“I bet we could tie some of them up and abuse them like farm animals.”
After it was all over, after the New York City Ballet dancers had shared explicit videos and photos of their girlfriends without the women’s knowledge or consent; after one of the girlfriends, Alexandra Waterbury, discovered these photos; after she filed suit against her boyfriend, two other male dancers, and a donor included on the text chain, as well as the company and its affiliated school; after the dancers had resigned or been fired and the donor’s money given away; after one of the dancers had been rehired following a successful challenge by the dancers’ union; after the 60-second local news segments and the screaming New York Post headlines and the hand-wringing and reckoning within the ballet world, it was a throwaway text from the donor — a bit player in this scandal — that lodged deep in my brain.
Later, in the velvety darkness of Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, I sat between my mother and sister, watching floating swans in white feathered crowns. Tchaikovsky’s score, lush and eerie, quivered; Odette swooned in her prince’s arms. My chest tightened. Hot tears pricked my eyes. I felt moved — and slightly duped, as if my pleasure signaled my complicity in all the abuse.
Farm animal. Enchanted swan. Many insisted there was no connection. In the aftermath of the scandal, the critic Joan Acocella wrote that ballet, done properly, affirmed that “beauty, truth, and virtue are inseparable,” and at the City Ballet’s 2018 fall gala, principal dancer Teresa Reichlen had stood onstage, flanked by the entire company, and affirmed the moral and ethical foundations of ballet, swearing that “We will not put art before common decency.”
Since then, the company has made a concerted effort to commission more works by women and, after 2020’s racial justice reckoning, people of color; a woman joined the artistic team as second-in-command; and on the final day of the spring 2022 season, Amar Ramasar, the last of the men named in Waterbury’s suit still dancing, retired. General critical consensus after this first post-Covid season is that the company is performing with fresh vitality and excitement, buoyed by a more diverse and outspoken crop of new dancers.
But I am still uneasy. The narrow standards of beauty, the relentless competition, the incredible physical and mental demands on children and teenagers remain. In February of this year I saw George Balanchine’s icy one-act version of Swan Lake, with its corps of black swans. No longer so innocent, these swan maidens glittered ominously in their black tulle, as if with rediscovered power. Yet ultimately, they were helpless before the fickle prince. Was this recostumed Swan Lake an apt metaphor for the reformed company, dressed in new clothing but ultimately still faithful to the patriarchal order?
Since Waterbury’s discovery, I have been thinking more seriously about my ballet and my feminism. Why do little girls like tutus? Why do grown women, including some of the smartest feminists I know, like Swan Lake? Are we all acting in bad faith, complicit in the dancers’ transformation from people into swans and cows? Or is there something productive, something joyous and feminist in all this muck?
Even if you don’t care about ballet, you should care about these questions, because the ballerina — thin, young, neat, poised, obedient — is one of the ideals of white Western womanhood. As such, she demands a response from all of us constructing any kind of feminine self, and all of us living within white supremacy. We can angrily reject her, or pointedly ignore her, or slavishly try to replicate her; we can laugh at her vapid fidelity to patriarchy’s norms, even as we find ourselves wanting to be a bit more like her: elegant, refined, slender, strong. But the one thing we cannot do is pretend she does not exist.
For a long time, I embraced her. I gave my childhood to her. First in a series of suburban studios, and then at the feeder school for the Pennsylvania Ballet, I chased perfection, refining the curve of my fingers, mastering the rotation of my limbs, seeking always to be fast and light, precise and fluid. School was a jangle of bullying and boredom; home was a merry chaos. But in the pale blue room lined with mirrors, there was structure and clarity. I knew exactly who to be.
This was helpful, for as a preteen I felt unsteady in my gender. Womanhood struck me as gross: soft, fleshy, obscene, full of blood and milk. And yet refusing womanhood did not feel possible for me. What a relief, then, to discover that I already inhabited a world in which the problem of womanhood was solved in such a satisfactory way. That the ballerina was safely, legibly feminine was beyond a doubt. Yet somehow she was also saved from the degradations of crass sexualization. Remote and beautiful, ethereal and chaste, she was desired, but strangely sexless. To her art she gave her boyish flat body, cloistering herself in the studio, dedicated to the daily ritual of barre as if it were her rosary.
To be both graceful and powerful thrilled me; to be affirming my gender through my work especially thrilled me. I worked hard on the soccer field, too, but I gathered from all the cheery bromides and “You go, girl!” rhetoric that a tension simmered between my femininity and all this running and kicking. In ballet, that tension dissolved. The harder I worked, the more feminine I became. Magic. The world made sense, which is to say my gender and my personhood made sense.
Little girls scared of sex; little boys leery of the football field. Ironically, ballet, with its courtly gestures and antiquated gender roles, provides a scrim behind which so many of us can hide. Like the orchestra pit and the theater stage, the ballet studio is a kind of provisional refuge. Yet there is an unsettling contradiction at the heart of this refuge. As a young dancer, I had a project; I was a subject exerting her will. But this project was to make myself into an unnaturally beautiful object, to contort myself (quite literally) into the flat, rigid shapes of the ballerina. The queer man, too, finds this partial refuge in ballet, a place away from schoolyard taunts that demands his transformation into a heterosexual prince.
