There is no simple answer to the question: What makes a ballerina? For all that the ballerina is an archetype of idealised femininity, she changes over time. By looking at these images, we can see changes that have taken place in dance, in women’s lives and to women’s bodies in the last 60 years. What makes a ballerina depends on when you’re asking.
Meet Margot Fonteyn and Misty Copeland.
Margot was born in 1919; Misty in 1982 — at both ends of the century. The images here represent classical ballet at the height of its prestige and as it is today. They were around the same age when the photographs were taken: Margot was 35, Misty 33.
There are few images of Margot in colour. Most photographs of her were taken to be printed in books, newspapers and theatre programs at a time when colour printing was prohibitively expensive. We see her most often in black & white, and the image here displays a beautiful use of chiaroscuro.
She is in costume as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, wearing a classical tutu and an un-ironic tiara in her hair. The low arabesque traces a graceful downward line from right hand to left foot, matched by the downward gaze. The pose denotes nobility and restraint, aristocratic values for an artform derived from the court.
By contrast, there are few images of Misty in black & white. In this image, it is the colour of her skin that matters most. We also cannot fail to notice her lean musculature and athleticism. She is caught in a neo-classical leap that Margot would never have executed — least of all in her bra and knickers.
Misty’s jump suggests power, elevation and abandon. It is the product of virtuosity and effort. It shows how female dancers are now trained to develop their full capacity of strength, flexibility and force and, in turn, this points to our changed expectations of the female body.
We have moved away from the old imperial, elitist values in favour of diversity and egality. Misty looks like America today, as she says on her website. Margot’s form of idealised femininity is a princess. Misty’s is a warrior.
What links both women is their participation in the balletic tradition. Misty will start her Monday morning class at the barre in 1st position, ready to do pliés, just as Margot did, just as dancers do and have done all over the world for 200 years. What makes a ballerina can be answered in part by each new generation’s quest for ballet’s beauty. What makes a ballerina is the remaking of beauty, again and again, endlessly renewed.