whose board she sits. “It’s why the process took so long,” Baskerville says. “Paying well was important to me.” Baskerville also paid herself for her work behind the scenes. “Not all dancers will think to do that,” she says. “Because we do so much unpaid work already, we start not to know our value.”
“It’s a huge learning curve,” says Baskerville, now considering a future career as an arts administrator as a result of her experience hiring her own choreographer. “You are forced to think of the longevity of the work instead of just the immediate performance. It’s also incredibly empowering because you have a sense of ownership. You’re in control of the future of the work, where it could go next in terms of being seen by others and in what context.”
For Whelan, commissioning choreographers is a way of prolonging her dancing career. “As an older and more established dancer, being the one making the decisions is imperative for me,” Whelan says. “I need to be able to dictate what I do next and how I do it. And more than anything, it’s important to find collaborators who are right for me at this stage of my life.”
Despite calls for change, ballet’s obsession with extreme thinness persists.
During a recent performance of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a corps member at a prominent company complained that she was so hungry she thought she’d faint. The dancer next to her started to worry that she herself wasn’t hungry enough. “In shape for us is being hungry,” she said later on. “Eat nothing and see how far you can go.”
Although most professional ballet dancers are naturally slender, having been selected at a young age for advanced training partly for their physique, even those with genetics on their side can be made to feel their bodies aren’t good enough. Dancers interviewed on the condition of anonymity confide that weight gain can get them fired while thinness can help them advance. Even though the field has made progress, and has become more aware of the health risks of dieting, directors having “fat chats” to tell dancers to slim down remains routine.
Roots of the Trend
Ballet has long idealized a sylphlike physique. The fixation on thin became amplified in the 1960s when Balanchine’s preference for long and lean ballerinas promoted a thin aesthetic that influenced other companies worldwide. Often, those who perpetuate unrealistic body standards today are former dancers who came of age during his reign.
Calling Out The Problem
At ballet’s first-ever international conference on eating disorders, hosted by Dance UK in London in 2012, former Royal Ballet artistic director Monica Mason spoke out against ballet’s emphasis on thin dancers. “Any director of a company who said they have never had an anorexic dancer would have to have been lying,” she stated.
Since then, ballet companies around the world, admittedly some quicker than others, have begun to heed the call for change. Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo declared her determination to instill a healthy body image among her dancers when she took the reins of English National Ballet in 2012. The following year, The Royal Ballet created the Mason Healthcare Suite, where health and well-being programs ensure that no dancer feels a need to starve themselves to succeed.
Scientific evidence shows that emaciated dancers are unable to sustain the demands of today’s athletic choreography. “Extreme thinness often leads to individuals cannibalizing their protein stores, which results in losses in strength and power, and, in my experience, increases their chances of injury, particularly stress fractures,” says American Ballet Theatre physical therapist Peter Marshall.
One dancer fired for her curves says that while dieting, she lost focus, endurance and emotional stability. For many, slimming down means resorting to dangerous behaviors, including starvation, purging and addictions to appetite suppressants like tobacco or other substances. In 1997, Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, dealing with an eating disorder, died at age 22; in 2012, Italian dancer Mariafrancesca Garritano publicly accused La Scala and its academy of turning a blind eye to the culture of eating disorders causing infertility among her fellow dancers.
By some accounts, these efforts appear to be working. A 2014 study found that multifaceted wellness programs adopted by ballet companies in Britain and elsewhere actively support the physical and mental health of dancers.
Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that not all companies follow the guidelines the same way. One dancer reports that her company’s on-site nutritionist counsels her how to get thin by giving her recipes for meals with less than 300 calories. Although we’re giving dancers tools for so-called safe weight-loss, the emphasis is still on conforming to an unnaturally skinny ideal.
Fortunately, artistic directors are declaring themselves more open to different body types. Current Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare, for example, says his company values individuality and stage presence over any set shape. “Being a dancer is not about denial but about strength and vigor,” he says.
National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain refutes the suggestion that her company is skinny-obsessed. “I do not hire overly thin dancers or those with eating disorders,” she says. “The dancers of the NBoC are highly trained elite athletes who would never be able to perform every night after training and rehearsing during the day if they weren’t the most powerful and fit that they could be. These dancers have plenty of rippling muscles, which they would not have if they were overly thin.”
Emily Molnar of Ballet BC also emphasizes her dancers’ strength. “Don’t get me wrong. Ballet is a visual art form, so we’re not talking about anything goes here,” she says. “But exciting to me is to witness a woman onstage, as opposed to a girl, who is comfortable in her own skin and who has a confident voice, displaying the virtuosity of her training and the full expression of her artistry.”
Ballet still has a long way to go, but it’s encouraging that so many in the field are calling for change. “Dance should celebrate our humanity,” says Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, “and not be an artificial ideal imposed upon us by individuals frightened by what constitutes the natural shapes of the feminine physique.”
Jenifer Ringer with Jared Angle in The Nutcracker. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
How Do We Move Forward?
