oan Acocella, The New Yorker's long-standing dance critic, came
to UC Berkeley in February for a few panel discussions, a talk with undergraduates, a conversation with choreographer Trisha Brown,
and a lecture. I could not miss hearing the renowned critic expound on an unusual topic like "Ballet and Sex". She looked (and sounded) like
an expatriate from Rome, dark, with strong features and sharp eyes, a small wiry body and a very chic bob haircut.
With wry humor, Acocella immediately corrected the title
of her lecture: she was going to discuss the presentation of the ballerina's crotch. Naming her lecture "Ballet and the Female Crotch", might have crossed a line. Crossing a
line was indeed what Acocella set out to do, in a nervously halting delivery as if she had too many words in her head and could not easily make up her mind which to choose.
Classical ballet's demand that every ballerina lift her legs up to her ears, presenting her crotch to the spectators from every angle, is a
fascinating aspect of an art that has maintained its idealized status as "high art" while the audience is sneakily invited to enjoy the
voyeuristic, fetishistic, soft-porn aspects cultivated by this art. (The male crotch, of course, might deserve its own lecture.) This obvious
contradiction between the lofty and the lewd seems to have existed from the start. Striptease, writes Francine du Plessix Gray in "Dirty Dancing" (The New Yorker, Feb. 28, 2005), "begins with classical
dance, which played a major role in eventually making nudity respectable. Wearing the diaphanous gowns of early-nineteenth-century Romantic Ballet, the French ballerina Francisixque Hutin and
the Italian Marie Taglioni caused a brouhaha on both sides of the Atlantic by displaying their calves through pirouettes and fouettés, at a time when only prostitutes exhibited their ankles."
The ballet skirt was for centuries the essential erotic accessory for veiling and unveiling the female body: the skirt got shorter and
shorter until by the nineteen-eighties it had shrunk to the classical "tutu" ballet's own invention. The tutu stands off the hips or waist of
the ballerina with dense layers of stiff, projecting gauze or tulle ruffles that resemble a carnation. The tutu usually bounces up and down
right above the place where the dancer's thighs meet, making sure ballet never gets boring. The naughty French (who also invented the
Cancan) must have been the culprits, as the word comes from "cucu", the French nursery word for "cul" - the buttocks, behind, or ass.
A tutu is every innocent dance girl's dream; nobody tells her what the tittering and trembling tulle petals of her skirt evoke when she leaps or lifts a leg to her ear. She never sees herself in one of the favorite
movements in classical ballet that has the male dancer "promenade" her in a slow circle while she stands on one leg in a high arabesque: When she has her back to the
audience nothing of her is visible but her two spread legs with her crotch served up on the stiff plate of her tutu. What all this means reaches comical heights when the male
partner lifts her onto his shoulders, where she gracefully crosses her legs and raises her head toward eternity, while her partner's head has disappeared under her skirt!
I have studied classical dance myself, and I still cringe or chuckle at such moments in ballet when the sublime meets the ridiculous...and the obscene.
Acocella did not mention the tutu in her brief historical overview of crotch exposure. She explained that in the 19th century, the focus
shifted from male to female dancers, who tended to be sought-after concubines. Ballet became the feminine art par excellence, anatomically enhanced by the fact that women's hips can turn out
further than men's and their legs therefore lift in those thrilling ways.
Until about the fifties, however, dancers did not raise their legs to more than the 45 to 90 degree angle, and a very tasteful ballerina like
Margot Fonteyn maintained this reticence into the seventies - which made her dancing seem tame by comparison with the "high" legs all
around her. To demonstrate the progress of leg extension, Acocella followed Balanchine's progress as a choreographer who, she said,
"celebrated pelvic power". She showed an excerpt of his 1929 ballet "The Prodigal Son" which had been kept in a closet by the master
until his death B perhaps because of its extreme "crotchiness". The film showed (in its belated revival) Barishnikov in the hilarious
white trunks and frilly knee pants of the original costume, huddled between and under the thighs of a dominatrix "Siren" in ways that
brought the house down. In the fifties, in America, Balanchine became more subtle in his so-called "abstract ballets" which in fact (according
to Acocella) were not all that abstract. He created ballets focused on women, groomed a troupe of tall women dancers with pin heads and
very long legs for his New York City Ballet, and had obsessive relationships with a series of his ballerinas (five of whom he married).
