Deirdre Kelly's Ballerina probes dark side of dance

A great lover of dance, author Deirdre Kelly admires ballerinas for their immense talent and artistry, but sees behind the scenes a world plagued by anorexia, sexual abuse and low pay.

New book looks at ballet's history and its record of shattered lives

As dance critic for the Globe and Mail for the past 17 years, Deirdre Kelly had ample opportunity to observe the dark underbelly of the ballet world. That is the territory she explores in Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, released last week by Greystone Books.

A great lover of dance, Kelly admires ballerinas for their immense talent and artistry, but sees behind the scenes a world plagued by anorexia, sexual abuse, low pay and poor working conditions. Ballet careers end early, and women who have dedicated years to the art are often left shell-shocked and with few options. Some companies have improved their records in the past few years, Kelly argues, but the feminine ideal of perfection associated with ballerinas seems to stand in the way of a more assertive push for change.

Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, by Deirdre Kelly. (Greystone Books)

"I want to foster a greater respect for the ballerina as an artist. I think that the culture needs to recognize some past mistakes. A lot of those mistakes are modern era – it’s kind of a blip in the history of dance," Kelly said in an interview with CBC News. "I think you need first a new aesthetic. You need to get [the ballerina] back to her own shape. I think you have to allow her to be a woman. I am heartened by the presence of the likes of Misty Copeland in American Ballet Theatre. She’s black, she’s busty…that is her natural body."

Kimberly Glasco case

But the story that planted the seed for Ballerina was the case of Kimberly Glasco, which involved, not body image, but labour politics. Glasco became engaged in a protracted legal fight with the National Ballet of Canada after she was abruptly fired from the company. The company maintained that at 39, she was too old, but Kelly had reviewed her performance just weeks before and found it "flawless."  She suspected Glasco’s firing had more to do with the fact that the ballerina had spoken up at a board meeting in support of other dancers, after the board proposed laying them off for four months of every year to save money. The case became a cause célèbre but the public debate seemed to focus, not on the rights of dancers, but on Glasco’s conduct and the "rights" of the artistic director to carry out his vision.

"What fascinated me was how the public seemed to automatically side with the status quo. She was a dancer shooting her mouth off. She was a dancer who was inelegant, who didn’t know her place. I saw an article that called her "uppity ballerina." Kelly said.

"I thought ‘why is it that the public won’t allow a ballerina to speak her mind?’  She wasn’t even allowed to be, not just a female, but a person with rights.  The whole world is changing but the ballet."

Kelly has been studying ballerinas since the age of three, when she began drawing them, fascinated by their power and beauty. The child of a single mother, she was frequently on her own. She used that time to research dance at the library and, when she was older, to attend pay-what-you-can performances in Toronto. She kept a journal on what she saw, and began reviewing dance for the Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, in 1982.  She became the Globe’s dance critic in 1985. She has also written for Dance Canada. There was not enough money as she grew up for dance lessons, but she took lessons when she could afford it herself, too late to have a dance career.

"My idols when I was growing up weren’t the traditional ballerinas. My idol was, in particular, Judith Jamison of Alvin [Ailey American Dance Theater] – I used to have her picture on my refrigerator, to my mother’s chagrin. I loved her power and I loved watching the Ailey company."

Since the 1970s, women have gained increased power and higher pay in the workplace and have been successful in making sexual harassment unacceptable. But many ballet companies in the 1980s and '90s remained fiefdoms, with pay consistently low, ballerinas subject to harassment and little attention paid to their emotional or physical health. Kelly looked to history to try to determine why that was so.

500 years of ballet history

Ballerina begins with a look at ballet’s origins in the French court and explores the development of the art through 500 years. It tells the stories of ballerinas who became powerful courtesans and ballerinas burned by the footlights, as well as the art’s great innovators.  None of them was less than womanly. Yet in the 1980s Kelly recalls speaking with Betty Oliphant, co-founder with Celia Franca of The National Ballet School of Canada, who casually mentioned  "weigh-ins" for the teen dancers. 

