A journalist takes a hard look at social injustices in ballet and how to end them.
Angyal argues that as ballet schools and companies cope with Covid-19, they face a threat older than the pandemic. The ballet world is in crisis, “made fragile and brittle by years of inequality and rendered dysfunctional by sexism, racism, elitism, and a stubborn disregard for the physical and mental well-being of the dancers who make the art possible.” Many of the ills the author laments have been covered in some of the ballet books published since Joan Brady’s signal 1982 memoir The Unmaking of a Dancer: injuries, burnout, eating disorders, taunting of male dancers as “sissies,” and brutal treatment by Svengalis like George Balanchine. But Angyal substantially updates the story by highlighting persistent social injustices, such as relegating Black male dancers to “comic sidekick roles, the Mercutio to the white man’s Romeo,” and sidelining LGBTQ+ talent. She also shows how trailblazers have fought back with actions such as the founding of the Manhattan-based Ballez company for lesbian and gender-nonconforming dancers. Drawing on interviews with insiders who include artistic directors and principal dancers, the author is particularly insightful about companies’ “doublespeak” on issues like thinness. One psychiatrist noted that ballet masters—no longer able to tell dancers to lose weight without risking criticism—speak in code such as, “You need to be more ‘toned’.…Every dancer knows that means they have to lose five pounds.” Angyal slights some of the broader social and economic forces that have contributed to ballet’s problems, such as declining U.S. audiences for high culture and the role government regulators might play if discrimination or unfair labor practices are involved. However, she ends with clear, well-reasoned recommendations that schools and companies anywhere could adopt—a list that, in itself, might be the spark many need to make overdue changes.
A vigorously reported critique of common policies and practices in the ballet world.