I don't have the greatest standing to gripe about unfair ballet reviews. My involvement with ballet is limited to occasionally wincing at the insipid headlines of ballet reviews in the Times. Case in point: "Voodoo, Vivid Colors and Strange Visions."
Ballet, it seems, just doesn't matter, until you call a prima ballerina like Jenifer Ringer fat
. One of those reviews I'm so fond of ignoring did that -- and did the impossible: It got people talking about ballet. It was Alastair Macaulay's review, published on November 28, of the New York City Ballet's production of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
The problem is that the conversation Macaulay inadvertently started
has centered on his describing one of the dancers as kind of fat. He wrote that the dancer, Jenifer Ringer (above), "looked as if she'd eaten one sugarplum too many."
The uproar online in Jenifer Ringer's defense, driven in part by Ringer's previous struggles with anorexia, was shouty enough that Macaulay addressed it in a follow-up column on December 3, in which he defended his right to call Ringer fat.
When I saw that Macaulay stood behind comments, which to me seemed gratuitous and mean, I wondered, "Is this man a miserable sexist pig?" Having read through his response, the answer is, "Not really."
His comment about her weight may have been weird, and his defense misguided, but Macaulay is not a monster. First, he does not exclusively target women with his weight comments. He has thrown similar stones at men, so his judgments are not sexist. Second, he has, he claims, also pointed out when ballerinas were too skinny. This suggests some sensitivity on his part to the toll that body-image issues can take on ballerinas.
All of that aside, his rationale for dropping the fat-bomb is pretty thin soup. The gist of his reasoning is that, since we look at Picasso's paintings, not his body, comments about Picasso's body are not relevant, but, we do see ballerinas' bodies when they dance, so, regardless of what they're doing on-stage, if they are not rail-thin, it's fair to call them big fat pigs.
Ballerinas are skinny, and that's just the way it is and the way it has to be or we're all going to die, he suggests, when, in fact, that's the way it is for some people
. Also, if your defense is, 'That's the way it is,' it would be nice to offer a rationale for the status quo -- or maybe even to, you know, dare to critique it -- rather than accepting it at face value and using it as a bully pulpit from which to call people fat. Perhaps t'was ever so with ballerinas, but is that the way it must always be?
Before poking some holes in Macaulay's non-mea culpa, I can think of two scenarios where criticizing a dancer's weight would be fair: when the performer's physical condition impairs his or her ability to dance (not the case with Ringer), or when a performer's body-type is an important component of the character they inhabit on stage. Macaulay would be right to complain if Ringer were playing the role of a concentration camp inmate, for example, but she wasn't.
But Macaulay's main argument, as laid out in his response, is wrong-headed. He proclaims that experimentation with casting and body types is anathema to the idea of ballet. They are creative tools he snatches off the table. Macaulay's is a ballet that doesn't bend in the face of innovation, it breaks. He fails to see that art forms that can't play nice with innovation cease to be art forms. Maybe he would be better suited to critiquing soap operas.
Macaulay may protest, "Ringer wasn't cast against type. Her jiggling was distracting, not innovative."
That is true. Ringer was not cast for that role because she had a fuller figure than the average ballerina, but this protest misses the point. The point is that, underlying his charge of obesity is the notion that all ballerinas have to look a certain way, when in reality that rule is one that a ballet director follows at his or her peril.
The irony is that Macaulay himself points to the problems with his case.
"To be overweight is not to be a bad dancer. [Another dancer] at his largest has often been a sensational performer
. I have heard an audience snort with laughter as he arrived onstage and then be awestruck by the brilliance of his dancing."
Macaulay, in explicitly conceding the distinction between body-type and artistic achievement, is his own best critic. At the risk of stating what should be obvious, it's his take on the latter that matters most to his readers and the ballet community. He should leave the insults to the peanut gallery.
Stephen Kosloff has never danced in a corps de ballet, but he is a freelance writer and photographer who has written for The New York Times, Gawker, Time Out New York, the New York Post, and The Cambodia Daily. His photographs have been published by The New York Times, Interview Magazine, Paper Magazine, Gawker, CNN, Huffington Post, Time Out New York, Media Bistro, Brooklyn Vegan, Organizing for America and Resource Magazine.
And, in meantime, Jenifer Ringer responded to the accusations on the Today Show: See the video here.