April 2005  | This Issue


and Sex
Joan Acocella
in Berkeley


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!"

©2005 Renate Stendha
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazinel

Scene4 Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal is a Lambda award-winning writer,
translator, counselor and writing coach.
More: www.renatestendhal.com

For more articles  by Renate Stendhal, check the Archives

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