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28 April 2023

The brutality of ballet

Alice Robb’s Don’t Think Dear reveals how the elite world of dance exerts a terrible physical and mental toll.

By Pippa Bailey

When Alice Robb was a ballet-obsessed child – a “bunhead” – she spent Saturday afternoons at the Met in New York. Ignoring the Rembrandts and Vermeers, she made her way to the Degas paintings of barres and tulle. In her favourite, La Classe de danse (1874), ballerinas in fluffy tutus watch as one, her face anxious, performs for the ballet master – the only man in the room. He is in the centre, leaning on a cane. “Power, and the possibility of violence, cling to him,” writes Robb in Don’t Think Dear. “Does he use his walking stick to keep time, or to strike his students’ turned-in legs?”

For the three years she trained with the School of American Ballet (SAB), the feeder school for the New York City Ballet, Robb’s life was ruled by one of the most powerful men in ballet – though he had been dead for nearly two decades. George Balanchine, a Soviet defector who co-founded SAB in 1934 and the City Ballet 14 years later, was described by Susan Sontag as “the greatest choreographer who ever lived”.

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Don’t Think Dear – the title is a saying of Balanchine’s – is part memoir, part investigation, and enthralling whether or not you have any knowledge of ballet. Robb weaves her own story with those of her classmates at SAB, only one of whom turned professional, and with some of the biggest stars of American ballet. Robb won a place at SAB on her third attempt, a few days after 9/11, when she was nine. Ballet became her identity, her way of being a girl, and, even after she was expelled (her teachers considered her “without a future”), she “couldn’t unlearn [its] values”: discipline, ritual, submission, forbearance, even masochism.

Balanchine cut out preparatory steps so that a dancer’s next move was impossible to predict, placing a huge strain on the body. Some blame his techniques for shortening dancers’ careers: in the 1980s the average age of retirement for a professional ballerina was 40; by the 1990s it was 29. He was also – Robb’s word – problematic. Balanchine exercised great control over his dancers, determining what they ate (“nothing”) and what perfume they wore. He met the last of his four wives, Tanaquil Le Clercq, when she was a child at SAB; he was 25 years her senior. After Le Clercq was paralysed by polio, he took to another dancer, Suzanne Farrell. But when Farrell resisted his advances and married another dancer, Balanchine fired them both. “He was very grabby,” one soloist later said. “He’d be arrested now.”

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Still, “Balanchine is my life – my destiny,” Farrell told the New York Times in 2017, aged 72. Such is his continuing hold over American ballet that Robb wonders if she spent her adolescence “in thrall to a deceased cult leader”. The response was similar when ballet had its #MeToo moment in 2017: several City Ballet dancers accused its then artistic director, Peter Martins, of physical abuse and sexual harassment. (Martins denied the allegations, but resigned.) “For years,” Robb writes, his dancers “had starved for him and slept with him; now they would stay silent for him.”

In ballet, men are scarce but powerful. Boys were given automatic scholarships at SAB – the girls had to pay thousands of dollars in tuition each year – and were three times more likely to find a full-time company job. Between 2018 and 2020 men choreographed 80 per cent of the work performed by the 50 largest companies in the US. “Our bodies… belonged,” Robb writes, “to choreographers and partners and directors – to men”. And Balanchine was particularly concerned with his ballerinas’ bodies. One of his soloists, Gelsey Kirkland, recalled him rapping his knuckles on her ribs, saying: “Must see the bones,” though she weighed less than 100 pounds.

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Ballet, writes Robb, attracts children who are predisposed towards perfectionism and control, and encourages extreme levels of self-critique: dancers repeat the same movements over and over, compulsively searching out flaws. Many recall “fat talks”, in which they were told to “lengthen” – a euphemism for losing weight. Body dysmorphia is common, and ballet dancers’ rate of eating disorders was once estimated to be 20 times higher than that of the general population.

Kirkland attributed her eating disorder to the “concentration camp aesthetic” of City Ballet. One dancer’s body was approved of only when she developed an intestinal problem that prevented her from eating solid food; another survived on a single green apple and four tablespoons of cottage cheese a day.

The ideal physique was a small head, short torso, narrow hips, long legs, hyperextended knees, oversized feet: genetically impossible for many, however much they starved themselves. One of Robb’s classmates was told her neck was too short, another that her arms were too long. Robb herself was too tall, at 5ft 5. Chillingly, she writes of “fantasis[ing] about slicing off my thighs, trimming the muscles on my calves”.

Ballet, writes Robb, gives you a heightened sense not only of how your body looks from the outside, but how it feels on the inside; of being a body, rather than simply having one. “Every nerve and joint and tendon felt alert, alive.” Pain is the protagonist of Robb’s book; the ballerina’s stoical endurance of it is “part of the spectacle”. When Tamara Rojo’s appendix burst on stage during a performance of The Nutcracker, she finished the show. The first time Robb stood en pointe – on the tips of her toes – the pain was “shocking”, she writes. The force of balancing en pointe on one foot is equivalent to the weight of a grand piano falling on a single toe.

Despite it all, Don’t Think Dear is a love letter to ballet; there is horror in the human body pushed to its absolute limits, but there is wonder, too. For anxious children, including Robb, entering the flow state of dance can be a relief from what Kierkegaard called the “dizziness of freedom”. Returning to an open ballet class as an adult, Robb reflects: “Ballet is not fun. It’s meditation; it’s a physical prayer.” To whom? George Balanchine, perhaps.

Don’t Think Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet
Alice Robb
Oneworld, 304pp, £16.99

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[See also: The women classical music forgot]

This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown