An Ethereal Beauty

Text by Rose Mulready
Photography by James Braund, Lynette Wills & Lisa Tomasetti

Yann Tiersen – Summer 78
Goodbye Lenin! Soundtrack (2003)

Ballet is an ethereal art, effervescent, otherworldly. And demanding. Classical dancers must give themselves early to discipline; most start as children, often as young as three or four, and as adolescents must decide on their careers and throw themselves headlong into their training.

Ballet shapes its disciples. Children who pursue this muse into adulthood grow differently. Their hips turn out, they develop long muscles and supple spines. Professional dancers can often seem like a breed apart, as different from regular mortals as a Siamese cat from a street moggie. They are slender, flexible, sculpted, with proud necks and floating hands. They seem to tread the earth lighter than the rest of us. When they take to the stage, they change the laws of physics. They freeze time to hang at the top of a leap. They drift over the floor like mist. When a man lifts a woman, she seems suddenly weightless. Watching them is like gaining a secret glimpse into a graceful dimension.

an ethereal beauty ballet

There is a hearteningly prosaic flipside to all this unearthly perfection. That fluttering sylph comes off stage to stick her feet in an ice bucket, and that magnificent prince wipes off his make-up and rugs up for the bike ride home. Consider, for instance, the pointe shoe: a quasi-fetish object with pale perfect satin and sinuous ribbons. Ballerinas prepare for wear by taking to them with Stanley knives and pliers; they slam them in doors, paint their insides with shellac and burn the ends of the ribbons. Some put dishcloths inside to cushion the toes.

Classical dancers work hard, and form tight-knit communities. Their studios smell of sweat. Even though a company works together closely, and performs for audiences, a dancer’s artistic path is in some ways a lonely one. It’s an endless conversation between them and the mirror, a constant calibration of head and arms and neck and the angle of a leg.

Read more in N˚3: Fight.