Written by Mitch Skiles on December 10, 2012 in Culture
The orchestra, held in fermata, waits patiently on edge as the woman spins en pointe. The man, providing balance, holds time an innocent captive from its audience. At last the symphony falls, collapsing the ethereal state with one conclusive chord. She follows its lead, but maintains an aura of lightness as her turn comes to its final repose. Silence, for only a moment, rests peacefully over the theatre, soon broken by the plaudits of its unsuspecting witnesses. The man briefly accepts the acclamation, but just as quickly passes the recognition to his companion, raising her spirit as he had raised her body. In the next instance he regresses to the shadows of the stage, leaving the woman to accept with grace the esteem of her audience; she the embodiment of a human art-form.
It is with great pleasure I had the opportunity to bear witness to such a scene of masculine dignity, an unfortunate rarity in the modern world. How is it that such chivalry has survived through the classic art of ballet? The essence of art tends to suspend the gaze of humanity in a refined reflection of itself; if only shrouded in a thinning, but pure, aesthetic film. Age does not often play kindly with beauty. And now society has lowered itself to pass aesthetics for naught, concerned presently with the search for a simple reflection.
The distinction between the artwork of popular culture—given its strength by the dominant ideology of a social majority—and the natural aesthetic of the fine arts is not so much what is being reflected but rather, to what extent that reflection is veiled in aesthetic value. Ballet is not an explicit medium of sociocultural extensions but an art-form of universal emotion in human movement. This masking aesthetic leaves a disconcerted reflection of modern culture but discreetly reveals a historic arc of social identity.
When America entered the nineteenth century as an independent nation, it lacked the cultural credibility of holding an authentic American art. The public entertained themselves by attending theatre productions, slowly growing the cultural identities of major urban centers such as Boston and New York. European dancers brought Romantic ballet to America in an effort to emerge their art in the growing theatre districts. By the 1840s, ballet had become a common evening affair as a primary source of entertainment for American theatergoers. Critics scorned the European infection in American art, claiming the dance a moral crisis linking the New World to the Old World evils it fought so valiantly to escape. But no longer were the arts controlled by the bourgeoisie. America was democratic and the people demanded ballet hold a stage in their theaters.
Critics soon accepted the inevitability of ballet joining with the American stage and turned their focus from political ideology to critiques of ballet’s feminine degradation and gender roles. Women were criticized for their lack of concealing attire worn in productions, woefully corrupting the men who built the country on strong moral principles. How can men productively maintain a stable democratic-republic if they are subjected to the erotic desires of their biology, perpetuated by a growing American art? Further, if women must dance, what role shall they partake, if not objects of affection?
The duality in the critics claims is disconcerting. America claimed its freedom from an oppressive European monarchy. The freedom and independence produced the American individual. Claiming that ballet was somehow simultaneously relegating the roles of women and propelling America back to its European descent, while allowing women to become leading social figures is conflicting. The critics conservative morality was pushing women further from freedom. Moreover, few critics ever considered the traditionally European operas and plays being staged in American theaters a threat to American nationalism. Yet ballet was somehow an exception.
Critics understood that ballet was a certain threat to the American culture, though they concealed the true victim behind their trenchant presumptions of moral instability. Nineteenth century America worked under the cult of domesticity. All men were created equal. That is, men ran society, held public office, and controlled the land and finances. Women were confined to the household. The true fear of male critics was that ballet would threaten the inherent position of women in patriarchal America.
Ballet was developed during the fifteenth century Renaissance as entertainment for nobility but it drastically evolved in the 1800s with the coming of Romanticism. This brought new techniques, particularly pointe, that allowed the dance to become a revitalized form of classic art. Romantic ballet transformed the responsibility of men and women in performances, emphasizing the primary role of a production as one played by a woman. In 1832 the ballet La Sylphide premiered in France and showcased a female lead, becoming a precedent of relegating masculine ballerinas to the role of feminine support.
This new form of ballet blanc idealized the art of movement, revealing purity and idolizing beauty. Women, adorned in white, gracefully graze the surface of the stage en pointe as if divinely hovering over the surface of a less pure Earth. Dance provided nineteenth century women with an independence and a stage for a public display of their emotion, grievances and righteousness.
Classically trained men humbled themselves to enhance the images the women portrayed, leading new roles as supporters—aiding lifts and turns—and providing balance. Masculinity, the focal point of nineteenth century American culture, no longer had control of this growing American art-form. The power of beauty and purity, through ballet, became a social impetus of gender identity and reform which instilled fear in the critic’s pen.
American critics, fearing public corruption from promiscuity, did recognize that ballet, in some regards, objectifies women as characters of beauty and affection. Man’s erotic desire, cleverly tempted by the innocence of purity, risks moral corruption at the sight of dance. But the public saw beyond the risks of such moral indignity, praising Ballet—despite its hypocrisy—for its rare beauty. As the dancers, male and female, enter the stage, no longer are they simple reflections of men and women, but elements of a larger aesthetic. Romantic ballet found order in a cultural chaos.
Nearing the end of the nineteenth century, women abolitionists saw their efforts had enhanced the social standing of past slaves and turned their efforts towards their own freedom. Ballet had become a true American art and its role for women gave credence to feminine professionalism, igniting the women’s movement. Ballet displayed a productive and beautiful representation of co-gender reliance and cooperation at the sacrifice of the cult of domesticity.
When man and woman enter the stage to share a dance, one is able to see a perfect balance of role and identity. Amidst the chaos of falling music and pirouettes, man and woman create a self-identified harmony, bringing order and gracefulness to the chaos. In his strength, man supports woman, becoming the foundation of their expressive beauty. Woman, accepting man’s strength and purpose, is lifted to a higher state of expression. Through him, she is able to progress the story of the dance.
What I noticed in ballet—the point of inflection that ordered chaos into beauty—revealed the flaw in man and woman’s understanding of social behavior. When the dance was done, the man humbly took his bow, recognizing the importance of his strength, but gracefully left the stage for woman to receive the applause. This profound respect man had for his partner is the very piece that societal man fails to grasp. In ballet, the man knew his strength and ability but did not abuse the power it had the potential to become. He took that which was given to him by birth to enhance the woman to do that which would be impossible without his effort. She, lacking his strength, was awarded the praise of the audience to counter the differences of man and woman. What was valued in their roles—strength and beauty—were equal in weight, a balance of the things that make man and woman unique. They found equality amongst their differences.
Art, in its aesthetic guise, has the power to transcend its cultural reflection and take with it the best of humanity. Its beauty has the power to hold the sacredness of life eternal and provide an ideal reflection of pure human spirit. Ballet brought to America a certain dignity for men and women. It established the role of the sensual woman, no longer subject to man’s erotic desire. Ballet demonstrated the power of man to forgo his biology and find balance with women in a prolific symbiotic relationship. The art has survived the grasp of time and continues to show through its aesthetic veil the power of coexistence and equality. Where there is humanity, there is chaos, but when there is balance, the chaos can be tamed.
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