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Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection: Deirdre Kelly…

December 11, 2012

Book Keey

If dance history is of interest to you then so will Deirdre Kelly’s Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering behind the Symbol of Perfection. Ms. Kelly goes into detail about what ballerinas throughout history have had to endure to simply be able to practice their art. She examines the demands placed on women from the beginning of ballet by a patriarchal society with sever expectations.

Ms. Kelly brings to light the role men have had in the defining of what “is ballet” based on their own, sometimes unrealistic, expectations. From ballet’s beginning as a courtly art…the ballerina has expected to embody aristocratic ideals of deployment, dignity and culture. She was placed above the ordinary world via the use of the pointe shoe, a goddess that did not walk the Earth like mortal men.

We see the suffering of the corps-de-ballet of the 19th century dancers as we are allowed backstage of the Paris Opera. The ballet patrons coming from the rich and privileged who felt certain entitlements were due based on their social positions. There was a dichotomy between the reality of the ballerina’s daily survival and the ballerina as the ideal woman that was portrayed in the great romantic ballets in vogue at that time.

Emma Livery in Le Papillon, Paris, 1861 Photographer Unkown

Emma Livery in Le Papillon, Paris, 1861 Photographer Unkown

Through the Jockey Club de Paris whose members were wealthy entrepreneurs, ballerinas were traded like prized race horses, from one patron to the next. Most ballerinas came from the poor, that social class for whom starvation was a reality of life and these women saw ballet as their ticket out of poverty. These wealthy patrons were sometimes, though savage, a ticket to salvation.

In Chapter Three, Bonfire Ballerinas, we are exposed to the harsh and dangerous work environment of the ballet world. Long hours of practice, the performances, the ever present danger of the gas lights that were employed before electricity and dancers hoisted into the air on ropes with no protection what so ever of falling.

Emma Livry, the protégé of Marie Taglioni, was at the time  enjoying great success, died a very long and suffering death. Just before she was to go on stage her long tutu caught fire from a gas light. She was to perform the role created for her by Ms. Taglioni, Le Papillon. Running hysterically onto the stage she was described by a witness as resembling a human torch.

In this book we find this belief of an idealized femininity not as romantic as it would seem. Sometimes it took more than hours of rehearsals and talent to obtain someone else’s vision of the perfect ballerina. George Balanchine idealized ballerina was tall, long limbed and narrow hipped with a high arched foot. In the dance world Mr. B is known for his genius but not so much for his tyranny. So influential was Mr. B. that this is now the common imagery when the word ballerina is mentioned. Sometimes, in order to obtain this vision it would led to sever behavior and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.

Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection gives us glimpses into the world of ballet and it’s dancers in a bold way. Ms. Kelly gives us powerful examples of some of the greatest ballerinas in the world, Evelyn Hart, Gelsey Kirkland and Suzanne Farrell. We see the struggle, the pain and the sacrifice that ballet has claimed not just in the past, but in the present as well. This is an easy book to read, one that you will fall into with pleasure, I did…

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist, author, and internationally recognized dance critic for Dance Magazine, the Dance Gazette, and the Globe and Mail, where for sixteen years she was the paper’s dance critic on staff. A contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and the online arts group, she is the author of the bestselling memoir Paris Times Eight. Her articles on dance have also appeared in Elle, Vogue, Chatelaine, and Saturday Night. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children. More about Deirdre Kelly at

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