Flesh and Bone
What did ballet ever do to the world to deserve the way it’s always being represented by writers and filmmakers? Poor ballet! It’s so hard to get right; it’s so fragile an enterprise; it’s so battered by economic and sociological realities. Why does this fiendishly demanding but deeply rewarding process have to be distorted into an orgy of sadism, masochism, and misery? The latest avatar is the eight-part TV series Flesh and Bone, produced by the cable network Starz and starring the dancer Sarah Hay.
Yes, Nijinsky went mad, but he was a troubled young man—was it really Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes who pushed him over the edge? Yes, the great Olga Spessivtseva cracked up and was hospitalized for more than twenty years, but she seems always to have been unstable.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the twentieth century’s leading dancers—from Pavlova and Karsavina through Markova, Danilova, Ulanova, Plisetskaya, Makarova, Fonteyn, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Tallchief, and Farrell—led gratifying, untormented lives. They did not cut themselves, starve themselves (most dancers eat like crazy), commit incest, commit suicide, commit murder—they just applied themselves, day in, day out, to class, rehearsal, performance. “Tendu, tendu, tendu,” “plié, plié, plié,” then home to soak sore feet and sew ribbons on toe shoes. (Well, maybe a glamorous party or two—and in the case of Fonteyn, Diors and Balenciagas in the closet.)
One movie and one book paved the way for today’s ballet psychodramatics. The movie, of course, is Michael Powell’s incomparable The Red Shoes (1948), in which Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, cries out, “Why do I want to dance? Why do I want to live! Because I must!” And so she dies the death, torn between her love for her reliable composer husband and her obsession with ballet and the prodigious if sinister Boris Lermontov (a libel on the prodigious but hardly sinister Diaghilev). There have been other ballet movies, but nothing like this one in its opulence and ambitions. From a slow start, The Red Shoes became a tremendous box-office hit in both England and America (in New York, it ran at a small art house for more than two years); there’s no way of estimating how many little girls demanded ballet lessons in the wake of its gorgeous melodrama.
One of the most striking aspects of The Red Shoes is how over the decades it’s changed: not in its content, naturally, but in how we perceive it. In its early years, the 1950s, Vicky Page seemed to be the victim of the Svengali-like Lermontov, who manipulates her into abandoning her husband and domesticity in order to return—fatally—to his company to perform the Red Shoes ballet. In our more liberated day, it’s the husband who comes across as the bad guy: it’s his selfish requirements of…
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