Pagan Russia, 2847 BC. The sky turns ox-blood red as dawn breaks over the parched grey scrubland, a conductor raising his baton for an ominous, funereal overture. The Chosen One is released into the nascent daylight, only to be sliced with fragmented melodies and walled off by huge, dissonant blocks of sound.
Her virginal body is primed; the seed of death that must be sown to reap good harvest. The tribe’s men surround her, shuffling and prowling in concert. They encroach in heavy, menacing orchestration, their sexual aggression compounded by the dizzying syncopation and surges in polyrhythmic tension.
|Last rites: The Sacrificial Dance, performed by the Metropolitan Opera (Beth Bergman, 2003)|
The sacrificial dance begins. The prima ballerina’s body twists and convulses to the savage fortissimo, E-flat major with added minor seventh tearing against F-flat major to create a fierce cacophony. Double basses, strings and clarinets coalesce violently, externalised in the frantic, explosive gestures of the corps de ballet. In the last bar the girl falls dead, the final flicker in a sonic and physiognomic conflagration that scorches the sensibilities of the Parisian cognoscenti.
When Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in May 1913, its shockingly visceral content provoked a near-riot; composer Giacomo Puccini called it ‘the creation of a madman’. The Russian composer and his choreographer Vatslav Nijinksy had violated every balletic convention in their tale of prehistoric pagan ritual; releasing a wild, primitive and very modern energy that rippled through the rest of 20th century performance art.
Yet for all its revolutionary dynamics, there must have been something unsettlingly familiar to the Parisian audience about watching a girl dance herself to death. For this was ballet in the City of Light, where the control, exploitation and destruction of young women was an ever darkening force; a web of sexual brutality weaved throughout the delicate gossamer of sophisticated high art.
Wealthy, top-hatted males groomed aspiring ballerinas for sex in Paris’s opera houses; haute couture brothels that subjugated young girls desperate to escape from the city’s poorest suburbs. ‘Little rats’ was their collective slave-name, imprisoned as they were in the sewers of a self-serving elite as tightly as the finely-woven bodices squeezed their underdeveloped waists.
|Every move you make: The Star by Edgar Degas (1876-77)|
Nineteenth century Parisian impressionist Edgar Degas devoted over half of his paintings to the theme of sexual and aesthetic control within ballet. "In art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement," he once said, and you feel this sensuous obsession with power and poise in his work, just as you sense the sinister, erotic gaze of the darkly-suited men leering from the sidelines of the foyer de la danse.
This is feminine grace framed in a man’s world, beautifully backlit by a wash of impressionist sleaze. And the ballerinas are high class artisan hookers, procured, consumed and broken with all the allegro efficiency of the elders in Stravinsky’s ballet, demolishing their virgin to sate the base appetites of the earth.
Germaine Greer called ballet a cultural cancer, because it’s a version of the female body idealised by men, stretched and emaciated in the pursuit of artistic and carnal satisfaction. For all the pretensions of ballet as a way for young ladies to develop self-esteem, it is for Greer a seductive con trick: women lured into a male-dominated world in search of an identity that was never theirs to begin with.
“Why do you want to dance?” asks Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) of ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, that technicolour tapestry about the art of ballet. “Why do you want to live?” comes the reply, as if the only way she can find meaningful existence is by conforming to some preordained pattern. She is slowly destroyed by this warring male possessiveness, the red shoes on her feet become metaphors for a macabre artistic control that eventually drives her to a sacrificial death tombé, The Rite of Spring reborn on the glitzy shores of the French Riviera.
|Martyr to movement: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes (1948)|
Sixty years later, the tragedy is echoed in Darron Aronofsky’s psychodrama Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman’s ballerina succumbs to schizophrenia. Her desire to be both black swan and white swan – and achieve that exquisite artistic moment which narcissistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) calls ‘transcendence’ – ultimately tears her asunder, another sad chapter in how women’s pursuit of male-oriented perfection irreparably splinters their sense of self.
