Making A Pointe: A Short Discourse on Ballet and Sexuality

 

Sally Banes once wrote: “dance is often a metaphor for libidinous sexuality” in her book Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage. The relationship between the movement of the body for both artistic and sexual pleasure is one that has deep roots within history. Colleen Hill states that nineteenth century ballerinas often resorted to prostitution as a means to maintain financial stability at a time when dancers received minimal wages.

The association of dance and sexuality, however, extends far beyond the financial needs of the performers. The way in which a dancer moves their body has often been paralleled to the various corporeal rhythms performed during the sexual act. The similarities between these ‘dances’ is most keenly observed when considering a part of the body so often associated with fetishised —or even perverse —sexuality: the foot.

In a Vogue article from 1982, Alfred Kinsey is quoted as saying that during sexual activity “the whole foot may be extended [to] a position which is impossible in non-erotic situations for most persons who are not trained as ballet dancers.” Within this, it is possible to see how the motions of the foot are particularly susceptible to erotic pleasures. Kinsey’s assertion further demonstrates how the sexual act can make the foot mobile in ways previously deemed impossible without training in dance; almost as though eroticism can give someone the phalangeal flexibility needed to dance on pointe. In this sense, one can see how the ballerina on pointe might be viewed as in a continual state of erotic pleasure, her outstretched feet the very image of fulfilled desire.

The ballerina is a historical figure steeped with covert sensuality; her delicate feet becoming the desired object within male fantasy. Hill details a story of the discarded pointe shoes of Marie Taglioni. Within this tale, Taglioni’s worn-out shoes were cooked, garnished and eaten by a band of Russian admirers. If this story were more than mere fantasy, it would show the libidinous tendency to want to consume and digest the fetishised object of desire. Within this process, we may incorporate the object into our own psyche; a narcissistic gesture that enables our fetish to never part from our body.

The ways in which ballet has been long associated with sexuality is epitomised within the pointe shoe; an object reminiscent of the phallus in design, thus furthering is capacity to act as a fetishistic substitute for the male plagued by castrative anxieties. While the pointe shoe denotes an air of fragility it also, as Hill argues, represents the pain and discipline endured by the dancers. In this sense, the shoe becomes a paradoxical object of both pleasure and pain, desire and castration. The pointe shoe is ultimately an object imbued with sexuality and fetishised desire, a desire that extends to the very practise of ballet itself.

By Niall Billings

 

Further Reading:

Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage, 1998

Colleen Hill, Ballet Shoes: Fashion, Function and Fetish from Dance and Fashion, 2014

Sherry Magnus, Feet, Sex and Power: The Last Erogenous Zone from Vogue, 1982

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage

Chagall: Fantasies for the Stagea whimsical look at the costumes and sets Marc Chagall created for four theatrical productions, is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until January 7th. This exhibition examines the three ballets and one opera that Chagall designed. Beginning in 1941 with the ballet Aleko and ending in 1967 with the opera The Magic Flute the exhibition showcases Chagall’s artistic process in designing for the stage.

Using 41 costumes, 100 sketches, reproductions of the original backgrounds, and footage from both the 1942 production of Aleko and a contemporary production of The Firebird that continues to use Chagall’s designs, this exhibition guides the viewer through and examines the evolution of Chagall’s career in the theatre. The exhibition is divided into four sections each focusing on one show. Moving chronologically, the show begins with Aleko, then moves to The Firebird, then Daphnis and Chloe, and finally ends with Chagall’s only opera, The Magic Flute. 

In each section the original costumes, many of which were hand painted by Chagall, are juxtaposed with the sketches he created in the design stages. Seeing the costumes in both the design conception and realization phases is an invaluable look into not only Chagall’s process, but he way he translated his painting and drawing style into clothing as well. Take for example the design for The Firebird of the Sorcerer Koschei. The drawing has all the hallmarks of Chagall’s typical style – lyrical movement, folkloric subject material, and a masterful use of color. The costume takes these elements and plays with them in different ways. The fluid lines are found in draping folds of cloth and intricate embroidery, the folksy subject is found in the inspiration from Yiddish lore he used to create the firey sorcerer, and the mastery of color is found in the rich, bold fabrics.

In the final cycle of costumes for The Magic Flute Chagall has clearly become more comfortable with dressmaking. In his early costumes for Aleko he stayed in his comfort zone by relying mostly on hand painting plain fabrics, and occasionally adding in embellishments such as netting or beading. By the time he was designing for The Magic Flute in the 1960’s Chagall is using fur trim, feathers, and appliqué. The anthropomorphized lion costume he created consisted of hand painted cotton, chiffon, silk appliqué, and feathers. Even his preparatory sketches were more intricate than those he created for his previous costumes. In the paper designs for The Magic Flute he used bits of shimmering gold paper and fabric. He worked for three years on the costumes and sets for The Magic Flute and the intricacy and care shown in both the preparatory sketches and the clothes themselves shows how confident and successful Chagall had become in costume design.

There has always existed a tension between art and fashion. Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage demonstrates just one of the many ways that clothing and fine art can come together.

Olivia Chuba

All photos by the author.