Sex and the Ballet
June 1999 - Daily Telegraph
So sex is being used to sell ballet. What a turnaround. A hundred years ago it was a different story. The great ballet companies of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg and fin-de-siècle Paris, known primarily for their artistic enterprise, were equally renowned for a little something they purveyed on the side. Sex. At a time when a respectable lady kept even the legs of her dining table well and truly hidden, the ballerina's tutu was creeping up above the knee. A trip to the ballet offered those outside the medical profession the opportunity to examine a young girl's limbs without contravening the law. Gentlemen in the audience seen fumbling for their pince-nez or frantically focusing their opera glasses were probably not counting fouettés; they were more likely to be admiring a well-turned calf. With many of the ballet girls on the lookout for a way to supplement their meagre salaries, it's hardly surprising that the theatre became known as a place where the flesh was both able and willing. According to the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, members of the aristocracy attending the Maryinsky Theatre would regularly send their carriage to collect a particularly comely dancer from the corps de ballet who caught their eye during the performance, a naughty little Natasha or a come-hither Ekaterina. Entrepreneurial dancers who were too old for the sexual market place pocketed a tidy commission for the introduction of new blood to old Lotharios. Some of these liaisons offered rich dividends: the ballerina Mathilde Kshessinska, mistress of Tsar Nicholas II, was rewarded for her long service with marriage to his nephew, the Grand Duke André, presumably in lieu of a pension.
Over in Paris, an entire salon behind the stage of the sumptuous Opéra - the Foyer de la Danse - was set aside for wealthy patrons to take a closer look at the evening's offerings. For the well-to-do Parisian, the performance was little more than foreplay to the main event, and it was widely accepted that the ballet girls – a petit pas above demi-mondaine - were available after as well as during the show. Erotic art of the period has some striking images of the ballerina in her tutu displaying quite unexpected skills. Whilst Degas' paintings of the ballet are infinitely more restrained, with their chocolate-box ballerinas demurely attired in layers of tulle and pastel coloured bows, we should not assume that the shadowy gentlemen casting such an interested eye over the talent were from the Arts Council.
We've come a long way in one hundred years. A career on the stage is relatively respectable these days and ballet is no longer a thinly veiled front for the sale of sex. The tables have turned, and sex is now being exploited as a means of selling ballet. In advance of English National Ballet's performances at the Albert Hall, six members of the cast of Swan Lake have been plucked of their feathers and poured into skin tight black underwear for a feature in this month's edition of the lads' magazine, Loaded. It's a far cry from the usual Swan Lake publicity. Not surprisingly, given the choice between semi naked dancers and the Balkans crisis, delighted picture editors all over Wapping have picked up on the story. At least four national newspapers have devoted man-hours and column inches to this latest attempt in a long line of tricks to pull a new audience. The only difference this time is that the word 'pull' has been taken literally.
As publicity stunts go, it's an interesting angle for a ballet in which pure love triumphs over tainted lust. Loaded readers who fall for it and turn up at the Albert Hall will probably feel a mite disappointed when the curtain rises on the action and there isn't a belly button in sight. But perhaps I'm splitting feathers. Perhaps we should just be grateful that the media have finally noticed that ballet is sexy. It's taken them long enough. After all, ballet dancers are usually drop-dead gorgeous – the men as well as the woman – and they routinely perform in costumes which leave the imagination unchallenged. I've been wearing little more than my birthday suit on stage for years. Last Christmas my breasts (not, I admit, my most prominent feature) were exposed to the nation in William Forsythe's Herman Schmerman on BBC2, yet even this brazen exhibitionism went unnoticed by all but a single columnist. Now, at last, the secret is out. Ballet is sexy.
Unfortunately, I don't really see much cause for celebration. The six Loaded ladies, huddled together without so much as a cardigan between them, look suspiciously like sacrificial lambs on the altar of the great god of publicity. There's no denying that they make an attractive line-up, and their long, lean bodies deal neatly with the recent claims that British dancers are physically inadequate. (Readers of Loaded can rest assured: there is nothing inadequate about any of them.) But there was something disturbing about the article in last week's Mail on Sunday, when Giles Coren, interviewing the six women, found them distinctly uncomfortable with the situation and unclear as to exactly why they were being photographed in their knickers.
We can all understand the tactics. The Albert Hall is a vast and cavernous space and shifting that many tickets can't be easy. The hype might have been acceptable, if it didn't entirely miss the point. Dancers are sexy because they are confident, articulate and physically aware individuals, not because they're easily duped into stripping off in an effort to increase the box office takings.
You want to see sexy? It's in the dancing. Come and witness Darcey Bussell and Laura Morera strutting dangerously through Mark Baldwin's Towards Poetry at Sadler's Wells in July. Stay beyond the interval and I'll be wearing Antony McDonald's jaw-dropping, figure-hugging adaptation of catwalk style in Ashley Page's award-winning ballet, Fearful Symmetries. Watch Zenaida Yanowsky twine her mile-high legs around the dark and swarthy Irek Mukhamedov as John Adams' pulsating score seeps across the auditorium. You think I'm exaggerating? Pick up a copy of The Royal Ballet's Summer Season publicity leaflet and check out the picture on page five.
Sure, ballet can be sexy, and the sex it delivers can take many forms. Contrast the gutsy physicality of Balanchine's Agon with the insinuative interplay between Lescaut, his immoral sister and Monsieur GM in MacMillan's masterpiece, Manon. Or think of the duet in Ashton's Two Pigeons, where the ballerina's leg shoots up towards the ceiling and then quivers with orgastic delight as it descends to the floor. Ballet can offer blatant eroticism, the subtlest suggestion of sensuality and uncontrolled passion. I have shared moments on stage with Irek Mukhamedov that most women wouldn't dare to dream about.
But sex is more than just a marketing ploy. Sex is a central part of ballet because it is a central part of human relations. As ballet dancing is an exploration in physical terms of the potential relationships between human beings, it's not exactly surprising that sex should come up from time to time. It even simmers beneath the surface in Swan Lake. But here's the rub. It always takes place between consenting adults, and those adults are always the ones on the stage. Times have changed. Turn up at the ballet expecting to pick out some top shelf totty and order her up for later, and you'll be disappointed.
There are far, far better reasons to see Swan Lake than the outside chance that you might get a peek at some bare, nubile flesh. But then publicity is a dirty game and tactics can be shameless. The Royal Ballet will be dancing Fearful Symmetries at Sadler's Wells from July 9th. I'll be wearing a Lycra mini and sheer black tights. See you there.