Is classical Ballet the last bastion of outmoded values?

Beginning this ballet season, companies will again perform stories of old-world tradition in escapist convention—a fantastical neverland of aesthetic pleasure. However, in our post-9/11 world we must ask ourselves how much longer can we continue to ignore the obvious vices of the ballet world and carry on to see classics such as The Nutcracker, Firebird, or Cinderella on basis of tradition? We need to ask ourselves as we sit back and continue to watch: are these stories for our time?

Across the art form, national, ethnic, and racial stereotypes not only persist but are alive and well.  Performing as a courtesan in the corps de ballet (of course as a typical classically trained ballet dancer, I did not even think twice of how odd it was to be portraying a prostitute on stage at age fifteen), I did not ponder the actual story I was telling whilst performing. I did not even think twice of the comical depiction of Turkish Muslims at prayer because it was not a statement—it was just a variation within the ballet. It is such a widely performed ballet that this scene is accepted and expected for comic relief.  However, if you pause to think, where else but in the imaginary world of ballet would it be okay to have Muslims be portrayed for comedy merely because they are Muslims?  In spite of the ballet’s obvious racist undertones it is one of the most widely recognized and performed ballets. In fact, American Ballet Theater, typically considered the world’s most prestigious ballet company, just finished its spring season of Le Corsaire.

When I actually analyzed the stories I was performing, I began to realize that the only thing ballet treats seriously is spectacle and frivolity. Seeing a production like Le Corsaire, you begin to feel that ballet is the only art form that has bypassed the whole period in world affairs since September 11th, 2001.  Where but in ballet is it acceptable to mimic Muslims at prayer? There is an obvious lack of sensitivity towards diversity.  Ballet is of course so much more than a white art form but traditional performances seem to suggest otherwise.

I am not trying to be overly politically correct (we all have to deal with that enough on a daily basis). I am merely, as a former ballet dancer, trying to understand the complete lack of any modern influence that has changed all art forms—including literature, cinema, and art—over the years. And a change could perhaps do the ballet world some good. One just has to look at the popularity of a television program such as So You Think You Can Dance? that confronts problems like racism in its dances, versus the financial bankruptcy of and lack of attendance to most classical ballet companies around the world.  There is a complete lack of originality in ballet that needs to be addressed. The ballet world should take heed of companies such as the Atlanta Ballet who are performing new works like last year’s Moulin Rouge versus the old Russian classics.

Dance needs to be something we can all believe in again. It should be centered in modernity as a reflection of the masses and society as a whole. No longer can we ignore the harmful effects of escapism and use it for mere fantastical and aesthetic pleasure. While I may be idealistic, I do believe ballet could have the ability to transcend, be cathartic, and change the world for the better.  But we need to create stories outside of the traditional ballet studio. We need to create stories for our generation, and we need a new ballet for our time.


Natalie Ulman


Image credit- Rdikeman