Posted on February 28, 2017
February is my birthday month, so amongst cards and cake, I’ve been musing on aspects of age within ballet. Although I’m only in my mid-twenties, I have a little anxiety about getting older, and I think most dancers have a similar sensitivity. It’s silly and neurotic when you look at the wider media, where we’re brightly reassured that “50 is the new 40” and people today generally reach the traditional milestones of life at later ages than just a generation ago, but for the ballet dancer, you abruptly realise that you’ll be out of tights for far longer than you were ever in them.
Is the race against the clock an inherent part of ballet culture? Yes. In its Apollonian aspirations, ballet – certainly classical ballet – celebrates youthful beauty; nubile, supple flesh and all. Not for nothing should we recall that ballet’s first icon, Louis XIV, danced his most famous role at the age of 14. Thinking less flippantly, it’s desirable that young children begin to learn the rudiments of ballet before puberty if they’re considering a professional career, but does this physiological reason promote undertones of anxiety over our dancing lives? I can remember the sense of competition there was as a child about how many ballet lessons a week you were having, and the feeling of disappointment when other boys could begin to do double pirouettes in class before I’d even mastered a single. I’m sure it must be the same, if not worse, for girls when starting pointe work. Now I can see perfectly clearly that children simply develop at different rates, but perhaps those feelings remain with you? I wonder if the phenomenon of the “Baby Ballerinas” of the 1930s indicates anything beyond a marvelling at their prodigious skill? Certainly, professionals are always quietly aware that with each passing season, younger dancers capable of more extreme feats enter the dance world.
Maybe concerns with age are pure vanity and we should get over ourselves? Lots of performers transition from classical ballet and have a renaissance in other forms of dance: Sylvie Guillem and Wendy Whelan are just two that I could mention. I’m interested in Alessandra Ferri’s example. Paul Arrowsmith recorded Ferri’s “[impatience] with the notion that ballet is only about ‘pretty ballerinas expressing first love’” in September 2015’s Dancing Times. Ferri is astute; love and life does not simply stop at 30. It’s satisfying to see challenging ballet roles for older female dancers, being danced by older women. In April 2016, a television advert for Boots No 7 cosmetics was pertinent for juxtaposing two “versions” of Ferri. Her older self was striking for its confidence, highlighting the benefits that come with age. Each year spent dancing strengthens and matures you for the next. A dancer becomes less nervous, more nuanced and an example to that annual batch of neophytes entering a company – along these lines, dance critic Arlene Croce wrote in 1996 that the 38-year-old Kyra Nichols was “not a model for steps; she [was] a vision of dance.” Of course, Ferri and the rare ballerinas like her are the exception in being equipped with an instrument that still works eloquently past 40. The No 7 advert’s pithy tagline was: “Ready for More”; how many ballet dancers get to their late thirties wondering if they need less?
The perennial question for a ballet dancer in social gatherings is usually, “How long is your career?” The sardonic response I keep to myself is always, “Well, how long is a piece of pointe shoe ribbon?” The frustrating truth is once you’ve matured enough mentally to take full command of your body and technique, your instrument begins to deteriorate; the length of a dancer’s career is just an aggregate of the luck they’ve had during their dancing days. For women, there are perhaps deeper concerns related to the additional ticking of their own biological clock – reconciling a desire to have a family and dance is a discussion that needs more attention. Similarly, a dancer may find themselves being the carer for an aging family member – how possible is it to remain on your toes in this circumstance?
I want to return to Arlene Croce’s comments about Kyra Nichols in Croce’s 1996 essay, “Our dancers in the Nineties”. Croce makes a glittering observation that, for me, sums up what keeps dancers going as they advance in years: “Nichols has now reached the privileged moment in a dancer’s career when she is doing less and giving more… the crowning achievement of a lifetime in dance.” Though the daily routine of coaxing your body to meet the demands of classical ballet become harder as you age, moments on stage, such as the ones Croce saw in Nichols, become more frequent. In my own experience, I can describe it as suddenly becoming aware that you’re being watched by an audience, and instead of it making you nervous, as it would have done in previous years, this knowledge grounds you and suddenly you’re more in the music than you ever had been. The rest is bliss – not a divine, ecstatic bliss – but a calm, measured satisfaction that you got the most out of that instance. In our own small ways, I believe each dancer is trying to reach that moment, in however many years it takes.
Pictured: Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in The Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works. Photograph: TRISTRAM KENTON, courtesy of the ROYAL OPERA HOUSE.