To make myself into this unnatural object, I needed not only hard work, but the mirror. “Girls, girls! Eyes off the mirror, girls!” our teacher would call, but it was hopeless: From the very first plié, our eyes were trained on our own reflection. Our little bodies might twist and turn, but our gaze was fixed. Measuring. Appraising.
“A woman must continually watch herself,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing. “From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.” If this is so, then a dancer of any gender is the perfect woman, her psyche split into surveyor and surveyed.
On some buried level, do we like to look at the ballerina so much because we see in her the basic condition of femininity under which we live our lives? Does ballet, with its kitschy artificiality, somehow display better than anything else how a woman is made? The ballerina enthralls, for in the stark language of her body is written her submission to a feminine ideal. The slender arms and long neck, the bloody pointe shoes and jutting ribs: The language of this submission is both glorious and terrifying. No wonder we can’t look away.
“All the mythic versions of women … are consolatory nonsense,” Angela Carter writes in her book The Sadeian Woman. Is ballet, then, only alluring compensation from a patriarchal world that still denies us our full subjectivity in ways both subtle and obvious? Or could there be something clarifying — even liberating — about occupying the outer extremes of our gender, and embodying its myths?
Famously, Swan Lake asks its star to become both Madonna and Whore, White Swan and Black, performing the split that lies at the heart of cleaved Western womanhood, the impossible dance asked of us all. The White Swan allowed me to disguise my discomfort with “womanhood” and sheltered me from the pressure to grow into a sexual being for a few crucial years; this is how, beneath the guise of purity, some mildly non-normative gender expression can be smuggled into girls’ lives. But what about the Black Swan, a dazzling and sexy plaything controlled completely by an evil sorcerer? What redemptive power can she possibly hold?
To the Black Swan is given some of ballet’s most difficult steps. Watching the ballerina whip through those notorious 32 fouettés, I always find myself poised between awe and pity: awe at what she can do, pity that she must do it, spin and spin, compelled round by the men who have choreographed and coached this role — that is, by the men who control her artistic life. In the Black Swan, I see most clearly the resonance between the particulars of ballet’s #MeToo scandal and the larger structure of ballet itself: both feed on the voyeuristic pleasure of watching women perform impossible athletic and sexual feats; both stage the fantasy of a woman completely controlled and subjugated. Is there any pleasure — or power — in this?
Here we enter the murky land where ballet laps the shore of kink and desire. That the dancer is a masochist is a common trope; “If the demands made on her body are outrageous, even sadistic, know that she wants it,” Sigrid Nunez writes of the dancer in A Feather on the Breath of God. “For she is a woman who craves discipline and a master.” I can remember how much I envied the girls whose muscles shook after class, who stained their leotards with sweat as we wobbled through our own beginning fouettés; I can remember the perverse pride I took in my first blister, proof of my dedication. To endure pain in order to become an otherworldly creature: This was what I wanted.
I bet we could tie some of them up and abuse them like farm animals.
“I want you to tie me up,” Katherine Angel said to her lover one sunny spring day.
Angel recounts her request and her lover’s eventual acquiescence in Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell. Writing of the moment she is bound, Angel says, “I am trying to break through the fabric, the fabric of things,” and there is something in this formulation that reminds me of my 12-year-old self, eyes latched to the mirror, straining to unfold my leg ever higher, ever straighter, no matter that another part of me just wanted the pain to stop. Both of us interested in the liminal spaces of our bodies and minds, the extremes of our bodily autonomy and our gender; both of us curious about what submission — to a lover, to an ideal — would yield.
The space between fantasy and nightmare, play and abuse, can be uncomfortably narrow. But crucially, there is a space, formed by those words “I want.” I wanted to endure this pain; Angel wanted her lover to tie her up. The frat boy patron, by contrast, cares nothing about what his sexual partners want; indeed, it is precisely the violation of their will that interests him.
Just as we understand those practicing BDSM as playing with power, control, and pain, shouldn’t we understand the dancer as exploring, in a culturally scripted way, the outer limits of her body and her gender? In other words, shouldn’t we grant the ballerina the same subjectivity we grant the submissive practitioner of kink? Shouldn’t we trust both when they say this is what they want?
The philosopher Becca Rothfeld has written that “all masochism is a feat of ambitious authorship.” To imagine, crave, and then enact a theatrical spectacle of pain and discipline with yourself at the center is a bold assertion of creative self-will, whether in the bedroom or the ballet studio. Enslaved to the mirror and the ballet master, the dancer remakes her body and mind, submitting to an impossible ideal, and authoring that very ideal. That glorious, terrifying language is written on us. Yet we also write it.
The ballet studio will always be the place where I first felt my will. It was a space large enough for my energy and my desire. Until it got too small, it was infinite.
It is the memory of that infinity that is evoked for me every time the dusky gold curtain rises at the ballet. There is the ballerina, alluring and aloof. I know how she was made. But watching her, I also forget. I enter into a fantasy world of beauty and entrapment. In the dark, I play with my own charged relations to the wild swan and the farm animal.
Then the curtain rises. With thousands of other women I stretch my legs, pull on my coat, and walk outside into the sharp, clear air.
Kyle McCarthy is the author of the novel Everyone Knows How Much I Love You. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
All images generated by DALL-E Mini.