The Sugar Plum Fairy Incident

December 2010 - The Times

The now infamous review of Jenifer Ringer's performance in The Nutcracker and the debate it has provoked take me back to the summer of 1981 when, as an 18 year old student with the Royal Ballet School, I joined the company on its American tour. This singling out was not only the happy culmination of my 10 years of training; it was also, I hoped, my gateway to the company and a full-time contract with The Royal Ballet's corps de ballet. The opening night was at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, where Ringer's performance took place: a huge 4000 seat auditorium with state of the art backstage facilities the likes of which The Royal Ballet would wait 20 years to enjoy. Performance over, I removed make up and pointe shoes at my place in the far corner of the large dressing room. The door opened and the ballet mistress came in to congratulate the corps and offer a few notes. She turned to leave and then, Columbo-style, an afterthought drew her back. Over the heads of some 40 dancers - corps de ballet, coryphées and soloists - her querulous tone rang out: 'Deborah, I do think you should stay off the milkshakes'. Stunned into silence, I looked on, mortified, as the door swung to. From that night on, for the rest of the long tour, I subsisted on a diet of cottage cheese and tinned tuna fish. Prior to that moment, my struggle with my body had been my guilty secret and, I was sure, mine alone. A year or so later, this loneliness was reinforced when a speaker at the UK's first dance health conference claimed 'there are no eating disorders in British ballet'. So it really was just me.

This was all nearly 30 years ago: times, knowledge and the ballet mistress have all moved on. Nowadays, it is surely no secret that many dancers (and, indeed, many women) struggle with patterns of disordered eating which result from something far more complex than a straightforward desire to be thin. Many women pursue an excessive degree of control over what they eat and how they look because they perceive this to be one of the very few areas of their lives of which they can be in charge. This may be particularly true for ballet dancers. Dancing is a profession we enter as children, setting a course at age six or seven which we then pursue determinedly, through adolescence and into adulthood, often without pausing to ask how we got there, or whether it's really where we want to be. We can move from school to company and then up through the ranks to retirement (age 35 – 40) without taking a single career decision in our lives. Very few of us are able to exercise significant control over the roles we dance and the progress we make (aside from exercising the ultimate option, to give it all up). In most (non-dance related) professions, employees can, to some extent, steer their own course, applying for new opportunities as and when they arise in an open and transparent process. But ballet is not like this. Progression up through the ranks is largely down to the discretion of the company director and so it's influenced not only by individual ability but by factors over which a dancer has no power at all: casting, available repertoire, injury (your own, and others), luck and, perhaps above all, taste. There is no application process for the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. You wait for the cast sheet to go up on the board and for your name to be there, or not. In the meantime you do all those things you think might make you better suited to a job the person specification of which is never advertised: improving technique, building strength, studying hard and, perhaps, losing weight.

But thin is not a job requirement; it's a trend. The original Sugar Plum Fairy, Antonietta Dell'Era, in 1892, is unlikely to have looked like Kate Moss and presumably, she danced the steps perfectly: they were, after all, created for her. But over the next century, dancers – along with actresses and models – became progressively thinner. One hundred and twelve years after the Sugar Plum role was first created, contemporary attitudes and the culture of the ballet world combine to exert a tremendous pressure on the dancer to be slim. Modern choreography and costumes usually favour the lean, as do audiences, critics, dancers and often, although not always, company directors, too. But lean is not the same as thin. Natalie Portman may have shed 20 pounds to become the Black Swan, but even this regime - of weight loss and eight hours of daily dancing over the course of a year - can only ever make her into a facsimile of a dancer (although admittedly, at least judging by the pictures, a rather good one). The dancer's body, by contrast, is a fit for purpose dancing machine, honed and sculpted through 10,000 hours of training over at least 10 years. Body fat levels are low because dancers a) train more intensively and b) consume a balanced diet that is higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat than the average population.