"That was an interesting interview —  It was an out of body moment when she was talking about the weigh-ins that would leave the dancer shaking in their satin slippers because you put them publicly on a scale in front of everyone and you’d publicly give their weight. These are pubescent girls who, as one ex-ballerina told me, ‘girls are at their fattest when they are teenagers.' And there’s a reason — we’re developing our reproductive organs.…To be humiliated that way and to be held to an impossible standard as a teenage girl was the norm, unfortunately. "

Deirdre Kelly loves dance, but believes the culture needs to change a little more quicky to put ballerinas at the heart. (John Cullen Photographer )

Kelly dates the huge rise in anorexia among ballerinas to the influence of George Balanchine. The great Russian-born choreographer was co-founder of the New York City Ballet, but he also actively prevented his dancers from marrying or having children, usually by firing them. He bedded many of his dancers and made international stars of several of his favourites. But his main influence, and one that spread worldwide, was in preferring dancers thin as toothpicks.

"1963, George Balanchine the great Russian-born choreographer got the all-important Ford Foundation grant," Kelly said. "He’s able finally to create ballet in his own vision. His vision included a ballerina who was long of limb, lean of frame, tall, narrow hips and a small head – the proverbial pinheads is what the critics used to call them."

Kelly argues the Balanchine aesthetic led to a global epidemic of eating disorders among white, female ballet dancers and she says medical experts back her up in believing he created a set of impossible expectations. Dancers who are starving themselves are actually unable to keep up with the physical demands of ballet – they’re more prone to injury and they can develop long-term health problems.

Big changes within ballet companies

On body image, there have been big changes – the National Ballet School is now very aware of the anorexia problem and on the lookout for dancers who might be affected.  Companies like the Australian Ballet have injury prevention programs, psychiatrists and dance specialist doctors on staff and they encourage ballerinas to speak of injuries early, so they don’t get worse. Ballerinas marry, have babies and go back to work regularly at the National Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Kelly notes the creation of the forward-looking Dancer Transition Resource Centre, which helps ballerinas make the change to careers after their retirement.

"Ballet today is very costly enterprise. It is a commercial pursuit and much more precarious. That also might explain why ballet companies are taking extra care to maintain the integrity of the labour force. It’s way too expensive to lose a dancer because you’ve allowed her and encouraged her to not take care of her body. Her body is her tool."

Jenifer Ringer dances the role of Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Her fans rushed to defend her after a critic said she was too large. (Paul Kolnik/New York City Ballet)

What Kelly did find in her ballet history was an image of the dancer as a delicate – and compliant — ideal , particularly in the French courts of the Renaissance, where the ballerinas were noblewomen and where dance was meant to represent the feminine virtues. 

Still stuck on ancient ideal

"People are imposing ancient ideals still on the dancer, they don’t allow her to be a woman," Kelly said.

There was the 2010  case of a New York Times critic who criticized ballerina Jenifer Ringer who he said "looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many." That comment outraged fans, as well as dancers, and had Ringer on the talk show circuit, debating issues of body image in a public forum.  Kelly welcomes that kind of debate and the new ethic that fans will stick up for a ballerina who looks like a woman.

At the same time, there are other forces at work that leave ballerinas injured or without careers. Ballet is getting harder – modern choreography is more athletic and makes even greater demands on the body. The average age of retirement of dancers is falling – about age 29 today, compared to 40 in the 1980s. And ballet companies are in financial difficulty – even formerly state-sponsored companies have folded.

But the art is still sublime Kelly says, adding that she wrote Ballerina in an attempt to change the culture that makes life so hard for ballerinas.   She wants to see a ballet where the ballerina is at the centre – and as powerful as she looks on stage.

"There is this hideous schizophrenia – on the one hand the ballerina from the outside looks to be in control of her artificial world – she is regal, she’s beautiful, she’s on pointe, you can’t shake her. The man’s job is just to catch her and hold her up. But the reality is behind the scenes, she’s more often than not controlled,degraded…sometimes subtly or not so subtly.  I found that an interesting dilemma."