U.S. Ballerinas Redefine an Art, but What About History?

July 7th, 2013

Sam Falk/The New York Times

The ballerina Maria Tallchief, in 1954.

Can you have ballet without ballerinas? Yes. In the 18th century, women were the second sex in Western theater dance. Though some female stars were called “queens” of dance, men were known as “gods.”

Yet for the last two centuries, mainly since the establishment of female point work, the ballerina has been the quintessence of ballet. On toe, she stands at the heart of this disquietingly, often thrillingly, sexist genre, the queen bee at the apex of this highly hierarchical art; she is partnered but does not partner. And, as she matches music with movement, she shows how the immense scale of ballet can turn musicality into a vastly three-dimensional form.

But that’s not all. For many people, a ballerina must also be an embodiment of the Old World. Today that opinion seems shared by American Ballet Theater, whose idea of ballet theater often seems none too American. In its eight-week season, which just concluded at the Metropolitan Opera House, only 2 of its 11 principal women were from this country. The younger of them, Gillian Murphy, is reaching the zenith of her powers; but would she be more revered if — following the practice of Hilda Munnings (Lydia Sokolova), Lilian Alicia Marks (Alicia Markova) and Peggy Hookham (Margot Fonteyn) — she changed her name to Ghislaine Muravieva and claimed to come from Omsk?

To some, an American ballerina has always been a virtual contradiction in terms. The original Italian word “ballerina” just means “female dancer,” but it has become encrusted with layers of mysticism — primarily through the idolization accorded in Russia to ballet’s divas since the 19th century. But to be American is to be ornery, direct, unaffected. Is it possible to be American and this exotic dance vision of transcendence? Can a ballerina represent local or national characteristics in her dancing?

The questions pile up. Does the 21st century even need ballerinas? America is one of many Western societies where women fight for equality in the workplace and can no longer expect men to stand when they enter a room; same-sex marriages are now institutionalized. Ballet had a beginning; it may have an end. In particular, the practice of dancing on point may one day seem as bizarre as the bygone Chinese practicing of binding women’s feet. Do we still need an art form whose stage worlds are almost solely heterosexual and whose principal women are shown not as workers but as divinities?

I ask these questions; I don’t rush to answer them. The future of the form is to be determined not by critics but by choreographers, artistic directors and, not least, by dancers, working together. The answers they are currently providing show us a complex situation for ballet and its women.

Just now there are at least 11 prodigious American-born young women dancing in six different American companies, who deserve to be called ballerinas. Let’s name some. Certainly, Ms. Murphy is one — yet what woman today more completely illustrates the contradictions of “American” and “ballerina”? She’s a resplendent technician, and yet the large shapes she cuts in the air have no special linear refinement. She can be uneasy about taking the audience into her imagination, yet as the heroines of Frederick Ashton’s “Dream” or Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” she loses herself impetuously. This season she’s been casting off her inhibitions and entering her prime. As the huntress heroine of Ashton’s “Sylvia,” she’s glorious first in chastity and then in ebullient love.

New York City Ballet has several candidates. Ashley Bouder, Maria Kowroski, Janie Taylor and Wendy Whelan are mature dancers but part-time ballerinas — extraordinary artists in only parts of their repertory. The ascent of Sterling Hyltin, Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck and Teresa Reichlen, however, has been of another order.

They specialize in the repertories of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins; a number of new roles have also been created for them. In the full-length “Swan Lake,” Ms. Mearns has also become one of the greatest interpreters of the double role of Odette-Odile — she’s the most powerfully Romantic classicist in dance today — while as the heroine of “The Sleeping Beauty,” Ms. Hyltin, with her marvelous way of enlivening a realm onstage with her eager attention, is one of the few important Auroras of the last 30 years.

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