Spectral Ballerinas: On a Pedestal, Written Out of History

By emily.coates@yale.edu (Emily Coates)

In classical ballet, though the ballerina is often the center of attention — partnered, catered to, alone in the spotlight — once off stage her authority is diminished in ways that limit the next steps in her career. When women are not promoted into positions of leadership, we stop hearing their voices. Their contributions slip out of recorded dance history — as has happened far too often.

It’s true that a recent New York Times article on ballet dancers branding their images seems to point toward a changing balance of power between dancers and artistic directors. Lending a measure of hope for women’s ability to make a mark in the history books, ballet star Natalia Osipova, a dancer in Britain’s Royal Ballet, her fourth troupe in two years, is leading this new way — she is now more a free agent, like a football player. Yet her story is still an anomaly. There remains a gap — comparable to the ballet world’s version of the 1 percent — between how the contributions of men and women in ballet are perceived. As a consequence, the men reliably rise into leadership positions, while the majority of the women tend to disappear.

Joy Womack, a 19-year-old American and former dancer with Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, recently made international news when she leveled accusations of pay-to-dance financial extortion at the company and quit. She has remained in Russia to dance with another company, ready to face any backlash for speaking out. Before she went public, she felt invisible. As a senior ballerina described Womack to the Los Angeles Times: “…she practically turned into a kind of ghost…”

It can be difficult to break the stereotype of ballerina as object, as coverage of a sensational crime in that same company has illustrated. During the trial of Pavel Dmitrichenko, sentenced to six years in jail for his involvement in a brutal acid attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin, a ballerina emerged in a role worthy of a dramatic ballet.

At the time of the attack, Bolshoi soloist Dmitrichenko was the boyfriend of fellow dancer Anzhelina Vorontsova, and newspaper stories reported that Dmitrichenko had been angry that Filin had not given the ballerina, once Filin’s protégée, star parts. In a rare interview in Time last February, when Vorontsova spoke for herself, she ascribed problems in her career to feuding between Filin and her Bolshoi teacher and mentor Nikolai Tsiskaridze. She called Tsiskaridze a “living genius,” and said, “I am prepared to suffer a lot for the honor of working with him.” Though she was never charged or connected to the crime, Vorontsova’s life and career have been tainted by an orbit of men taking charge.

In the New York Times, Russian ballet scholar Vadim Gayevsky described her situation in another way: “No one ever asks her,” he said. “They decide everything for her.” Vorontsova declined to be interviewed after Dmitrichenko confessed to the crime. In the meantime, after being dismissed from the Bolshoi, Tsiskaridze …read more

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