But with all the complex pressures they face - from without and within - many dancers struggle to achieve this ideal, alternating famine and feast in an effort to find the delicate balance between energy in and energy out and dealing simultaneously with our sense of failure at this inability to control the one thing over which we should have full command. More recently, some of us have tried to claim back the control by talking openly about this, including Jenifer Ringer, who has spoken movingly about her decision to give up on the struggle in 1997 and then bravely to re-enter the profession, back at the top of her game, two years later.

So if all this is now out in the open, is it therefore acceptable to mention a dancer's weight when reviewing her performance? And should the critic have any concern about the impact of his comments on their subject? After all, if body shape becomes a no-go area, what next? Will he be barred from commenting on technique, in case it triggers a crisis of confidence? And if the ballet itself is a dud, will he have to dance around that too, lest the choreographer takes offence? Alastair Macaulay, the writer at the centre of all this, believes not and Ringer herself, interviewed on NBC's Today programme, has defended the critics' right to discuss her body as one element of her performance. I disagree. The only time it might be appropriate to comment on body shape per se is when body shape is the end goal, in Miss World pageants and the like. Ballet is not a beauty parade. The purpose of ballet is to communicate ideas, stories and emotions: through performance, a dancer aims to transport the audience to places unknown, to provoke them to see themselves and the world differently. The choreography is the message, the dancer's body the medium through which it is delivered. There is no optimum shape for this medium: each body brings its own dynamic, flow, energy, line and character to the steps and there are differently shaped dancers pursuing successful careers in companies around the world. I have never, ever, seen a professional ballet dancer whose body prevents her effectively dancing the steps required of her because if that were the case, she wouldn't be in the job. It all comes down to taste: audiences may prefer the look of one ballerina to another, but the fact that one may be less lean than the next will have no material impact on her ability to dance the steps. (It might even enhance it, providing greater energy stores on which to draw.)

Macaulay has responded to the furore by saying that it is not his responsibility to consider a dancer's history of eating disorders when writing a review. 'I am severe', he says, 'but ballet is more so'. I'd encourage him to think again. The point of all art, including ballet, is to promote empathy and enhance understanding. Dance writers, immersed in ballet's culture and making their living amongst dance and dancers, should be more adept than most at seeing the world from a different perspective. Given everything we now know about the prevalence of eating disorders (amongst dancers, but also more widely amongst the female population), about what triggers them and about their impact, I'd question the wisdom (and the humanity) of making this kind of remark in print. This does not amount to a request, as Macaulay has suggested, that dancers be considered victims. It's a request that we try to know the dancer from the dance, and that those of us who care about dancing and dancers do not continue to perpetrate a culture in which beauty is born of its own despair.

What intrigues me most of all is this: what, exactly, was the remark intended to achieve? Elucidation? It added nothing to his otherwise stylish and articulate prose and little to the reader's understanding of the performance. Humour? If so, he'd have done well to come up with a line that wasn't recycled from a review of at least 20 years ago which suggested that the friends of a young soloist who had just made her debut in the same role might 'make sure she doesn't eat too many sugar plums over the holidays'. And besides – as an audience of six year olds were told in Faeries at the Royal Opera House last week – it's not polite to point and laugh at another person's distress.

Perhaps then the comment was intended to help, to provide just the nudge the dancer needs to finally shrug off her troubled relationship with her body and dance happily ever after. Well, it might, but my own semi-public naming and shaming, backstage at the Met, had exactly the opposite effect. I white washed the moment, erasing the comment from my short-term memory. It would be over 10 years before I made the connection between the ballet mistress's off-hand remark and the decade-long pattern of disordered eating it triggered. Jenifer Ringer has bravely – again – confronted her own issues and, with the professionalism we can expect of dancers, gone on record to insist that Macaulay, like her, is only doing his job. I'm amazed and impressed by her courage and resilience. If my public humiliation had taken place not in the dressing room, in front of a group of dancers I hoped to make my colleagues, but in front of the readership of New York's major newspaper and, via the Internet, the entire world, I'm not sure I'd have ever recovered.