Sarah Sands: Do we really want friends and family to be our ballet critics?

Share
Related Topics

It was not chivalrous of Alastair Macaulay, the British dance critic of
The New York Times, to write that Jenifer Ringer, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, looked overweight in The Nutcracker. To say that a woman with a history of bulimia and anorexia looked as if she had had "one plum too many" as the Sugar Plum Fairy showed an undeniable emotional insensitivity. The incident coincides with the imminent release of Black Swan, a film about the grotesque physical demands made on dancers, and with a wave of ballet mania. So Macaulay's remark has hit black ice in front of a mass audience. As Natalie Portman, star of Black Swan, asked rhetorically: "In whatever other fields is it acceptable to judge artists by how big they are?"

Of course, Macaulay is absolutely in the right. If critics must judge according to the self-esteem of the performers rather than the merits of the production, then there is no point in publishing. Friends and family can write the reviews. Portman is wrong. Ballet is the one art form where it is absolutely relevant to discuss the physical make-up. If it does not matter what a dancer looks like, why not just listen to ballet on the radio instead?

Jenifer Ringer issued a dignified response, acknowledging that "my body is part of my art form" and that "I do have, I guess, a more womanly type than the stereotypical ballerina".

Are dancers, like models, victims of a distorted view of physical beauty? I don't think so. Last summer, I watched the Bolshoi ballet rehearse in Moscow and their shapes were mostly what distinguished the stars from the chorus. There was no room for hurt feelings in that room. Entire careers were scotched by a dismissive nod of the head: legs too short, lines imperfect, not swift enough, tall enough, beautiful enough. Top dancers are like racehorses: no one suggests allowing a cart horse to race at Ascot to make it feel better. Excellence is exhilarating but it is not kind.

Sometimes a dancer can, excitingly, break through despite imperfection. I watched the male wonder of the Bolshoi, Ivan Vasiliev, dance opposite the female star Natalia Osipova at the Royal Opera House. She was physically breathtaking, he so despite his physical sturdiness and low centre of gravity. The other dancers could not match the couple's dazzling charisma but could at least be thin.

Ringer consoled herself by saying that Macaulay's was "just one person's opinion". That may be true, but unfortunately it is the person whose opinion weighs most. However frustrated and furious performers are to be judged by someone who could not do their job, that is the deal. Some people dish it out; others have to take it.

The judgements may seem subjective to the point of absurd. For instance, the production of A Flea in Her Ear that opened at the Old Vic last week was ardently praised by some critics and damned by others. But integrity and intensity of response is the critic's gift. And it is the critics who bring in the audiences as well as putting them off. Look at how evangelical they have been about the RSC's musical Matilda.

On Thursday, I went to see Matthew Bourne's radical Cinderella at Sadler's Wells. It was packed – Matthew Bourne is a feted figure in dance, partly thanks to to the encouragement of the critic Alastair Macaulay. It works both ways. So you cannot have your cake and eat it. Especially if you are playing the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron addresses No campagn supporters in Aberdeen  

Scottish independence: Cameron faces a choice between destroying his country or his party

Matthew Norman
Fighters from Islamic State group sit on their tank during a parade in Raqqa, Syria  

Islamic State: Assad lures Obama into his web

Robert Fisk
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week