Former New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer wrote about her battle with eating disorders in her 2014 book, Dancing Through It. We asked her why ballet continues to insist on an unnatural aesthetic for women, and she shared her thoughts:
Unfortunately, our entire culture right now glorifies extreme thinness. As a mother, I dread the day when my children learn that people will judge them on their appearance. Art can be a critical commentary on culture, but it can also display a culture at its extreme, and I think in ballet we see the continuation of today’s radically low weight-standard of beauty for women. Look at any television pilot episode and if the series gets picked up, all of the actresses come back 10 pounds lighter. Look at almost every ad in magazines or on bus stops and you see impossible examples of skinniness as beauty.
Ballet is a visual, voiceless art form where the line of the body is crucial and under a great deal of constant scrutiny, not only from the audience and the artistic powers-that-be, but also from the dancers themselves. In order to change the unnatural thinness in ballet, the entire field would need to buy into the change. While I have heard many stories of directors demanding lower weights from their dancers, I have also heard countless dancers criticizing themselves and their colleagues for being “overweight.” Balletomanes in the audience can often, sadly, be just as damagingly critical. I used to have complete strangers approach me on the street to talk about my weight fluctuations, whether up or down, as if they thought what they said would not hurt me deeply. They saw me as an object, not a person.
There are dancers out there “breaking the mold,” but I can pretty much guarantee that they did not set out to challenge the ballet world on its weight standards; the daily struggle for these dancers to succeed and maintain positive self-confidence is a battle they probably would have preferred not to fight.
Yes, ballet is elite and often ethereal. Of course ballet dancers have to be fit, have to be lean and honed with the precision of training to be able execute athletically physical feats. The dancer’s body is her instrument and it needs to be kept in top condition not only for strength but also for appearance. And that appearance does require a certain thinness in the ballet world, a uniform of sorts. But thin for one body type is emaciated for another, and different body types should be equally appreciated as each dancer finds a level of fitness and leanness that is healthy for her. This can happen when dancers are seen as empowered individuals whose movement quality and artistry are given more value than their weight.
Ballet dancers are not collections of bones and muscles moving from one beautiful pose to the next. Dancers move because they need to, and they move to bring an audience out of themselves and to show people what music looks like. Ballet should display the best that any human body—no matter its type—can do: huge physical acts of strength and stamina linked together and combined with artistry to create a moment of art. This moment exists while that beautiful human body is dancing, then ends when both the music and the body are finally still.
And then the applause can begin. — Jenifer Ringer
NBoC bounces back from last season, when 16 dancers were out due to injury.
Company class at National Ballet of Canada. Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic, courtesy NBoC.
When National Ballet of Canada’s Jenna Savella made her entrance in Alexei Ratmansky’s Piano Concerto #1 in Toronto last May, she created the kind of drama you least want to experience at the ballet. While sliding onstage, her shoe got caught on the floor, spraining a ligament in her foot that forced the recently promoted dancer to wear a walking cast for four weeks.
But she was not NBoC’s only sidelined dancer. An unprecedented 16 company members, almost a quarter of the ballet’s 67 dancers, were out last season due to injuries. The wounded ran the gamut, from principals and soloists to young members of the corps de ballet. The injuries themselves were similarly across the board: Guillaume Côté hurt his knee dancing The Nutcracker; recently anointed principal dancer Elena Lobsanova succumbed to a foot injury; and Evan McKie suffered from a herniated disk. “It’s a blow when a company has to deal with lots of simultaneous injuries,” says McKie, who had to forfeit key roles. “But it brings a company closer together because dancers have to teach each other steps and assume responsibility for the production.”
That cohesiveness was apparent when the National Ballet presented its lavish production of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty in June. Faced with a shortage of dancers, artistic director Karen Kain made the bold decision to bring forward several from the lower ranks to dance the ballet’s lead roles for the first time. Stars were born of necessity, like Harrison James, who leapfrogged to the position of first soloist from the corps after taking on the role of Prince Florimund.
But the National Ballet isn’t taking this happier-than-usual ending for granted. Plans are under way to expand the company’s Dancer Health and Wellness Programme. Je-an Salas Leavens, a former company dancer turned Pilates instructor and a member of the health team, has been working closely with the company to enhance its current system with increased monitoring of injured dancers. “The dancers will undergo a detailed evaluation based on me observing them closely in class and in rehearsal,” says Salas Leavens. “The long-term goal is to ensure the dancers’ health following an injury and before they resume full-time dancing.”
“We have one of the most highly regarded dancer wellness programs in the world,” says Kain. “We’re just going up one level.”
Misty Copeland doesn't typically spend her days balancing on demi-pointe in lace-up sneakers, wearing the briefest of running shorts and a T-shirt knotted jauntily above her hips. But Under Armour's series of “I Will What I Want" ads presents a portrait of this artist as an athlete—in the brand's athletic wear. And for the makers of the campaign, that sends exactly the right message.
“We are a disruptive brand: We look at things in a different way. We see women athletes as coming in all shapes and sizes, and Misty, to us, is part of that," says Under Armour vice president of marketing for its women's division, Heidi Sandreuter. “She doesn't fit a traditional mold. She allows us to represent a broader spectrum of athleticism."
