Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
My first ballet fantasies started in the mall studio I attended as a pigeon-breasted 8 year old boy with a Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut. Looking in the mirrors of each class, endlessly comparing myself to my most talented classmates, to my teachers, a pair of beautiful leggy twin sisters who have stabbed us all. Standing next to those longer, more graceful, and alluring shapes, I wondered how I would ever become this. And the “it” wasn’t just a ballet dancer. It was partly a woman. Because the two were forever attached to me, as they were to many young girls.
The tyranny of these mirrors never really left me during my two years of ballet. I couldn’t force my body to do what it was supposed to do. Even when I looked away, trying to stay in my skin, focus on the metallic piano music coming from the boombox, witnessing my teacher’s corrections, the distance between what I imagined in my head and what that the mirror revealed was devastating.
Within a few years, I had given up ballet lessons, but not my fascination with dancers. As a teenager I consumed Gelsey Kirkland’s controversial and captivating 1986 memoir, Dance on my grave. A ballet star since legendary choreographer George Balanchine first discovered her at the age of 15, Kirkland pointed out everything most dancers hate about cultural representations of ballet: eating disorders, drugs, emotional breakdown, romantic relationships gone bad. Of course, those are the same things that attracted me. It all seemed incredibly glamorous and so far out of my life.
But it wasn’t until recently, revisiting the memories, that I realized the part I was most connected with, the part that ringed painfully true: Kirkland’s relentless perfectionism. As a straight, straight-A student, the kind who would crumble on a disappointing test score, and end up achieving the honorary damn “Most Likely To Succeed,” I might have failed in dance, but I understood everything about driving.
“She wanted to have the tallest dancer extension,” said dancer Robert Weiss Time magazine in 1978 when Kirkland was 25, “Best Jumper’s Leap, Best Turner’s Tricks, Best Dramatic Ballerina’s Dramatic Possibilities, and a Comedian’s Comedic Possibilities.” She wanted to be perfect. To achieve the illusion of aerial radiance or ethereal grace, Kirkland demanded everything of herself, both physically (an exhaustive repetition program, endless repetitions of each movement) and mentally (having always need to understand his roles in great detail). And his perfectionism wasn’t limited to his performance. She suffered for years from a crippling eating disorder and as a teenager began a series of plastic surgeries on her breasts, lips, ankles, earlobes. “Please, my God,” she prayed at night, “make me the doll that everyone wants me to be”.
But being perfect was not enough. In a very revealing moment, Kirkland quotes a review praising his “gift for bodily eloquence.” You can feel her frustration and anger when she tells us that it was not a gift but “the precise art I fought for”. Endlessly, relentlessly, comprehensively. No one sees this struggle and it torments her, but if anyone had, she would have failed. You had to be both perfect and bring out this spontaneous, innate, natural perfection.
In a recent piece, Chloe Angyal explored the connection between ballet and perfectionism, a “very necessary trait in a hypercompetitive field that demands near impossible feats of the human body.” As famous dancer Wendy Whelan once said, “As a ballerina you never want to be less than perfect, never. That’s your goal: 24/7 perfection. And if, as Balanchine said, “ballet is a woman,” it might be worth considering a link between perfectionism and femininity.
In her play, Angyal uses the term “effortless perfection” to describe the dancer’s plight. But the term doesn’t come from dance at all, but from a 2003 survey by Duke University of its undergraduate students. The constant refrain was how the young women felt weighed down by the expectation, by the demand for what in second year was called “effortless perfection”: the expectation to be intelligent, accomplished, successful. shape, beautiful and popular, and that all this would happen effortlessly visible»(Emphasis added).
This passage has lived in me for months now. It reminded me of a recent conversation with a close friend. Over a drink, I found myself tediously recounting various anxieties – about professional expectations arising from the pandemic, about the publication of a new novel, about a series of impending Zoom presentations. He looked surprised. “I didn’t know you were worried about this stuff,” he told me. “I didn’t think that confused you at all. I almost laughed because these worries, and others, fill my days and nights, all of them. But somehow I had it all hidden without even trying, without even knowing it.
Rule # 1: Hide your work. Rule # 2: Never stop working.
Perfection without effort. This mode – the one so many women live in – can be exhausting on its own, but it has rarely felt more intensely than in the past year and a half. Isolated and homebound, we lacked even the most minor distractions from our work and family responsibilities, community and civic duties, keeping our homes well stocked and safe, worrying about our bank account and our bodies. , any exercise and diet. , from our phones. Instead, we were alone with our own demands. And we didn’t even have to hide the effort. No one could see us anyway.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasted countless hours in confinement due to my own compulsive habits, endlessly revising a single sentence, a passage of dialogue that I couldn’t quite understand. I focused on my word count, my step count, my exercise routine. Did I perform well on this Zoom? Did any of these writings make sense? I had no distractions from myself, my own elusive standards. And these standards have never seemed more unnecessary.
When I wonder – as I have done many times over the past few months as we take a peek in the world again – if I could ever relax the restrictions I set for myself so long ago, I come back to my thoughts on dancers, ballet. To stand in this studio marveling at the real dancers around me. But I remember the changes that are happening, that are happening now, even in the immense cultural institution that is ballet. Nearly 40 years ago, Gelsey Kirkland advocated, often at a high professional cost, for a better and wider range of roles for women. She resisted the ethereal female creatures of classical ballet – the “nymphs, swans, sleepwalkers, spirits”, demanding more complex and earthly female parts. It involved a call to end the rigidity of classical norms, fixed traditions and the domination of outdated gender representations.
It’s really only in recent years that we’ve seen the big changes in the ballet world – when it comes to body types and weight, internalized racism and colourism, the dominance of heterosexual narratives, and its own issues. Me Too). This calculation made me realize more than ever that the ideas I got from it as a girl were not about the ballet itself. Rather, they were ideas of femininity. Femininity as restriction, discipline, concealment, the pursuit of perfection and its costs. Perfection without effort.
A few months ago, when the vaccinations and the promise of spring seemed to come all at once, I sat down to watch the ballet. I was about to start promoting my new book, The participation, which focuses on two sisters who run a ballet school, and I wanted to do my homework, to immerse myself in this world. What I found myself coming back to the most were the videos of ballet performances in quarantine. Unbound by conventions and traditions that seemed to become demands or absolutes (proper ground, location, proximity to partners, traditional rehearsal times), the dancers I watched seemed to revel in freedom, illicit and uplifting. Dancers on grass, concrete, picnic tables and kitchen floors. In the squares and at the top of the fountains. In the backyards, masked, loose hair, bare feet. Smile, laugh, cry, dazzle us all. Messy, beautiful, imperfect, glorious and stronger than we could ever imagine. A force that beats perfection, that shatters it.