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Body Image in Ballet

Recently journalist Deirdre Kelly of DANCE Magazine asked me for a choreographer's perspective on ballet's body image issues. She only needed a short quote, but once I started writing I couldn't stop. For many of us (both male and female) who grew up in ballet, this is a big, messy topic that takes time to untangle.

In my late teens and early twenties I was on the receiving end of a few fat chats and weigh-ins. When older people place strictures on younger people's bodies it feels like a creepy abuse of power. Those experiences still lurk in my mind; and while I don't go hungry, I would be lying if I said that I eat "whatever I want". Some friends in their 30s and 40s sustained worse damage and remain haunted by teachers' words spoken decades ago. For them every bite summons up guilt and conflict.

As a choreographer I have not yet had to speak to dancers about weight. In fact I would do just about anything to avoid it. I'd rather take on the challenge of designing dances that flatter people's differences .

Celebrating differences!

Ballet X in"Stations of Mercury"

On the other hand, dance is a visual art and has much in common with sport, so we can't just pretend that fitness and body image don't matter.

I am tall and broad-shouldered, and I tend towards leanness. (Contrary to what one Artistic Director told me when I was 20, I am NOT, in fact, "big-boned") Since I generate a lot of movement on my own body I like to choose dancers whose bodies clarify the details and articulations that are important to the choreography. However, it is also exciting, and important, to work with dancers whose bodies are different from mine. They can bring entirely new dimensions to the work.

We are so exposed when we dance. If a dancer is moving with power, speed, and clarity--- chewing up space and playing with momentum and tension--- I am not likely to be concerned about body type. Conversely, if a dancer lacks clarity or authority or appears uncomfortable in her skin I might start to wonder whether she is in peak physical shape. (I say "she" because, although some male dancers struggle too, unfortunately this issue is still overwhelmingly about women's bodies.)

If I were to show you a lineup of some of my favorite dancer collaborators, you would see a wide range of artists whose personalities and physiques highlight different aspects of the choreography. You'd see somebody with a long, lean greyhound body who moves through all the angles and lines with sharp clarity; and then you'd see somebody else with a softer, rounder body, a powerhouse of momentum with an intriguing "motion-blur" quality.

I do like to challenge myself by casting a range of body types and personalities in a piece, and if I'm creating from scratch I really don't care whether dancers' bodies match. I look for an interesting mix of people who will be fun to work with, and it's my job to make the puzzle pieces fit together. That can be hard, but not as hard as casting dancers into the molds of pre-existing repertoire.

In fact, I did run into a problem when restaging a piece I'd created on a company with relatively uniform body types. Another company that later acquired the work had more diversity in shapes and sizes, and I realized that it wouldn't work to cast dancers from both extremes. The choreography and costumes had both been designed for the more uniform group and would've drawn attention to the differences in ways that weren't part of my vision. Even though I was open to making big changes (recasting a man's role for a woman for example), I had to take body type into consideration more than I wanted.

The issue defies easy answers, but it's interesting to consider. I've even addressed it in choreography.

My Princess Grace Fellowship piece for Ballet Memphis was about women's body image as it relates to clothing. It was called Moult, and I found inspiration in the idea of insects shedding their exoskeletons. With three dress forms of "ideal" proportions onstage, my costume designer Christine Darch and I chose distinctly different exoskeletons for each female character and devised a series of moults by which the garments would be shed.

Giulia Spinelli of Ballet Memphis in Moult

That project made me think about these questions in new ways. Even if I don't have the answers, awareness and intention are good places to start.

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