Classical ballet depends, perhaps more than any other art form, on perspective. Viewed from the back of a darkened balcony, choreography takes primacy, the combinations in the corps, the musicality of the manèges, the overall ambience. Audience members seated up close, by contrast, in the cushioned comfort of orchestra seats, experience a dramatically different performance, unable to ignore the physicality, the altitude of a grand jeté, the audacity of a lingering arabesque, the sweat, the heaving breaths, the grimaces and wide grins.
But it’s not just one’s visual perspective that matters in ballet. The personal viewpoints you bring to the theater — your lived experiences, education, beliefs, and biases — also influence what you see and feel. And so do the viewpoints of those creating what’s onstage: the dancers, choreographers, teachers, and ballet masters. Their perspectives are not always manifest to the audience, but they partner every step from the barre to the boardroom, from the first rehearsal to repertoire immortality. And according to Chloe Angyal’s incisive and unsparing new book, “Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself,” they need to change.
Angyal, an amateur dancer and former opinion editor at HuffPost, argues that ballet has been brought to the brink of extinction, or at least irrelevance, by a slavish devotion to perspectives and ideals that are outmoded and decades-old. The ballet world is “an ecosystem in crisis, made fragile and brittle by years of inequality and rendered dysfunctional by sexism, racism, elitism, and a stubborn disregard for the physical and mental well-being of the dancers who make the art form possible.”
It is a stark prognosis, and she covers a lot of ground — the lack of diversity in classes, companies, and choreography; the high price of ballet in dollars, time, and physical wear and tear; the ubiquitous designation of value by body type, by gender identity, by what is deemed ideal or desirable. Chapter titles, like “A Tolerance for Pain” or “Turnout and Burnout,” call on the broadest ballet stereotypes, dancers pushed to the breaking point and beyond, dancers pushed too fast too young, and so on. But while these topics may be easy targets for pop culture as well as professional critics, the fact is that they are pervasive.
None more so than eating disorders, which are highlighted so often when discussing ballet that they have “become emblematic of the art form,” Angyal writes. Yet it is even worse than that, she continues, with the young age at which dancers must commit, the intensely competitive nature of the dance world, and the continual striving for perfection all contributing to rampant “depression, anxiety, and burnout.”
Another entrenched problem is representation, from racial imbalances to rigid gender dynamics and disparities. “Ballet is a stronghold of white womanhood, a place where whiteness is the default and white femininity reigns supreme,” Angyal writes. Cultural imagination, racist tropes about Black women’s bodies, “the deep-seated association between Blackness and brute force,” and much more contribute to this ideation.
Beyond the systemic issues related to race, Black dancers face quotidian barriers, like the color of tights, that white dancers take for granted. Boston Ballet soloist Chyrstyn Fentroy, the “first Black woman to join the company in over a decade,” tells Angyal how something as simple as her hair style doesn’t always work within an aesthetic largely designed by a white creative team around the bodies of white women.
Lack of representation is also a problem for those choreographing dances. Boston Ballet’s ChoreograpHER program, launched in 2018, is cited as an example of positive steps being taken, but the initiative, which is designed to “[encourage] aspiring women choreographers to begin even earlier, holding choreographic workshops for students at Boston Ballet School,” has been scuttled this year and last by the pandemic.
Some chapters recount sadly familiar scandals — Peter Martins being forced out at New York City Ballet, Kathryn Morgan’s mistreatment both in New York and more recently in Miami, the bombshell case of three male NYCB dancers who were caught swapping explicit photos and videos of female dancers — but readers familiar with these stories won’t really learn anything new. And a late chapter on the pandemic, featuring two choreographers and four dancers, feels a bit tacked on, simply because “What I Did When the Pandemic Hit” stories are so well-trodden 14 months into “these trying times.”
While not every point raised is as irrefutable as it is presented, Angyal provides enough compelling evidence and makes enough strong arguments that the book is an important read for ballet lovers and an essential part of any conversation moving forward. Some of Angyal’s prescriptions, such as cross-gender casting and delaying the age that girls go on pointe, would fundamentally alter the art form; others, such as radically expanding diversity and inclusivity — from corps members to corporate suits — should be indisputable in 2021.
Angyal has written movingly elsewhere on the beauty of ballet and her hope that it will endure, but she eschews any easy encomiums here in favor of tough love. It is a plea not that ballet’s beauty will endure, but that its many harms will be consigned to the past.
TURNING POINTE: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself
By Chloe Angyal
Bold Type Books, 304 pages, $28
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.