Ballet, Bodies, and Basement Jaxx

This evening I went to a performance of Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance: Rock the Ballet (video link). The term ‘rock’ was used somewhat loosely, but six male and one female dancers performed to a range of popular music. All were clearly classically trained, and what they could do with their bodies was truly impressive. Three main thoughts crossed my mind at various stages in the performance that I’d like to share with you.

First, I really enjoyed the routines where all seven dancers were on stage and performing in sync. I liked seeing ‘dancers’, male and female, as one. The routines where the female lead played ‘the damsel’ irritated me a bit.

A while back, British ballet star Wayne Sleep recruited a group of plus-size amateur men and women, and trained them up over a period of just 5 weeks – working around their full-time jobs and other commitments – to perform their version of Swan Lake in front of a 1500-strong audience. The process was documented and shown on Channel 4 television as Big Ballet. Apart from an occasional remark, the documentary was incredibly positive and left you smiling, which makes a nice change for a TV show with the word ‘Big’ in its title. Many of the participants had danced when they were younger but had stopped after being told that they had the ‘wrong’ bodies for dance. As these stories emerged during the audition process, Sleep and prima ballerina Monica Loughman, were consistently distressed by this waste, the exclusion of a whole group of people from the joy of moving their bodies because of their size. The loss of self-esteem that accompanied these histories was also striking. If this has ever happened to you, if you have stopped dancing, or anything else that you used to love, because somebody told you that you couldn’t do it, or even if your own doubts were the reason, read Ragen Chastain’s blog post: Dancer’s Body, and other BS.

Getting back to Big Ballet, there was one clip of Sleep talking to Derek Deane, famous choreographer and previous Artistic Director at the Royal National Ballet, here representing the establishment. Deane basically said that this was an interesting experiment but it wasn’t proper ballet. [Offensive quote below, you can skip right over it to the next paragraph if you like.]

“It is the iconic ballet, it’s the ballet everybody knows, but also physically it is one of the hardest. You know fat, cellulite, bums and large breasts…I’m sorry but it doesn’t lend itself to the pure form of classical ballet.” Adding “I don’t know how you’re going to do it. I’m not sure it can be done.”

He continued by saying that people go to the ballet to see these amazing bodies doing these incredible things. Even at the time I disagreed with this – except for maybe a small handful of purists who revere the almost emaciated female form typically seen among working ballerinas, I believe that people go to the ballet to see dancers displaying years of dedication and training to perform something magical with their bodies. I don’t think that the shape of those bodies matters in the slightest.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, at least to me, it’s about movement, plain and simple. Or at least, it should be.

The second thing I wanted to write about is that in the last part of the show this evening, the mail dancers removed their tops. I will admit that as a heterosexual female whose tastes have been cultivated by the current media climate, I couldn’t help but admire their physiques. Having said that, I felt very uncomfortable about this. Although the dancers seemed quite happy to use their muscles for the audience’s titillation, I couldn’t help but wonder how they felt about their combined decades of intense training being used to turn them into Chippendales.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with anybody using their body to express their art, to bring pleasure, or simply to pay the bills. But this reminded me a little too much of when incredibly accomplished women are reduced to their dress size, their hairdo, or whether or not they can co-ordinate a perfectly styled outfit. It seemed like cheap objectification to me. I guess I’m an equal opportunity feminist.

The final point was much more positive. Watching these people move, listening to the music, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. I want to move. I want to dance. I want to go home, dig out my dance DVDs, put on some Basement Jaxx, and just do it. To dance as if nobody is watching, which hopefully they won’t be. It’s a while since I’ve felt like that really, so I think point three is: ‘surround yourself with things, and people, that inspire you’.

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