Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself
Australian journalist Chloe Angyal’s Turning Pointe delves into the many troubling issues that have been pervasive in classical ballet companies in the US. From the start of their professional careers, ballet dancers are routinely subjected to “corrections” by company teachers, ballet masters, and directors on technique, physiques, competitiveness, and deportment.
Angyal’s targets “the gatekeepers” of the art form concerning pervasive issues including racial inequities, sexual harassment, body-shaming, and a litany of other workplace issues that have evolved unchecked for generations.
This prospectus is a long overdue at a critical time in the dance industry and venues almost universally shut down for almost a year because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Angyal’s a critical analysis to the state of the dance arts is in how dire and desperate lifestyle of rigorous physical, mental and emotional stress it involves every dance step of the way. Professional ballet schools are expensive, matriculation into elite pre-professional apprentice status, and getting a contract with a company is not assured. If a ballet dancer gets one, they there are other pressures that rival that of professional sports without the big paychecks.
Chapter by chapter Angyal investigates how dancers surmount these issues that directly affect their art and their livelihoods. Classically trained dancers on an elite enough level to be company members have already devoted their lives to an art form but still must struggle make a living. These problems persist because it is an insular world, and ballet companies often get away with keeping these issues out of the public eye, behind the curtain of making art. Things are changing for the better in many cases, but not across the board as industry standards. Unless they are top stars, they are in a hierarchal system that has little voice to change a system that doesn’t always work in their best interests.
The book surveys the common issues that many dancers confront and must either accept or leave, the most pressing addresses the persistence of “The Hidden Curriculum,” in which Angyal examines how aspiring ballerinas are too often groomed to be subservient to teachers, choreographers, artistic directors, and sponsors.
Dancers are used to body-to-body contact in partnering and ensemble groupings, and the lines, and for a choreographer, teacher, or partner with other things in mind, namely inappropriate touching or grabbing, can cross an often-blurred line about what is off limits. And hidden behind the curtain are incidents such as sexual harassment, against women and men, which has not been uncommon in the industry. Major ballet companies still program whole seasons without any women choreographers on the roster.
As Angyal notes, ballet companies still hire mostly male artistic directors and male choreographers still dominate the field. Even after many ballet companies stopped ordering women to stay rail thin to maintain the balletic “line,” the practice still exists, many directors and company teachers just use euphemisms to get the message across: lose weight or you’re out.
In the chapter “The Unbearable Whiteness of Ballet” Angyal dissects the industry’s constant exclusion of hiring Black and brown ballet dancers or sidestepping the issue through tokenism. The exclusion of ballerinas of color has been a damaging reality that it is overtly racist.
In her chapter “Dance Like a Man” the author examines how gay boys and men are bullied outside the studio in a culture that tags the art form as unmanly. The ballet world has always had gay men at the center of it. Dance is art and it is absurd that it has to project perception of hetero-normative outside of a character they are playing. And in fact, new generations of gay and lesbian dancers are not remaining in the professional closet.
Angyal interviews many dancers who are frank about their experiences. Many dancers are willing to put their careers on the line to affect changes in the status quo. Angyal believes that new generations of dance artists and choreographers will push to change the industry, even as the gatekeepers of establishment ballet will be slow to respond. As audiences become more aware of what has gone on behind the scenes for decades in ballet companies, the powers that be in ballet can ignore these problems at their own companies’ peril, is perhaps overstating it.
At this crucial time the industry at large tries to recover from a year of shutdown and a longstanding erosion of public and private funding. All the issues have seemed to have reached an inflection point in the wake of the new generations that want change; and there are many companies making statements about inclusion, equality, and diversity—but not all of them are following through.
Of course, there have been initiatives to address many of the ills of the industry. Some companies making meaningful changes across the board, other by fits and, but with little sustained follow through. Angyal’s Turning Pointe is a vital industry manifesto for a new era in ballet.