Angela Pickard roots this thought-provoking study in her own experience of ballet training, opening with a frank and vivid personal account of her absorption as child and teenager into the world of ballet practice, embracing her gradual embodiment as a ballet dancer.   Following a twenty year professional dancing career, now an academic she reflects on the formation of her own identity; the research that generated this book in addition to her own lived experience is a four year longitudinal study of adolescent ballet students as they develop in vocational schools in the north and south of England. Her ethnographic approach combining observation and interview draws largely on the testimonies of 12 young dancers as to their experiences of both pain and pleasure, in her desire to give a voice to their emerging senses of identity between the ages of 10 and 18 years.

Pickard’s book provides a welcome addition to a limited range of published research in this area. Despite much theoretical and physiological study of the body her searches have found little about the practical and sensuous reality of dancers’ embodiment, and little about the sociology of dancers in training and development.  Central to Pickard’s perspective is the body, “of paramount importance in ballet” (Pickard 2015, p6). She sees ballet as the pursuit of a particular ideal of bodily beauty and perfection, often through pain which is not simply endured but can even be courted as an indicator of doing ballet the right way.  In her introductory chapter she briefly sets out her view of ballet’s perceived aesthetic, the historic and even moral metaphors embedded in its verticality and seeming defiance of gravity.  She chooses to draw on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu as elucidated primarily in his major texts Distinction and The Logic of Practice to provide a framework to investigate how the established social world of ballet shapes both the dancer’s body and identity.

I would highly recommend the lucid summary and explanation of Bourdieu’s major concepts in Pickard’s second chapter as a lead into discussion of how these relate to the learning and habituation of dancers, and both the power and arguable limitations of Bourdieu’s views in this context. Bourdieu’s identification of “habitus”, and his analysis of how the body and social performance are shaped through repeated action speaks with particular resonance to the training of dancers, and their acquisition through ongoing classes not simply of physical and technical skills but the “hexis” of a dancer as revealed in demeanour, stance and gestural style.  Bourdieu’s concept of social and cultural capital arose from his exploration of social stratification in France as revealed through aesthetic preferences.  His notion of acquired capital, here both social and artistic, also has relevance as we follow through Pickard’s book the young dancers’ striving for acceptance and successful progress within a highly competitive environment.

Pickard continues her useful survey of relevant theory by identifying three dominant perspectives on the body. The “naturalistic body” view prevalent in much scientific research is based in the Cartesian dualism whereby the body is viewed as a machine or biological entity or object controlled by the mind, with much human behaviour seen as biologically determined. By contrast, social constructionists see the body as formed by social processes; here Pickard introduces the work of Michel Foucault, whose concept of the “docile body” has been much cited in feminist writings on dance. While acknowledging the insights provided by this discourse Pickard draws attention here to a tendency to generalise and ignore physical realities when it comes to the body in Foucault’s theoretical rather than empirical approach; leading neatly into her consideration of phenomenological approaches deriving from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, perception as shaped by bodily experience and action, the body as relational, both subject and object.

Pickard closes her survey of defining concepts with discussion of the idea of “natural talent”, applied to young dancers who had been selected for vocational training through audition processes; and flags up a view of talent held among teachers and parents in her research that implies that ballet is only for the chosen few. The debate about nature or nurture here becomes more political; citing research into the time needed to develop expert practice Pickard suggests that talent is less innate than the product of an “enabling environment” (Pickard 2015, p57). In following Bourdieu’s model of class distinction, she casts ballet’s world as potentially perpetuating a social hierarchy of superior bodies and excluding many children outside a white upper working or middle class background. To what extent is this conscious exclusion or a reflection of wider social circumstances and cultural perceptions of ballet that might inhibit its uptake by a more diverse population? I would have welcomed more detailed unpicking here too of how giftedness might be deemed evident in dancing ability rather than merely physical gifts.

