There exists a small handful of cultural Christmas relics which are greeted each season with nostalgic warmth. They are as much a part of Christmas as the pine tree and the baby Jesus. There are the families that read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" each Christmas Eve in front of a roaring fire and those who watch and quote National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation while baking cookies. Others make outings to the ballet to see perennial stagings of The Nutcracker, and an equally large cohort of parents do the carpooling, make-uping, and sewing for their very own dancing snowflakes and waltzing flowers.
Not much can stir up some Christmas cheer quite like a few chords of Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker score. For many little ballerinas, it is their dream to be cast in the role of Clara (sometimes called Marie), the young girl who stars as the savior and friend of the nutcracker prince himself. As the ballerinas grow up, few roles are as coveted as those of the Sugar Plum fairy. It's on par with the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and for those of you who have seen Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010), I'll allow you to indulge your imagination in the level of competition and angst castings can induce.
In light of this new platform for my thoughts, I'd like now to revisit Sugarplum-gate: the 2010 Nutcracker scandal. Cue flashback.
'Twas two weeks before break, and all through the Dance Center, not a body was resting, not on chair nor on couch. The papers were turned in to professors with care, in hopes that good grades soon would be there. In efforts to keep abreast of the local as well as national dance scenes, teachers and students alike were casually following the dance pages in publications such as Time Out Chicago and the New York Times. On the fateful day of November 28th, 2010, NYTimes dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote that New York City Ballet's Jenifer Ringer "looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many." Cue outrage. (To be fair, he also commented that male dancer Jared Angle "as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.")
Macaulay sent the dance world reeling because of his comments on Ringer. "He's a misogynist!" "But as a dancer part of her job is her body..." "But she's not fat!" ad nauseum. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about what nobody liked to talk about. Especially in the contemporary modern world, we like to pretend we're very progressive as far as body image. This was a slap in the face. Come on now, Alastair, get with the program. We don't do that whole endorsing-a-culture-of-disordered-eating thing anymore. Not cool, man.
Except that we do, in a silent consensus, subscribe to the very same principles that drove Mr. Macaulay to make his assessment. While it is undoubtedly true that the accepted body aesthetic for ballet is very different than for modern dancers, we're kidding ourselves if we pretend like weight and body image are anything but nagging preoccupations for nearly all of us.
We judge ourselves in mirrors for hours a day, count calories, do sit-ups in corners on downtime, eat less during show week. There is a fine line between these behaviors and disordered eating, and far too many dancers toe or cross that line at some point or another. Just because no one explicitly tells us what to look like doesn't mean we don't know.
Macaulay responded to the profuse backlash against him in a subsequent article titled "Judging the Bodies in Ballet." It offered more substance for debate than the pithy one-liner in his original review. In a culture in which women's bodies are constantly objectified and denigrated in action it is ironic that we expect our words to remain politically correct.
While Macaulay could be considered crass, in his mind he was doing his job: critiquing that which was in front of him. He made us realize that we didn't like the lens we gave him to look through.
If anything, he gave us something to talk about and which we should continue to talk about. The honest truth about bodily standards in dance is that they ain't goin' anywhere anytime soon. Instead of pretending these standards don't exist we need to work towards a mentality that doesn't turn a blind eye towards behaviors that engender self-hatred and self-harm. We need to openly enjoy snacking on sugar plums occasionally and in moderation and not punish ourselves later. It's a much more complicated and nuanced way to handle body image, but the more responsible.
I hope you all can try to catch a local or regional production of The Nutcracker or any other dance performance near you! The best way to support dance is to see dance.