Our Bodies, Our Art

December 14, 2010 in Blog by Trendy

Paul Kolnik/New York City Ballet, J. Ringer as Sugar Plum Fairy.

Jenifer Ringer as Sugar Plum Fairy, photo by Paul Kolnik/New York City Ballet.

As is so often the case these days, the internet has turned a single comment into a national controversy. Over what, you ask? Over women’s bodies, specifically, one ballet dancer’s body.

Ballerina Jenifer Ringer has gone public with her body before. As a professional dancer she has admitted to struggles with over eating as well as anorexia. It is in the final paragraph, a single line from a 15 paragraph review, that New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, puts Jenifer’s weight in the limelight. He explains, “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm. They’re among the few City Ballet principals who dance like adults, but without adult depth or complexity.”

Perhaps it is Jenifer’s public past with weight issues that makes this comment so striking, or the combination of this comment with a critical eye turned on dance from the recently released Black Swan film. Either way, this jab has turned the masses against Macaulay, calling him out as a sexist, archaic, male critic. After reading the entire review, as well as Macaulay’s response, I am unsure on which side to stand.

That dancers have extreme body expectations is no shock. Being exceptionally thin has been part of a ballet for ages. In a sport involving not only grace, strength and agility, but also a physique light enough to literally toss into the air, it cannot be surprising that dancers are expected to be rather thin. Critiques of the body expectations for female dancers and ice skaters are not new. Though the web was not as prominent to expedite these discussions, I remember watching specials on television and movies focusing on this very topic since I was a very young woman myself.

So, what is it about Macaulay’s comment that is so unjust? Some media outlets claim that Macaulay didn’t cite a real reason her body interfered with the dance, and as such, his critique is not valid but simply mean. Macaulay claims that if a dancer’s weight is distracting, it is perfectly valid to mention it in critique. Macaulay also guffaws at the fact that the people upset with him due to the Ringer comment had no issue with the fact that he also made a strong criticism of their talents (i.e. dancing “…without adult depth or complexity,”) or the fact that he also commented on the weight of Ringer’s male counterpart, Jared Angle.

Does Macaulay, as a critic, have the right to turn the critical eye on a dancer’s weight, so long as it effected his perception of the work? Does the media have the right to slay him for commenting on a woman’s weight, while they ignore the same comment directed at a male? What do you think about the weight expectations of ballet dancers in general? Does the art need to reflect more shapes, so that while always being healthy and athletic, ballet dancers aren’t driven to weight loss extremes? Or does this art simply require a body that is tuned to dance, even if that means being underweight as a standard for excellence?

Please share your thoughts!