Transcendence is a male force, argued Simone de Beauvoir in her famous feminine tract TheSecond Sex. It is creative, productive and powerful, extending outward to impose itself on the universe. Opposing this is what she called immanence, the closed-off static realm of women, where they remain passive, immersed in themselves and a circumscribed repetition, in much the same way a ballerina is trapped in the relentless practice and pursuit of another’s vision.
|Dancer in the dark: Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010)|
The only way for women to escape this, argued de Beauvoir, was for woman to create their own vision, 'not to escape from herself but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself'. There is no greater example than Martha Graham, who did more than anyone in the 20th century to overturn the patriarchy of dance. “I’m going to the top. Nothing is going to stop me. And I shall do it alone,” she once said, before going on to use her supple body and singularity of mind to conceive a lifetime of radical danceworks that were irregular, abstract and completely revolutionary.
The ‘Picasso of Dance’ stayed in almost constant creative flux, teaching, training and theorising until her death at 95. Yet despite all her groundbreaking bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, a sense of entrapment stalked Graham’s life, and found its visual correlation in her haunting performance of Lamentation. Enrobed in stretched fabric with only her hands feet and face visible, Graham’s body writhed and twisted mummy-like, seemingly in agony, as if grasping for some elusive, inner peace that can only be achieved through the perpetual motion of creativity.
"Dancing is permitting life to use you in a very intense way,” she admitted, the malevolent tip-toes of Hans Christian Andersen’s demonic shoemaker pattering within these tortured words. “Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable." The black dog of depression pursued her throughout her career, which she would later characterise as “a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that has kept me marching... I live and work out of necessity, as deeply and as committed as an animal.”
|Freedom in captivity: Martha Graham performs Lamentation (1930)|
Dance as survival against the forces of darkness, whether psychic or physical, finds its apotheosis in the work of German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. In her feminist interpretation of The Rite of Spring, she covered the stage in peat as the setting for a performance, which in the words of critic Judith Mackrell, saw men and women dancers ‘unite in great wheeling circles then scatter into a collective frenzy of coupling... galvanised by some savage, biological imperative’. Smeared in thick earth and glistening with adrenalized sweat, this is dirty dancing in extremis – a struggle for life at the end of the world – and it captures acutely the panicked strangeness of Stravinsky’s score.
“Dance, dance or we are lost” was Bausch’s motto. And it is this battle to belong, to find themselves and to live at any cost, which unites all the dancers above, whether it’s Stravinsky’s pagans praying for a bountiful harvest, Degas’s little rats looking to escape destitution, Vicky Page striving for unattainable happiness, or Martha Graham confronting her blessed unrest. Much like Nikos Kazantzakis’s ZorbaThe Greek, they are characters who choose to dance in the face of life’s full catastrophe, every intimate, rhythmic gesture and spatial configuration representing a brave, existentialist stare into the void.
Empty space takes centre stage at the finale of The Red Shoes, when the ballet is performed after Vicky’s death with no one in the lead role. The spotlight tracks the vacuum left by the dead ballerina, as if her demise has burned a hole in the fabric of the performance. It is ostensibly dead space, but one that’s pregnant with possibility, symbolising as it does the eternal cycle of conflict between creation and destruction, male and female, sex and violence, control and submission.
“You always seem to be battling yourself, to be wracked by some inner drama,” said my wife to me in the coffee area of my daughter’s ballet school, as we waited for her class to finish. My life partner’s wisdom and grace was once again choreographing me through the world’s vicissitudes, and I yielded to her instruction like a pliant novice. “Look outwards more. Don’t keep turning inwards.”
I look up and outwards; my eyes rest on the pictures of young ballerinas displayed on the white-washed walls. Their fine ivory limbs stretch out adagio, sculpting their own personal space and pushing outwards into the implacable hostility of the universe. Calm self-assurance pervades these scenes; vignettes of deep, personal courage which achieve a kind of fleeting serenity, meditative harmony emanating from their carefully rehearsed forms.
They seem trapped but exhilarated. Subjugated but forever in blissful rebellion. Doomed yet defiant. Their purpose is clear: to live, to survive and to dance – to find their place in the world amid all its wretched beauty, and be at home on a stage which humankind has bravely traversed since the outermost recesses of history.
It is a rhapsody that carries them forward triumphantly, through time and through space, soaring upwards and downwards on life's turbulent, emotional currents, strengthened by a ceaseless human spirit that's forever broken but never ultimately defeated.