While the world flounders in the midst of stay-at-home orders and Zoom life, classical ballet is taking a long, hard look in the mirror. Of course, ballet dancers do this all the time – they must look in the mirror to check their spacing and alignment. But never before has the artform itself gone through such an intense period of self-reflection and a reevaluation of its merit. The challenges of the 21st century and the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed ballet to the edge of an existential crisis. Its response? A change in identity that forges a new place for the classical arts in today’s society.
I. A Brief History of Ballet
King Louis XIV of 17th century France loved dance so much that he allotted political power to members of his court based on their dancing abilities. In his day, popular dances included the minuet, a ballroom dance which was hardly more than a glorified set of body language formalities (the infamous waltz had not yet been invented). Women could hardly breathe, let alone move in their tight corsets, and the sexiest thing about men were their calf muscles, which they displayed when they bowed toward their dance partners with one leg pointed out in front of themselves.
Throughout this reign, dance became so complicated and refined that people had to spend much of their time mastering technique, leading to the profession of the “dancer”. To appear more elegant, women began dancing on their toes, supported by pointe shoes, marking the beginning of ballet, a new form of dance that had artistic value rather than being a social activity or form of entertainment. But despite the ethereal, transcendent quality of their dancing, by the 19th century ballerinas like those painted by Edgar Degas were mostly dirt poor and often also sex workers. Cultural refinement, elitism, and the grueling life of dancers defined the very roots of ballet.
Shortly after the birth of this new dance tradition, Russians adopted ballet and used its strict physical conformity as a way to raise their country’s political and cultural status in the eyes of Western nations. In Russia, ballet’s technique became even more extreme and refined, and the dancers themselves achieved celebrity status throughout the nation.
In the 20th century, George Balanchine, a Russian dancer and choreographer, defected from the Soviet Union and moved to the U.S. where he founded the American style of ballet. Like many things in America, Balanchine’s ballets were bigger, faster, and grander than any that came before. He emphasized ballet’s artistic value. Ballet, he said, is the purest form of physical expression and the dancer is a vessel for the music. Still, traces of politics can be found in even his smallest artistic choices. Balanchine oriented his dancers toward the entire audience (instead of to the corners of the theater where the Tzars typically sat) to celebrate democratic values. He founded ballet schools around the country as an attempt to establish equal access to ballet education. He also hired Arthur Mitchell, the first African American principal dancer in a major ballet company, and cast him to dance with white women, creating quite a scandal at the time. Balanchine was the first to defy the racial norms of ballet and attempt to undermine its elitism.
Video technology and social media ignited the next major shift in ballet. Suddenly, an artform defined by its temporality and ephemerality could now be recorded, paused, replayed, and shared worldwide in an instant. No longer must one purchase an expensive seat in a crowded theatre to see a ballet. No longer do dancers and choreographers have to rely on companies and their budgets to create and spread works. No matter where they live, aspiring dancers can watch videos of and interviews with ballet icons to inspire and supplement their training. In a way, social media is continuing Balanchine’s legacy by democratizing dance like never before.
The COVID-19 pandemic has furthered these developments as well. With the first stay-at-home orders, dancers and teachers immediately took to Instagram, Facebook Live, and Zoom to broadcast their performances and classes — many free of charge. Katherine Disenhof of the Northwest Dance Project created the website Dancing Alone Together, a central resource for the nascent virtual dance world. There, dancers at any level and in any timezone can take a class in any style from the world’s top performers and teachers without the fear of being watched or judged. Many dance companies have designed virtual seasons that include footage from past performances, behind the scenes clips, and short films produced by dancers and choreographers getting creative in quarantine.
Of course, the pandemic has had devastating consequences as well. Dancer and choreographer Ashley Elizabeth Daigle seriously damaged her hip flexors and kidneys while recovering from COVID-19. Renowned Broadway actor and dancer Nick Cordero had his leg amputated due to COVID-19 complications before he tragically passed away from the virus in July of 2020.
Moreover, stay-at-home orders have driven dance training and performance to a screeching halt. Companies are folding, studios are shutting their doors permanently, dancers are quietly choosing to retire, and many ballet students are turning away from their childhood dreams and professional goals. Even for those lucky enough to keep their contracts, a single missed year of performance may amount to a 10th of an entire ballet career lost.
And, while ballet has become more accessible, social media has drastically changed its audience. Instagram and TikTok users are not looking for refinement, storytelling, and artistry in dance videos, but instead extreme flexibility, freakish body types, professional editing, and one-minute-or-less clips of athletic feats like high jumps and multiple turns. To compete for attention and stay relevant, choreographers are now making shorter athletic dances, mixing ballet with modern and street dance styles, commissioning popular music composers, and creating productions that verge on sensory overload. Today, when ballet choreographers adapt to the pandemic-stricken world and create “video works”, the tights, tutus, and pointe shoes of classical ballet are the first things to go.
