LAST EDITED ON 10-07-01 AT 06:47 PM (GMT)
Deborah Bull’s Archive Hour was an extended essay on the role of the ballerina and on her dwindling iconic power, which went on to question the very concept of ‘ballerinadom’ and, with it, the future of ballet itself. While Bull drew for her evidence on the BBC’s own sound archives, the programme was considerably stiffened with new interview material and it was held together with a very strong script.
The clichés were conjured up of necessity – tutus, tiaras, Red Shoes, Sugar Plum Fairies and the rest. Having paid cursory respect to these, Bull moved quickly on to the enigma of how sacred and profane exist alongside each another in the ballerina’s persona. The ‘sacred’ may owe something to the decision of Lafontaine, the first recorded professional dancer in Paris, to retreat to a convent in 1693 at the close of her career and to take the veil. In contrast, Alastair Macaulay described the different fate that awaited dancers in the following century. If an aristocrat fancied a young girl, who was still under the legal protection of her parents, he could have her seconded to the Paris Opera, she never need appear on the stage and he could have her lined up as his mistress. From the beginning, it seems, the Paris Opera was a den of vice, but one with a veneer of purity and ideals.
In the 19th century Taglioni was described by one of her admirers as a “Christian ballerina” (in contrast to the altogether more sensuous Fanny Ellsler). Her embrace of pointe was decisive for generations of ballerinas to follow. But it is Pavlova who casts the even greater shadow. In Dame Marie Rambert’s words, “In the curve of Pavlova’s instep are expressed all the yearnings of the Russian soul”. At once mystic, fortune-teller and secular saint, she was the quintessential ballerina, with a shrewd ability to project magic on-stage and off. When she left the stage door at Covent Garden, she would come dressed in a white fur coat, and cast a bouquet to the waiting fans before being driven away. And when Pavlova died, according to one memoir, “… the ballet were booked to dance in Brussels. The performance was not cancelled. Nor was the order of the dances changed. But when the time came for Pavlova to dance the dying swan, the curtain rose on an empty stage and no-one thought it absurd or extravagant or in bad taste to listen to the music and watch the light trace the movement she would have made…”
Maina Gielgud regretted the passing of the day when “ballerinas looked like something very special when they were off-stage” because audiences “loved it”. If there is a figure close to our times to whom the aura clung, it was Margot Fonteyn, “an ambassador for ballet”. Bull seemed fascinated with this concept and toyed with it as she struggled to sketch another role for the ballerina in contemporary society and culture. The big difficulty in the way was the growing gap between ordinary life and the many ballet conventions that are founded on an edifice of antiquated manners. While Ismene Brown of the Telegraph argued that this gulf was relatively bridgeable in Fonteyn’s time, she noticed that contemporary dancers struggled with the concept of sylphdom or dependence on the supporting male, finding it very artificial. It showed, she said, on stage. Her fellow critic Alastair Macaulay was even more radical:
“The general image of a ballerina is a male made thing. I think a ballerina is a kind of dialogue between male and female in our society, between male expectations and women’s determination to be independent within this expectation. I sometimes wonder if, when we have a really equal society, if there will be a place for ballet – if in fact it isn’t actually something that belongs to a historical period – and whether the whole business of a woman rising on tiptoe in her blocked shoes will one day seem as curious as women binding their feet in China. And we’re lucky that we saw it being expressive and beautiful and seeing the good things of it. But it may one day have its sell-buy date”.
This is a contentious notion, one belied, perhaps, by the emergence of the Balanchine ballerina - tall, glamorous and diamond bright. For some this is a liberated image of woman, but for others, a glorified pin-up. Choreographers, such as Kenneth Macmillan and John Neumeier have portrayed real women with flesh and blood characters. They refocus the ballerina as a flesh and blood creature, making it harder to keep to illusions of ethereality. Perhaps it was Lynn Seymour, as much as anyone, whose career marked the shift. If Karsavina was Fokine’s muse, or Fonteyn Ashton’s, then her relationship with Kenneth Macmillan was quite different. The American academic and dance historian, Sally Baines, chronicled the change:
“Since the 1970s we see women with bigger breasts and bigger hips who look more like women and less like Twiggy. So many ballerinas have criticised this establishment that has asked for them to be unhealthily thin. We are seeing women with more realistic bodies on stage, and we learn about what these women do in their private lives. We learn more – there’s has always been gossip and rumour about ballerinas. But I think about contemporary ballerinas who do break the rules offstage and on”.
Bull herself (who earlier in her career resisted persuasion to adopt the stage name Deborah Berlin) is a case in point. She has made TV documentaries on break-dancing and danced in experimental pieces by contemporary choreographers. When she introduced a dance evening on BBC2 several years ago, she did a piece to camera bedecked in tutu, tiara and the rest – but it was done with irony. It is interesting that in forging a new role as a contemporary ambassador for dance, she steps away from the old persona of the ballerina –preferring to rely more and more on the power of the spoken word.
There are other models. One is Houston Ballet’s remarkable Lauren Anderson. Offstage she presents the Friday Fielders Football Forecast for Houston’s sports radio station. Even if she’s known as “the football lady”, she is very much the ballerina. And she’s black:
“You think of a white woman in a white tutu with pointe shoes and leg-warmers, the frailest little thing you ever did see, with an extension up to here and really good feet. My problem was I don’t have good feet. I can jump, I can turn and that’s it and I have a personality that needs to be turned down. But then I saw Dance Theater of Harlem’s Creole Giselle, and thought, “I want to be Giselle”.
While it was shocking at first for Houston’s ballet audience to see a black girl dance the Sugarplum Fairy, children found it believable to see the “Sugarplum Fairy as chocolate”. She exudes a powerful sense of self to which the ballerina persona seems almost secondary. Each week she signs off her radio show with the words “You know what they say, whether it’s football or ballet…. see you next week!”.
To Deborah Bull it seemed strange that the word ‘ballerina’, which had been slipping from active use, has been heard so often in the last year. Dancers in the Royal Ballet prefer now to speak of ‘principals’. Even if Dame Margot is the Company’s ‘Prima Ballerina Assoluta’, this seems to be an honorific belonging to another time. But Alina Cojocaru still finds resonance in the title. “A dancer is a dancer”, she suggested, “a ballerina is an artist and a dancer put together”. Sara Wildor is likely to speak for most of her colleagues:
“It doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It used to be about your nature, the way you dressed, the way you carried yourself, the way people thought about you. There was a time when you couldn’t even say hello to principals. You were always in awe of principal dancers whereas now it is as it should be. But there is something really great about how it used to be, when people came in their furs and their smart suits. But as far as I’m concerned I do take my clothes off when I get here and change them, so what’s the point really? Come in a baggy jeans and a t-shirt? It was probably more expected then, it came with the title in a way - and maybe it makes a statement as well. It is a job to be proud of, there’s no doubt about it. These days you don’t want to feel that you’re bragging…not that they were. It’s difficult to explain. I could give the title of ballerina to lots of people, but I’d never say it about myself”.
This could have been a dizzy trip around the BBC’s archives, with disorienting swerves around the available material – and the whole loosely linked with a low-calorie script. It was much better than that. The archive voices (de Valois, Karsavina, Markova), while fascinating to hear, did not provide the fabric of the argument. Bull and her producers, Phillipa Ritchie and Robin Reid, did well to unshackle themselves from the conventions of the slot and to rely, in the main, on new material. It was a good listen.