Recently there is a heated controversy over a quote in the NYTimes by the art critic Alastair Macaulay. He described the ballet dancer Jenifer Ringer from the New York City Ballet performing in, “George Ballatine’s The Nutcracker” looking “as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.” Ringer has shared her struggles with disordered eating and has made her experience public. Free speech yes but decency please, Macaulay.
The comment displays the insensitivity that we have as a culture towards beauty criticism. It is perfectly acceptable to make comments on peoples bodies whether it’s praise or disgust. Our bodies are on a platform to be discussed, criticized, or idolized.
Macaulay wrote a response to all the criticism in an article, Judging the Bodies in Ballet. He argues that,
If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion.
He tried to explain his reasoning with,
many other female dancers with obvious physical imperfections have made impressions far greater than those whose bodies were ballet-perfect. But that’s their task: in an Apollonian art that requires purity of line, precision of execution and harmony of appearance, dancers with less than ideal shapes must bring other qualities to bear. Many have, and Ms. Ringer does, too, with several roles. This particular Sugar Plum Fairy — one of her rare tutu parts these days — was not one of them.
In other words, if your body is not a dancing skeleton with slippers you must try that much harder to bring something else to the floor, control your curves, and please- don’t wear anything showing your legs! Apparently, leg muscle is out.
He’s a critic indeed but why are our bodies and appearance even up for evaluation? A dancers performance of course but a dancer’s body is part of who they are just as their eye color or their race. Yes, ballet is a culture where thinness, perfection, and lithe grace is idolized but maybe its time to challenge this adage.
Actress Natalie Portman apparently lost 20 lbs. for her role in the new movie Black Swan where she plays a ballet dancer consumed with the battle of perfection and the competition in ballet. Our perception of ballerinas has been shaped by standards but whose standards? In the 1600s the standards where curves, curves, curves. Now the pendulum of standards has swung and we are left with bone, bones, bones. One word is as bright and loud as a strobe light here: standard.
Standards by definition means there is a model to be compared to, a principle to be judged on, and apparently also a grade of beef immediately below good. Who set’s these standards and why do we blindly fall into line trying to become this standard?
A standard brings along with it a definition of perfection. How is it possible to have a standard on something that is so diverse? Our bodies are all shapes and sizes. Our bodies are diverse and subjective. The aesthetic of beauty should not be a standard. The real aesthetic of beauty celebrates being human whatever shape that happens to come in.
Jenifer Ringer was interviewed on the Today Show about her response to Macaulay’s criticism. She shared that at first it was embarrassing and she felt bad about herself. Then she said it was just one person’s opinion and she was encouraged by all the controversy and positivity it has sparked. At the end she said,
dance is a celebration of people dancing to this gorgeous music.
Ballet should not be about a standard of beauty. It is a celebration of bodies twisting, jumping, and stretching. It’s a celebration of bodies communicating without the distraction of words. Ballet is beautiful and beauty defies standards.