II. What Has Become of Ballet?
Ballet is certainly no longer a mere status symbol of the French elite, nor a Russian display of militant physical discipline, nor even a Balanchinian straight visualization of the music.
It may seem that something of the essence of classical ballet is being lost. Ballet, like other classical arts, is considered a “high art” not because it is haughty or only intended for high class people (though it originally was), but because its purpose is to communicate something higher than our everyday human experiences, whether that be something more beautiful, more meaningful, or even somewhat divine. The grandeur, the poise, and the refinement of ballet are not ends, but rather means of displaying something that cannot be expressed by the vocabulary of regular body movements. Discipline, precision, and artistic asceticism work to create something pure and unconcerned with the rawness of human emotions. High art intends to reach loftier intellectual and philosophical truths than pop culture would dare approach.
This value lies not only in the art itself, but also in the audience’s understanding of it. Two people could watch a production of Giselle, the most famous classical ballet, and while one could be utterly moved and transported, the other could remain stuck on the pretty costumes or the men in tights. And when a clip of ballet shows up in a news feed between a food porn video and an ad for Dance Moms, the intentions and expectations of the audience are just not the same.
Yet, preserving the experience of ballet and shielding it from shifting trends is enormously expensive. Dance cannot be kept in a museum or written down like sheet music; instead, it must be continuously performed and handed from one generation to the next — costumes, props, and all. So, during a time of global turmoil, economic scarcity, and cultural reckoning, the question arises: should ballet be preserved?
On the one hand, ballet is rooted in elitism and stark class divide. It is not racially inclusive and is, in fact, sometimes derogatory. It perpetuates old fashioned gender stereotypes, and it is by no means eco-friendly. For dancers, it requires the complete dedication of one’s life and serious physical sacrifice in training, a process that is plagued with abuse and sexual harassment.
On the other hand, without high art, to what should we aspire?
III. The Future of Ballet
In January of 2020, France was forced to consider these questions when its government reevaluated the pension budget. Europe is known for keeping the classical arts well-funded by the government because they are heralded as important cultural institutions. In France, the pension system for ballet dancers dates back to Louis XIV and promises retirement and full pension benefits at age 42, about two decades earlier than the average worker. While this might sound outrageous, a typical ballet dancer begins training professionally by age 12 or 13 at the latest, and is often forced into retirement by 42 because of fractures, osteoarthritis, and severe wear and tear on the body. Due to the years dedicated to dancing, the only other employment for which dancers are qualified is choreographing or teaching, and there are never enough positions available.
That France is even reconsidering the pension after 322 years (and when the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest ballet company, is still considered to be a representative of the state) demonstrates a larger, recent shift in ballet away from job security and toward short term contracts and pickup work, even before COVID-19. Insufficient funding lowers a dance company’s retention rate, which prevents choreographers and directors from forming fruitful relationships with their dancers and establishing artistic unity and stylistic consistency among the corps de ballet, all necessary factors for the perpetuation of classical ballet.
While France faces an economic and cultural reckoning, here in the U.S., where state-funded ballet is merely a dream, the artform has been forced to adapt to challenging financial situations so frequently that its flexibility may give it a better chance of surviving the unforeseen hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic than ballet in France. American companies rely primarily on ticket sales and generous patrons to fund their works, rendering American ballet more receptive to trends of popular culture and leaving room for important revolutions.
For instance, Misty Copland of the American Ballet Theater is the company’s first African American principal female dancer and her legacy has quite literally changed the face of ballet by paving the road toward racial inclusion. During the pandemic, dancers such as Lauren Lovette of New York City Ballet have demanded that the ballet body be reimagined as well, citing the overlooked athletic demands of ballet.
It is possible that something vital has been lost in America’s democratized, shapeshifting version of ballet. It is also possible that something vital has been found — a self-awareness that is crucial to the maturation of the youngest classical artform.
Inclusivity and accessibility do not mean that high art is stooping to accommodate our whims and our hardships; rather, they are an invitation for more people to experience and appreciate the heights of refinement, poise, and grandeur we once reached; to rise above the everyday and transcend beyond our humanness.
As the pandemic marches on and ballet tries to reconcile its ethereal front with its politically charged past, its future suggests that there is a place for ballet in the post-COVID world and that we can have both the ideals of yesterday and the political reality of today. The classical arts should not be disdained, but instead their institutions refined as the art itself brings us to higher and higher places.