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Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection

by Deirdre Kelly

The prevailing image of the ballerina is one of lightness and grace, more a diaphanous swirl of fluid motion than flesh-and-blood woman. She is, for many, an idealized notion of femininity. But her reality is and always has been much less romantic. From her earliest incarnation in 17th-century France to her present as struggling artist, the ballerina’s persona has encompassed darkness and light, as much Odile as Odette. Lifelong balletomane Deirdre Kelly, former dance critic for The Globe and Mail, explores this dichotomy in her detailed – though somewhat scattered – labour of love.

In the first section, Kelly gives readers a good overview of the history of ballet, beginning with a fascinating look at the courts of the French Bourbon kings, under whose rule the dance became an important aspect of nobility. Unfortunately, Kelly is sometimes unclear as to which Louis she is referring to, pinballing back and forth between the reigns of Louis XIII to XVI. Still, her detailed account of how ballet transitioned from being a means of teaching aristocratic boys and men proper form for fencing and military manoeuvers to an avenue of social advancement for lower-class women is engaging and informative.

Louis XIV’s establishment of the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661 changed ballet. The school’s director, Jean-Baptiste Lully, finding the nobility unable to perform his new “operaballets” at the Paris Opéra, opened the school to the lower classes. Suddenly, even illegitimate daughters of the poorest citizens could learn to deport themselves like ladies of high birth. With their talent came status: “Many women dancers seized the opportunity to dance professionally, acquiring social prestige and, in some cases, vast stores of wealth even though their origins were humble.”

The dancers, unfortunately, earned that wealth on their backs more than on their feet. Kelly dedicates much of her book to exploring how sex played an overwhelming role in the lives of 18th- and 19th-century ballerinas. But in explaining the women’s dual nature as dancer and courtesan, Kelly is contradictory. On one hand, she notes that women, who were still considered the property of their fathers or husbands, were freed from those claims once they came under Lully’s tutelage. “Ballerina-courtesans were among the first independent women,” writes Kelly. “[T]hey did not live in brothels or bend themselves to conform to another’s will … and so, for the most part, were not to be pitied but admired.” She immediately follows that statement with: “They sold themselves to men of influence.” Regardless of one’s stance on prostitution and a woman’s right to do with her body as she chooses, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that dancers who became rich by selling themselves to wealthy benefactors were akin to early feminists.

Kelly continues in this vein, using mini-biographies of various dancers to impart what the life of a ballerina entailed, and how social constructs dictated her behaviour (both onstage and off). The gossipy style of her prose works here, but Kelly again has issues with keeping her timeline in order: as each ballerina’s life unfolds, the reader is yanked back and forth through decades.

Having spent most of the first half of the book establishing that ballerinas were wanton sex objects, Kelly abruptly drops the theme, focusing instead on other hardships that befell dancers. Sex is all but gone from the narrative by the time we get to 20th-century Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine, whom Kelly uses as an entry point into discussing the modern pitfalls of a dancer’s life: eating disorders and injuries. Balanchine’s preference for long-legged, rail-thin, technically precise ballerinas persists as the standard, though Kelly closes her book with a look at how today’s dancers are beginning to turn away from this model.

Ballerina is an entertaining book, but it is also frustrating. Kelly has a tendency to repeat herself, and the structure of looping back to the larger historical narrative between tangent-like profiles of individual dancers often results in confusion. While it is evident that Kelly’s book is meticulously researched, this is sometimes part of the problem: most readers are unlikely to find the names of the many benefactors of 18th-century ballerina-courtesans particularly interesting. Still, the conversational tone and an abundance of tabloid-worthy gossip make this a worthwhile read for avid fans of dance looking for an accessible and fun, if not exhaustive, history of ballet.