Having established the theoretical terrain, in the following chapters Pickard looks more specifically at the experience of her subjects in their ballet training contexts; and while their quoted comments and those of their teachers have freshness and sometimes confronting authenticity, here I begin to question Pickard’s own viewpoint. While regularly citing the pressure to conform to the idealised ballet body it remains unclear what this is. Examples of body requirements include Balanchine urging Gelsey Kirkland to show more bones (ibid. p92), and Theophile Gautier’s view of the ideal feminine body (ibid. p112), both invoking shudders in the 21st century reader; yet these two very examples illustrate quite how much balletic ideals have shifted over time. What then do today’s ballet students surrounded by images of ripped muscles and hypermobility deem “beauty and perfection”? Recent advertising campaigns have likened the ballerina to both the thoroughbred horse and the high performance luxury car. How does this square with the pervasive essentially 19th century image that Pickard picks up on from her research as central to ballet’s aesthetic, the ballerina as feminine creature of fancy?

This opens up fundamental questions about the influence of balletic repertoire and dance content which here remain unexplored. Following Thomasen and Rist and Warren, Pickard defines schooling as the training of young dancers between 3 and 18 years that forms the Bourdieusian habitus; but does not expand on how schooling which informs the dancer through their entire performing life may also be understood as the encoding of distinct artistic discourses and evolving aesthetic preferences. Is it possible to comprehend the development of a ballet habitus – and the dancer’s potential agency to subvert it – without anchoring it in specific historical and artistic contexts? Pickard’s language and bibliography position her perspective on ballet as an athletic activity or sport: “The social world of classical ballet is a competitive one… as are many other arenas of sport, for example professional football” (Pickard 2015, p75); elsewhere young dancers are seen as assimilating a “a feel for the game… through full engagement with the rules” (ibid. p69). She draws little connection here with the training practices of other performing arts such as drama or music, and rarely talks of ballet as dancing, discussion of dance content and expressive intention eclipsed by emphasis on bodily look or physical sensation. While she is reporting and reflecting what seem to be prevalent attitudes in ballet vocational training establishments, her own area of theoretical enquiry and reading as evidenced in her extensive bibliography suggests this as a particular personal perspective. Is it therefore possible to talk generally of a “ballet world” or “the ballet aesthetic”?

Is ballet as a way of dancing inherently gendered? Contradictory arguments surface through the book. On the one hand Pickard contends that in addition to learning technique, young dancers in ballet class are engaged in “the performance of particular feminine and masculine identities” (Pickard 2015, p157), and that ballet perpetuates a hetero-normative presentation of gender: “The male role in ballet is a traditional one which represents the male dancer as athlete…“ (ibid. p104). Yet although male and female students are taught in separate classes at this stage, the vast majority of ballet class tasks are undertaken by all dancers, with more gender specific skills of virtuosity and partnering a later extension of technique, or worked on in separate sessions. Pickard herself elsewhere suggests that the class and ballet training can provide opportunities for male dancers to explore behaviours and dimensions of their personality such as the expression of emotion that might not be considered sufficiently masculine outside the dance studio. Female dancers nowadays are increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as athletes; if “Demonstrating athletic prowess is considered essential in establishing an ‘unambiguous, heterosexual male identity’ (ibid. p104, here Pickard cites texts by Gard, Brown and Risner), what does this suggest about the modern female ballet dancer’s identity? Similarly if the toleration of pain is an important part of the development of masculine identity (ibid. p106) what about the toleration of pain in female dancers? The idea that today’s female dancers might cultivate a more masculine physicality and identity is not discussed, although Pickard ultimately acknowledges that ballet’s gendered habitus is more complex and diverse than simply binary.

A significant section of the book is given to the study of pain, seen as an inevitable part of the experience of learning ballet: “Physical and emotional pain and suffering is generally accepted by the young dancers as a pre-requisite for success in striving for perfection.” (Pickard 2015, p81). Pickard draws attention here to concepts of positive and negative pain and the difficult task of learning to distinguish between them; “good” pain as evidence of virtuous hard work and effort, as opposed to “bad” pain as warning sign of injury. She sees the former as a notion constructed and encouraged in ballet’s training culture, leading to high levels of pain tolerance which may desensitize dancers to evidence of damage to their bodies. It would seem that some teachers see a certain level of pain as necessary for acquisition of a particular aesthetic. A quote from one teacher in this context “don’t let the pain win as your body can always do more” (ibid. p86) suggests an accepted current aesthetic of extremity where more is by definition better. While care of the body is seemingly promoted, Pickard acknowledges the mixed messages that these young dancers receive; and their recorded comments reveal their acceptance of physical pain as necessary in pushing and even crossing boundaries of what the body can do as they emulate high profile adult role models such as Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem and Carlos Acosta.

