The heavy toll that American football takes on players leading to long-term brain damage has been much in the news recently. It has led to some reforms especially among the younger age groups but not enough. People have been more focused on the bone-crunching tackles by large players in college and professional football while the cumulative effect of many small collisions over a long time has still not been widely recognized.
But another field that expects too much from its participants is professional dancing for the stage and ballet. From all that I have read, it is brutal in the demands that it makes and now one of the world’s leading ballerinas has spoken out against it.
Irina Kolesnikova, 35, doyenne of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, is calling for companies to nurture dancers, rather than pressing them to remain thin while pushing themselves to physically dangerous levels.
Kolesnikova’s previous London performances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Coliseum sold out, and in August she is returning to the Coliseum at the same time as the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow arrives at Covent Garden. Before that summer visit, she told the Observer: “Big companies demand of their dancers at least 10-hour days – 10 hours of non-stop physically demanding performance. I’m not the only one who thinks this is counterproductive. At some point the body just switches off.”
It is not just physical trauma that ballet dancers experience.
Kolesnikova has struggled with her weight since childhood. She said her teachers in Leningrad made her feel like ballet’s ugly duckling, constantly telling her: “Look at your figure. What do you look like? You’ll never be a ballerina.” She said: “By belittling us in class our teachers thought they were helping correct our shortcomings, and didn’t understand that all they were doing was destroying our self-belief … they were traumatising the child psychologically and, even with the passing of time, not everyone got over that. Sometimes these requirements verge on obsessive and have little to do with your actual performance.”
The film A Chorus Line showed the hard world that dancers in Broadway theater experience. While one is impressed at the sheer dedication of dancers who are willing to put themselves through such physical rigors and emotional rollercoasters for the chance of occasional success, one wonders why it has to be so harsh.
Circuses are phasing out the use of elephants and aquatic parks are doing the same with dolphins because audiences are increasingly aware of how badly those animals are treated in order to get them to perform for our pleasure. Maybe we need similar revulsion in audiences to effect changes in the world of dancing.