On Ballet and Pop Culture Part I: Hello and How to Get Punched at the State Theater

Hello Everyone,

I haven’t posted my own critiques here yet, but you may recognize me from my grammatically atrocious comments left on those by Cléopold, James, and Fenella. I’m working on the grammar part, but in the meantime let me very briefly introduce myself. I’m 24 years old and currently living in New York working in an industry completely unrelated to the arts. To keep myself sane, I take lots of ballet classes and go to every performance I can. If I’m not at Alvin Ailey, I’m probably at Lincoln Center.

Since I haven’t had any performances to see since the winter ballet season, Cléopold suggested I write a little something on the state of ballet and pop music. Well, I tried, but somehow the idea blew up in my face and what I was left with was the monster that follows. For everything I write, please feel free to agree, disagree, add your own opinion, or call me an idiot in the comments. My schedule for the spring season is posted, so if you’re in NYC come hang out with me at the ballet!

Happy Reading,

Mini Naila

Ballet is something of a cult. For dancers, it’s an art form that requires more than just hard work in the classroom and onstage, it demands devotion bordering on obsession. Teachers can command as much respect from their students as religious leaders, and stars have their own crews of besotted fans that will viciously defend their favorite if challenged. Walk into The State Theater (and no, I will not call it by its other name) on a performance night and mention that you think Sarah Mearns is awful. I dare you. Heck, ballet was founded in France by Louis XIV: a man who wanted his subjects to see him as Apollo (the sun GOD… cultish much?). Chances are, if you’re reading this you probably see yourself in one or more of these categories. For all this, though, it’s easy to forget that the ballet world is a pretty small one. As of the writing of this article Ashley Bouder, principal dancer with New York City Ballet, has 4,807 followers on Twitter (more on that later), David Hallberg (the ‘it’ dancer of the moment) has only 2,999, Pointe Magazine has slightly less than 12,000, while Kim Kardashian has 13,958,170. I say this not out of a sense of disgust (although, yes, that is pretty gross) but to illustrate that ballet probably wouldn’t be considered “mainstream” culture by your average Joe.

Lately, though, there has been an increase in attention from sources that would definitely qualify as mainstream, which I would argue began with the premiere of Black Swan. Before you jump down my throat, I am very aware that Center Stage came out in 2000, but it only grossed $16,401,324 in the US and received exactly 0 Oscar nominations, making it more a ballet cult favorite and guilty pleasure. Since the really noticeable spike has happened only in the past few years, I’m starting with Black Swan. Feel free to yell at me in the comments about why I’m wrong should you so desire.

Remember when Black Swan came out? I don’t know about you, but after about a week everyone I talked to was a ballet expert. “Oh, you take ballet? Have you seen Black Swan? Natalie Portman is such an amazing dancer!” Worse than ballet experts, they were advocates for the poor mistreated ballerinas… all of whom suddenly had an eating disorder and/or mental stability issues. (Incidentally, when Sarah Lane, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, had the audacity to mention that no, you can’t become a ballerina in a year and that she had done all the actual dancing, everyone was outraged.) I’m sure you, as someone who reads a ballet blog, were slightly annoyed to explain that Black Swan, or BS for short (hah!), isn’t quite a documentary about company life. However, there was an amazing result from all of this: people were talking about ballet! Friends who normally could not care less were suddenly asking questions about Swan Lake! Why did the director use certain pieces of music when he did? What was the deal with all the competition? Do dancers really sleep with company directors for parts? It actually made people curious! So, what always follows after a major success? Satire of course! First came Saturday Night Live’s version starring Jim Carey which, I must admit, is pretty funny. There are a ton of parodies out there, but I think the absolute best has to be Sassy Gay Friend’s take on the movie. After making fun of the movie got old, advertisers caught on (as they always do). The two most recent examples of this are Levis and Adidas but there was also AT&T, Chloé, and Methodist Hospital in Houston, all of which premiered after 2010. My personal favorite cannot be a result of the Black Swan push as it came out in 2006, but I’m including it anyway because it’s hilarious: Isenbeck beer (take a minute of your day to watch that, you won’t be sorry). Recently, the ballet craze has jumped to prime time: ABC Family is currently putting together a new show starring Broadway’s Sutton Foster, Bunheads, about life working in a small town dance studio. In book news, Sophie Flack, a former NYCB dancer, just published a young adult novel, also called Bunheads about being a ballet dancer in the super-competitive Manhattan Ballet Company (hmm, wonder which real life company that could be about?). Go back to movies and you’ll find the new short film Prima which is premiering this year at the Tribeca Film Festival and last year’s documentary First Position. If you really want to see the ballet takeover, look no further than Oprah herself who interviewed NYCB principal, Jennifer Ringer. Saving the very best and most popular among the young adult demographic for last, who can forget Stephen Colbert’s interview with David Hallberg? (And who knew Colbert could do a tour en l’air?! Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch both of those. ) Have I made my point yet? I could go on. If you have a favorite that I’ve missed please post it in the comments because I would really love to see it!

To be continued: What’s happening now, and why in God’s name, why?


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