Beyond this general acceptance of pain as part of dancing the students’ experience of pain would seem to be more gendered. For the young male dancers pain is perhaps more weighted towards emotional and social suffering as a consequence of bullying and disapproval from peers and parents for whom ballet is alien and insufficiently masculine. For young female dancers pain is rooted more in the physical body; through the constraint of pointe shoes, and the constant surveillance of body weight leading to eating disorders in the attempt to shape the body to achieve a particular look. It could be argued that the cult of “skeletal hyperflexible ephemeral bodies” that Pickard identifies (ibid. p92), much documented in the late 1990s and early years of this century, is now giving way to a more athletic build of female dancer with androgynous muscular definition. It is also questionable to what extent white female audiences drive prevailing tastes in body shape (ibid. p92); what role might male choreographers (and potentially the wider culture of fashion) play here, where “’fat’ is ugly and weak” and “’thin’ is beautiful” (ibid. p93)? Pickard acknowledges the power of a normative valuing of thinness in the ballet profession and draws an apposite connection here to Foucault’s concepts of the useful and docile body, the practice of self examination, and notions of social control of the female body through its discipline and normalization as argued by Bordo.

Pickard’s final chapters discuss pleasure in dancing; a subject little examined in academic circles and yet an experience touchingly described by the young dancers, the pleasurable feelings of empowerment and escape through dancing of both male and female students, Pickard here referencing Barthes’ concept of jouissance, sensitively documented. Pickard’s interest is in how the physiological and sensuous pleasure derived from dancing interconnect with the psychological and social. Her discussion refers to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, and Freud’s counterbalancing pleasure and reality principles, but also registers the sensuality of dancers, the evidence of a culture of relaxed physical intimacy in the studio; although I wonder whether the suppression of arousal and sexual feelings here is as active and conscious as she suggests. Pickard continues with discussion of how ballet’s pleasurable experiences and sense of power can make pain worth bearing, leading to masochism and addictive attachment to the activity; for Pickard the eroticism of these complex relationships between pain and pleasure is embodied in ballet’s choreography, especially the pas de deux.

The virtues of this book lie in Pickard’s ability to draw on and lucidly explain the ideas of major thinkers which have shaped her understanding and analysis. She draws out the authentic testimonies and descriptions of personal experience of young dancers and their teachers; and she opens valuable debate about relatively unexamined and complicated attitudes towards the practice of ballet and how it is learned. But the volume also paints a disturbing picture of how ballet is understood by those who participated in the research, and how these young dancers appear to have been inculcated with a limited perception of it as an extreme and inherently painful physical activity.  Pickard clearly acknowledges the body as the focus of her research, conceptualising ballet as sport, with little consideration of its dimension as a performing art.  The elusive perfection sought by the young dancers and their teachers seems to be defined more in terms of the body rather than the dancing. But an approach that so privileges the physical aspect of the dancer’s experience and learning over their engagement with ballet as a body of artistic knowledge and means of expression, might be seen as a distortion. A less generalised and more precisely detailed situating of Pickard’s interpretation of her data in the context of the evolving artistic history of the form might have clarified the nebulous and contestable concept of the “ballet aesthetic”.  Pickard draws some sweeping conclusions about ballet’s culture from her analysis; I would rather consider this as a picture of one specific and hopefully passing phase in the transmission of ballet’s rich and nuanced tradition.

Susie Crow

5th September 2016

Pickard, Angela (2015)  Ballet Body Narratives: Pain, Pleasure and Perfection in Embodied Identity  Bern, Switzerland, Peter Lang

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