Art, the artists that create it, and the artistic world which they inhabit can seem like an inexplicable enigma to the public. Although thousands of people attend ballets every year, few have the opportunity to glimpse beyond the velvet curtain and explore the backstage of the ballet world. Ballet is characterized by ethereal figures moving in eerily perfect synchrony to a harmonious score; dazzling, colorful scenery bordered by lush red drapes; and alluring stories of romance and adventure. It is therefore unsurprising that an outsider’s understanding of ballet presents a deep disparity with the art form’s reality. Unfortunately, insiders in ballet are aware that its contrived perfection conceals an outdated orthodoxy of systemic racism, body-shaming, and discrimination that is unsustainble in the 21st century.
Even the untrained eye of an audience member notices that the ballet world is overwhelmingly white. Russian ballet is notorious for its insistence upon archaic traditions, which has allowed atrocities such as blackface and systemic racism to persist. In December 2019, an African-American ballerina, Misty Copeland, reposted an image from the iconic Russian Bolshoi Ballet company, in which two young dancers posed in blackface for a production of “La Bayadère,” to her Instagram account, calling attention not only to the issue of blackface in ballet, but to the global divide on race. In response, a Russian ballerina Anna Okuneva shared that she had colored her face and body for shows thousands of times, and that blackface was part of her creative work, not racism. Calvin Royal III, an African-American dancer with the American Ballet Theater, disagrees. In an interview, he questioned how it could be possible that “we’re heading into 2020 and this is a reality in some places?”
Systemic racism is not the only issue requiring attention in the ballet world. Body-shaming and insistence upon the “ballet body” stereotype have been ingrained in ballet culture, resulting in a prevalence of eating disorders. Furthermore, influential figures in the ballet world don’t only ignore the damaging implications of young dancers’ attempts to achieve the ideal ballet body, but reward their efforts. As the co-founder and director of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine exerted no small amount of influence over the formative years of the modern ballet world. His preferred body type for female dancers — swan-necked, slim-hipped, long-legged, impossibly thin and capable of difficult footwork — became the enduring global standard for ballet companies and schools. Gelsey Kirkland, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, recalls interactions with Balanchine in which told his dancers he “must see bones” and that they should not only eat less but “eat nothing.” This is extremely concerning, considering Balanchine’s significant influence on 21st century ballet standards.
Furthermore, women in leadership positions in the dance industry are still paid significantly less than men in equal positions. Issues of gender equality and women’s rights are at the forefront of modern social justice movements, but the ballet world remains overwhelmingly ignorant as revealed by independent research organization Dance Data Project (DDP). In March 2020, DDP released an Artistic and Executive Leadership Report that highlights the unacceptable disparities between male and female pay in ballet’s leadership positions. It was revealed that 90 percent of artistic directors in the top 10 US ballet companies are male; men choreograph 81 percent of all works performed by the top 50 ballet companies; and that of all artistic directors, women earned only 61 cents for every dollar men earned. As ballet is a predominantly female art form, it is concerning that positions of choreographic and artistic power are overwhelmingly filled by men. President and founder of DDP, Elizabeth Yntema, has spoken on the issue of transparency with regard to gender discrimination in the ballet world. “The process of selecting the next artistic director is shrouded in secrecy,” she said. “It is the very opposite of a transparent system where there is a defined selection process and criteria.” Shifting these statistics in the favor of women is absolutely essential if ballet is to survive in a progressive 21st century.
Ballet’s intolerance of the LGBTQ community is also ideologically outdated, especially with regard to those who identify as transgender or non-binary. It is notorious for its strict reinforcement of binary gender norms and dress codes that can increase body dysmorphia for gender non-conforming individuals. MJ Markovitz, a student in The Ailey School’s scholarship program who uses they/them pronouns, feels “extremely disconnected” when looking at themself in the mirror in pink tights. They say that the industry’s rigid, binary dress codes force gender non-conforming or transgender dancers to be seen as someone they are not.
The reality of the ballet world and its outdated preferences have been hidden behind the velvet curtain for far too long. Ballet’s normalization of racism, frequent incidents of body-shaming, gender discrimination, and intolerance of the LGBTQ community are just a sample of the issues in which ballet lingers behind the 21st century. If the art form is to survive and receive continued support from today’s audience, it is necessary for ballet to change its conception for the ideal ballerina. For change is not only long overdue in the industry as a whole, it is overdue for the dancers who suffer in the grasps of ballet daily — the young Black ballerinas who face microaggressions in class, the plus size ballerina who is neglected in casting, and the non-binary dancer who isn’t sure if there will ever be a place for them in the ballet world. These dancers long for change, and they will harness 21st century movements for diversity and inclusion to their advantage. Ballet now faces two options: adapt, or disappear.