On the Question of Whether Ballet Is an Art or a Sport
By Alexandra Tomalonis
The question of whether or not ballet is a sport pops up every few years or so, and has just roared to life again thanks to an Under Armour ad starring the very muscular body of American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland. The ad is not only all over the Internet, with more than five million views on YouTube, but ABC News named Copeland its Person of the Week last Friday. That show, and some coverage, emphasized Copeland’s admirable persistence and determination to succeed, but some found a different message. Online USA Today on July 31, 2014, put it simply: “Under Armour settles whether ballet is a sport in new breathtaking ad.” There is no text, just the headline and the video, but it is clear that, for USA Today, ballet is definitely a sport.
Do most people agree with this? Debate.com took a poll, putting the question simply: “Is Ballet a Sport?” Of those who responded, 85 percent said “yes”; 15 percent, “no.”
Time for a midcourse correction. To start with the dictionary (dictionary.com), ballet is “a classical dance form demanding grace and precision and employing formalized steps and gestures set in intricate, flowing patterns to create expression through movement.” Sport is “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.”
Yet the notion persists. Is ballet athletic? The first classical dancers back in the 16th century, especially the men, were certainly skilled athletes, in today’s use of the term, specializing in jousting and fencing (ballet’s five positions of the feet derive from the latter) and were extremely skilled horsemen. They wouldn’t have called themselves “athletes,” though. They thought they were “courtiers” and they also wrote music and poetry, and took part in the court’s theatrics of which dancing was a central part. When ballet moved into the theaters 300 years ago, dancers brought the courtiers’ steps and rules with them, and also their aesthetic. Ballet looked back to Greek theater for that aesthetic, and added something of its own. Ballet reaches to the Heavens — literally. That is why movement is directed upwards, why limbs are stretched. Ballet is an ideal art form, aiming for perfection, and showing the rest of us what is possible for human beings to achieve. It was always an elite art form in that sense, even though very few, if any, of the first professional dancers were aristocrats and theaters were open to all.
The curve of ballet history has gone from ages of extreme technique (usually at the end of a century) to an emphasis on artistry (usually at the beginning of a century). We’ve been in an Extreme Technique Age for about 30 years now. Star dancers have always been able to entertain by the amazing things they do with their bodies, but the great artists have also touched our souls by showing us theirs (Margot Fonteyn and Galina Ulanova, from the mid-20th century, are good examples). That quality is what attracted me to dance — What is it? Where does it come from? — questions I haven’t yet answered and I’m not sure that they are even possible to answer, at least in words. Artistry poses infinite questions. Sport is finite. It ends. It pits two teams, or several individuals, against each other to compete for one very decided, satisfying goal: who has the most points? Who was first to reach the finish line? These aren’t questions we ask about ballet. Artistry poses infinite questions. Sport is finite. It ends. It pits two teams, or several individuals, against each other to compete for one very decided, satisfying goal: who has the most points? Who was first to reach the finish line? These aren’t questions we ask about ballet. (I’m addressing “ballet” rather than “dance” because I believe modern dance has, and needs, to change itself with each generation. An art form that includes “dance is personal expression” and “dance is movement through space and time” needs very broad boundaries, and the post-modern movement deliberately broke every rule it could think of and still produced dance. Anyone who loved Mark Morris’s dance “Deck of Cards” for a mechanical toy truck can no longer even say that dance requires a human being). In contrast, ballet, from its beginning, had strict definitions and rules. Mess with them, and you’ve created something else.
Does sport have anything to do with ballet? There have been a few ballets that dealt with sport. Vaslav Nijinsky’s Jeux, which is not about tennis but was danced in tennis clothes, was an interesting exception. Before that, during the late 19th century’s era of Extreme Technique, there was a ballet called Sport. This was a multi-act extravaganza by Luigi Manzotti (who also choreographed Excelsior) that Cyril W. Beaumont described in his Complete Book of Ballets as “a glorification of sport in every form: skating, fishing, boat-racing, horse-racing, cycling, fishing, dueling, big game hunting, athletics, and so on.” Beaumont went on to say that Manzotti’s contribution to ballet was to commercialize it, to turn it into spectacle, an ominous warning. We might say that some ballet companies today are Manzottians, and the numerous dance competitions, which award medals to “the best,” don’t help. I think audiences like the notion that ballet is a sport because sport is easy to understand – there’s a winner and a loser -- and ballet (and opera, and classical music) seems deliberately arcane to many. It’s easy to count turns, perceive perfectly hit high notes, or applaud loud, crashing cords; less so to describe artistry.
Americans have long distrusted, even hated, ballet because it is “undemocratic.” It doesn’t accept everyone. Does ballet have specific requirements for bodies? Yes. It’s built on a very specific body type popular in 18th century France (look at some pictures from that era and you’ll see those small heads and long necks). But every ethnic/national group produces people with these bodies, and it’s from this pool that dancers are chosen. Not everyone can be selected. The great Russian schools accept only a handful of students out of hundreds who apply, and only two or three students in the top class are admitted to the company each year.
What are they after, and why? To address just the most basic: turnout is essential (and if dancers aren’t properly turned out naturally, they’ll be much injured). Height requirements vary. Today there’s a preference for tall dancers; it’s the dancers under 5’6” who get those rejection letters. Will a young dancer be rejected if his feet are flat, her torso too long or her neck too short? Probably. Would a girl who’s 5’8” be accepted by an elite gymnastics team, or a boy the same height by a top college basketball team? Probably not. Today there’s a preference for tall dancers; it’s the dancers under 5’6” who get those rejection letters. Will a young dancer be rejected if his feet are flat, her torso too long or her neck too short? Probably. Would a girl who’s 5’8” be accepted by an elite gymnastics team, or a boy the same height by a top college basketball team? Probably not. Paradoxically, some of the greatest dancers had imperfect bodies. One poster child for this is Maria Taglioni, the great Romantic Era ballerina whose legs and arms were “ridiculously long” and who started a whole new fashion in ballet by dancing, softly, gently, on the tips of her toes. Another is Nijinsky, who was 5’4” with enormous, powerful thighs — yet two of his greatest roles were as a sad puppet, and as the spirit of a rose. Or is this a paradox? It isn’t, if one realizes that while a tennis player has to get the ball over the net, in ballet, it’s the soul, the artistry, that is more important than the body.
Is the sports era with us forever? History says it isn’t. An emphasis on artistry will return, and that’s starting to happen. After a three-decades long sleep, classical choreography is beginning to awaken. Suddenly, there are about a half-dozen choreographers creating interesting work. Right now, Alexei Ratmansky is emerging as the one with the most individual voice. He uses virtuosity when it’s appropriate — and stretches it, uses everything the dancer has — and he also has an extraordinarily vivid imagination, and is using, and changing, ballet’s classical vocabulary and patterns. All of this is turning the focus back to choreography again. When ballet’s creative fires are burning, everybody — dancers and audience — wins.
Alexandra Tomalonis has written about dance in Washington, D.C., since 1979, as a long-time stringer with The Washington Post and major dance publications. In the same year, she founded a bimonthly tabloid called Washington DanceView, which is now the quarterly magazine DanceView. She is also the author of Henning Kronstam: Portrait of a Danish Dancer (University Press of Florida, 2002) and has lectured frequently about dance in the Washington, D.C. area. Tomalonis has a B.A. in American Studies from Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia and a Master’s Degree from Georgetown University’s Liberal Studies program. She currently teaches dance history at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C. Before coming to KAB, she taught professional literature, dance history and aesthetics at George Washington University and George Mason University.
Misty Copeland for Under Armour
Ludmila Schollar, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina in "Jeux," 1913
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