Acocella demonstrated Balanchine's "idealization of pelvic power" with an excerpt from his famous Stravinsky choreography "Agon", with
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams. (In 1957, pairing a black male dancer with a white female caused an erotic stir.) While we were
watching the film clip with Adams towering over Mitchell, lifting and rotating her enormous-looking thighs and presenting her crotch as if
she were doing offerings in church, Acocella excitedly pointed to, and shouted out, the obvious. She then explained the extraordinary pelvic
force necessary not only to stand on point, but to hold oneself up on point while raising the other leg against gravity. She compared the
way point work effects the pelvis with Chinese foot binding, but did not draw the link to the similar aesthetic aspects of the unnatural,
sexy, painful point shoe with its ties bound cross-wise around the ankle.
She noted that feminists critique point shoes for making the female dancer utterly dependent on the support of the male dancer: by
dancing on point, the female dancer "co-constitutes her own oppression". Acocella made an unsuccessful attempt at showing that
today's ballerinas escape their oppression by doing the grand extensions on point without male support. Today's dancers can indeed perform a "six o'clock" arabesque or other extreme extensions
for a few seconds all by themselves, but classical ballet has not allowed them any more autonomy because of this athletic achievement. The excerpt Acocella chose to prove her point, in fact
proved the contrary: the alleged "pelvic power" of Carol Armitage in a Balanchine pas de deux from 1985 showed ballet as usual.
I remember in the early sixties, when the New York City Ballet first toured in Europe with Stravinsky conducting "Apollon musagète", what a thrill it was to see high legs: to watch the three muses go into a staggered
arabesque in profile: the frontal dancer raised her leg to the 19th century 45 degrees, the second to the Margot Fonteyn position of just above 90
degrees, and the third one almost to the "six o'clock arabesque". (The erotic intention of this sexy crescendo was well supported by the
jutting hips and buttock swings Balanchine had also introduced into classical ballet.)
At the same time Balanchine, as well as other choreographers like Béjart, Roland Petit, and Frederic Ashton, denuded the female dancer
by altogether eliminating the skirt. Acocella presented a famous example of the skirtless crotch exposure with Ashton's ballet "Monotone".
The ballerina, her body completely covered in leotards, is on the floor in a "grand écart" (split), holding her front foot with both hands. Her
two partners lift her up in the same split position so that she stands on point on her one leg, her other leg raised vertically in front of her face, her crotch facing the audience..
For most of Acocella's lecture it wasn't clear whether her funny, enlightening elaboration and demonstration were supposed to be a
critique of ballet or if she were making fun of it.
Have women dancers really numbed out the sexual subtext of their movements by pretending they are simply athletic or acrobatic? In a recent review of the Ballets Trockadero (The New Yorker, January 10,
2005), Acocella had written: "Patricia McBride, in Balanchine's 'Tarantella', did a second-position demi-plié on point, a step known among the impolite as the 'cunt dip,' and smiled at us sweetly, as if
nothing special had happened." Can ballet dancers maintain the idealization of themselves that pretends that classical dance is an abstraction and crotch exposure is sexually meaningless? Was
Acocella going to question how the extreme leg lifts affect not just the female pelvis, but the way women dancers feel about themselves?
She almost did.
Acocella reported that the risqué leg lifts in the fifties were "intimidating" to Diana Adams and the dancers of her generation. She
quoted Arthur Mitchell's observation that Balanchine's ballets like "Agon" can't be danced the way they initially were, because today's
ballerinas have too much "pelvic confidence". They lack the "vulnerability" of yesteryear's women. Nowadays, ballerinas face new
"vulnerabilities" by having to dance without leotards and sometimes even without any clothes. Perhaps they believe what Acocella
professed to believe: that the crotch is "the origin of the world", the place of birth's "first blessings and first nightmares", and that crotch presentation is a symbol of women's power.
In the same vein Acocella asserted that Balanchine "gave women dancers their whole body" to dance with. What did they dance with
before Balanchine? The freedom of the "whole body" in this context always pretends to mean the liberated body, but unavoidably ends up
meaning the exposed body, the body that is free to be looked at.
Acocella ended with an arch piece of gossip and an anecdote: Rumor has it that Balanchine was into oral sex. When asked one day why he
always picked and groomed such tall women, the "master of the crotch" replied: "You see more!"