Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?
But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
British ballet fans have been in a tizzy over Tamara Rojo lately.
Last month, a number of current and former English National Ballet dancers made anonymous claims of mismanagement to The Times, blaming Rojo for the fact that a third of the company's dancers have left over the past two years. The blog Ballet Position followed up earlier this month with further accusations, and Rojo responded in a feature in the Evening Standard yesterday.
Until this all came out, Rojo had really only been covered in recent press as someone who'd transformed ENB into a darling of the ballet world with her forward-thinking repertoire.
So what's all the drama about? We broke it down:
To hear the screaming throngs of teenagers, you might think this was a Beatles concert in 1964. But no, it's dance students from all over the world joining together for the Youth America Grand Prix's gala at Lincoln Center, excited to see some of the greatest stars in dance today. Their rafter-shaking enthusiasm was heartening to hear, as they will no doubt become the performers, teachers, donors and audiences of tomorrow.
Actually, every single dance was a "best moment." In the first half of the YAGP gala, dubbed the "Stars of Tomorrow," 11 young dancers from the United States, Argentina, Portugal, Czech Republic, Japan and China displayed their outsized talents in solo variations. The young audience responded to the astounding turns and jumps that kept coming and coming.
Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Wheeldon's "Carousel," all photos Siggul/VAM
The Olivier Awards were this weekend, and (though you might not have noticed with all of the hubbub over Harry Potter and the Cursed Child practically sweeping) three of our dance world faves snagged well-deserved awards for some very diverse programming.
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
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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."
Rojo in costume for Life is a Dream, by Fei Bo. Photo by Matthew Karas.
It’s not every prima ballerina who is willing to share her stage with a live goldfish, and Tamara Rojo chuckles in remembering her unusual partner in Life Is a Dream (choreographed by China’s Fei Bo). Now, months after premiering that work, the dancer finds herself in the proverbial goldfish bowl, being scrutinized by ballet watchers worldwide as she takes on a new challenge—that of artistic director of English National Ballet. Seen as the toughest job in British ballet today, the position sits at the head of a company that has no London-based theater, tours the country extensively, and has serious funding restraints. But Rojo is a woman who loves challenges.
Tamara Rojo is one of the world’s great ballerinas, a true superstar. Her dancing ignites stages with her quicksilver technique, elegant plasticity, supple and eloquent back, and natural beauty. But overall, she is renowned for her remarkable dramatic skills that draw out the very core of her characters. She is beloved around the globe, her friendly manner and disciplined dedication making her a most welcome guest in top companies and at star-studded galas. She has been a member of The Royal Ballet for 12 years, filling the Royal Opera House auditorium with an adoring public. Now 38, she is at the peak of her career—that moment when technique comes so naturally that concentration can be focused on ever deeper interpretation.
It’s also a time when her audiences expected to be watching her for a good many more years. So it was no wonder that the announcement of her departure from the famed company was heralded with disbelief and the fear that she was going to give up dancing to sit behind a desk and attend meetings. However, Rojo strongly refutes the idea, saying she plans to perform as well as direct. She has made it known to ENB that she intends to be in the studio as much as possible and that participating in daily class comes before any meetings.
But there also arises the question of past experience to prepare for such a job. Despite various qualifications, she has never headed even a small company before, and it’s a very long jeté from performer to director. So what kind of leader will she make?
“I’m very committed, hard working, and hopefully inspirational,” she answers. “I have clear ideas of what I want to see done, but I also will listen. I plan to have an open-door policy for everyone in the building, as I want to know their views.” But will she be strong enough to confront the notorious ENB Board, recognized for hiring and firing all too frequently in the company’s recent history? “It’s the board’s responsibility to see that the company is run properly,” she replies diplomatically. “I will take notice, but I will certainly stand up for my dancers on artistic matters.” She doesn’t feel that being a woman will make it harder to direct, and trusts that she was appointed because she was deemed best for the job. She will rely on her international connections and strong vision for the company to inspire top-notch choreographers, composers, and designers to come work with her.
At right: Photo by Matthew Karas.
Rojo’s decision to leave The Royal Ballet has not been totally unexpected—it was just somewhat sooner than predicted. She has never hidden the fact that she has been grooming herself for a directorship role. Writing in Dancing Times two years ago, she admitted that these thoughts had long been churning in her mind. Recognizing that she had to be prepared if and when a job came up, she has taken every opportunity to learn the hows, whats, and wherefores.