Meiss builds explosive power by jumping on and off a 24-inch box. Photo by Sian Richards, Courtesy NBOC.
As a student, Chelsy Meiss was told that to become a professional ballet dancer, she should never lift weights. “ ‘No one likes an overly muscular ballerina,’ ” she says, repeating a common refrain. After joining the National Ballet of Canada in 2008, however, Meiss injured her ankle and the recommended rehabilitation program involved weight lifting to build strength, stamina and explosive power. Initially, she had her doubts. “It was a little daunting—ballerinas usually don’t lift anything heavier than themselves,” she says. “I really had no idea what I was getting into, and I didn’t think I would like it.”
Yet, after a few sessions with personal trainer Freyja Spence at Toronto’s Fortis Fitness, surrounded by guys in sweat-stained shorts and hard rock radio echoing off the industrial-strength equipment, Meiss quickly became a convert.
Standing 5' 6" and weighing a lithe 111 pounds, today the 28-year-old second soloist deadlifts 140 pounds. She also sweats through 95-pound front squats, 24-inch box jumps and one-arm dumbbell lunges—often executed consecutively as part of an intense circuit training program known as Tabata. It’s a killer workout that leaves Meiss utterly spent but also renewed. “I could see very quickly that weight training really improved my allégro, my jumps, my explosive and powerful movements, without changing my balletic line,” Meiss says. “Ballet dancers, especially female ones, are concerned that lifting weights will bulk them up. But that has not been my experience at all.”
What it has done instead is give her a noticeable edge. Visiting choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon and Marco Goecke have recently hand-picked Meiss to dance leading roles in their ballets. “Staff and colleagues have noticed a positive change in me and some are now going for weight training themselves,” Meiss adds. “They see the benefits, and are now willing to get past the stigma that lifting heavy weights is bad for a ballerina.”
Ready to Pump Some Iron?
Always lift weights with a trainer or a spotter who can recommend the proper resistance-training methods for your body type while also assessing your technique and gradually increasing the intensity over time. Here’s Meiss’ routine:
1. Warm up first. Meiss starts her gym workouts by standing in parallel, one leg lifted to the side at a 45-degree angle. She then traces a series of small circles in the air with the toe of the working leg extending back behind the body in a low arabesque. This fires the gluteal muscles and warms up the hips.
2. Kettle bell swings. Squatting in a parallel second position with the glutes sticking back and toes pointing slightly outwards, let the kettle bell hang down between your legs. Then thrust the weight up to chest level using the buttocks, not the arms, for momentum. Repeat 15 to 20 times. Meiss, who uses a 35-pound kettle bell, swears this exercise is made for women on pointe: “It lifts the hips and prevents the feet from sinking into the shoes.”
3. Box jumps. Find a sturdy object with a height you can safely jump on and off of. Start with feet parallel, hips-width apart, and then plié in front of the box. Jump up on and then off the box, landing with your core braced and stepping back before beginning the sequence over again. Repeat up to five times. Meiss finds this builds stamina and power for jumps.
4. Dumbbell lunges. Hold a dumbbell in one hand (Meiss uses a 20-pound weight) and lunge forward, alternating legs for a total of 10 lunges on each before shifting the weight to the opposite hand. Keep the core lifted and knee straight over the foot. “You should be lunging deep enough so that the back knee lightly touches the ground,” says Meiss. This strengthens the hips and lengthens the psoas muscles.
TIP: When lifting heavy weights, chalk is like rosin for the hands: It helps your grip and ensures that the weight doesn’t slide when you get tired.
Choreographer Mark Godden leads rehearsal at RWB. Photo Courtesy RWB.
A company that usually sticks to crowd-pleasing story ballets, Royal Winnipeg Ballet will open its 75th-anniversary season with a work centered on a controversial topic. Going Home Star—Truth and Reconciliation, choreographed by former RWB dancer Mark Godden, is inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, established in response to a federal policy that forced indigenous children to leave their families for Indian Residential Schools. The goal of these boarding programs, which were government funded from the 1880s to the mid-1990s, was to assimilate indigenous children into white culture, and students were cruelly punished if they did not conform. “It’s a Canadian story,” says Godden, who read survivor testimonials to prepare for the ballet, which premieres October 1–5 at Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg. “I think it’s important to get people talking about the injustices that humans have done to one another.”
The work’s purpose, says Godden, is to apologize for Canada’s history of human rights abuse and to honor indigenous heritage. The full-length story ballet will include performances by Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers and Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, plus a libretto by writer Joseph Boyden. “I think Canadians need to understand,” says Boyden, “that for almost 100 years, our First Nations Peoples were not allowed to practice their own dance, speak their own language or participate in their own religions.”
Godden is proud that RWB, and Canadians in general, are willing to look back into the country’s unpleasant past—even if it is, ironically, through the lens of an art form with European roots. “You can’t make change if you can’t see the error of your ways. These stories are so deep and personal. I was completely swallowed up by them.”