Well educated in her native Spain, she continued to study, receiving her BA in dance and her master’s in scenic arts in Madrid. She is resident guest teacher at The Royal Ballet School, gives master classes, is an eloquent speaker and advocate for dance, and has received various international honors in ballet today, including a Laurence Olivier Award, a Benois de la Danse, and the Kennedy Center Gold Medal for Fine Arts, presented by King Juan Carlos I of Spain. She spent a month shadowing Karen Kain, artistic director of National Ballet of Canada, observing every department of that company (arranged by DanceEast in England); she has also visited Cirque du Soleil, which has revitalized the art of the circus. Both these experiences gave her new insights and fuelled her desire to become an artistic director.
In 2011, The Royal Ballet announced a search for a new director to take over from retiring Dame Monica Mason. Rojo applied, though claims she had no expectations. She says, however, that it was invaluable to go through the process of applying and being interviewed. (Kevin O’Hare, a former Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer and Royal Ballet administrative director, took over in July.) Then she got wind last fall that the ENB Board had asked director Wayne Eagling to resign (for reasons still unclear). The dancers, appreciative of his effort to establish a company of top technicians, petitioned and he kept his job—but not for long. In early 2012, he was again asked to leave, and this time the order stood. After a somewhat hurried application process, Rojo’s name was the one bandied about by speculators, so there was little surprise when the announcement was finally made.
As Odette with The Royal Ballet. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.
Rojo has spent most of her working life attached to British companies. After training in Spain with Victor Ullate, she danced first with Scottish Ballet, but sped to stardom when she joined ENB in 1997 under the direction of Derek Deane, who choreographed his massive in-the-round productions of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet on her. Her departure to The Royal Ballet came after stepping in as guest artist for an injured Darcey Bussell in a performance of Giselle. An instant success, Rojo was offered a contract. In 2000 she joined as a principal, quickly becoming a favorite with the Royal Opera House audience.
“I always said that one day I wanted to go back to ENB. It was my first home and I had such a feeling of family there.” Yet she knows she will face enormous challenges. “While I want thinking dancers as well as excellent technicians, my vision for the company reaches further. It’s all about protecting and retaining our ballet art and also having the foresight to reach out and keep it relevant in today’s world. The company must continue to be creative.”
At left: As Juliet in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Dee Conway, Courtesy ROH.
She will find the repertoire at ENB very different from that at the Royal, where there are constant changes of programs. ENB does things in chunks: Kenneth MacMillan’s The Sleeping Beauty had already been planned for the fall season, and there will be at least 40 performances. Rojo sees this positively, saying that it will give everyone a chance to shine. The company offers many excellent productions and performs them well, so it is a mystery as to why their houses are not full. “We obviously need to advertise more!” she surmises.
Because there will be a 15 percent cut in subsidy from Arts Council England during the next three years, balancing the books as brilliantly as she balances on pointe is another challenge she will have to face. Dancers at ENB help with fundraising and visibility by performing at private functions for sponsors and supporters. Does this, wonders Rojo, bring new people in? When asked if potential viewers are perhaps put off by the expense of ballet tickets, her hackles raise. “I am sick and tired of journalists writing that ballet is an elitist art form, that it’s too expensive for the average family. People are willing to pay thousands for football! Journalists have to stop whining on about costs and tell their readers that they’re going to have the evening of their lives!”
During her time at ENB, she plans to stage works that will develop the company to their full potential, and to invite guest artists. Speaking of her own dancing partners, she singles out Carlos Acosta, with whom she will always be associated. Their performances would metaphorically set the National Grid on high alert as they sparked off each other, taking audiences into their world. Jonathon Cope also was a favorite, especially in MacMillan’s Mayerling and Song of the Earth. And of course there was the goldfish! The Chinese choreographer brought it into the studio after a few days of rehearsing in Beijing, saying Tamara needed a partner. “When I danced the piece again at the Youth America Grand Prix gala in New York this year, I was given the most enormous fish—it was absolutely huge. Very American!”
With Carlos Acosta in MacMillan’s Song of the Earth. Photo by Johan Persson, Courtesy ROH.
For all her strengths, does the bright, intelligent, thoughtful ballerina admit to any foibles? “Well, I am terribly organized,” she giggles. “Leanne Benjamin, with whom I have shared a dressing room, always kids me about my well-planned and tidy setup at my dressing table. But sometimes I intentionally muss them all up—though it’s only for a moment before I have to put everything back in place.”
Along with self-discipline, Tamara Rojo possesses the energy, drive, ambition, talent, and profound love of her art to succeed in her new role. She should make a demanding yet sympathetic director, one whose ultimate aim is to further the art of classical ballet.
Photo by Matthew Karas.