Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

One Sugar Plum too Many: Critics, Ballet Theory, and Anorexia

Laurie and Debbie say:

On November 28, Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times reviewed the New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker. For whatever reason, he felt the need to criticize the size of two of the principal dancers, saying that Jennifer Ringer (dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy) “looked as if she’d eaten one sugarplum too many,” and that Jared Angle (dancing the role of the Cavalier), “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.”

Ringer and Angle on stage in the Nutcracker, looking thin and fit

Outcry ensued, especially since Ringer has gone public about her struggles with anorexia. Chloe at Feministing (where we found the story) says, gently enough, “calling a recovering anorexic fat in the pages of the New York Times is a cruel and hurtful thing to do.”

Macaulay was struck enough by the responses to his review to write an article in his own defense. (Don’t do that; it never works out well.) He makes many classic mistakes in this article: he calls the people who responded sexist for caring more about his comments about Ringer than about Angle, he puts in some (incomplete and insufficient) historical data to defend his comments about size, and he commits the sin of trying to claim that he understands the issues from his own experience.

My own history makes me intimately aware of what it is like to have a physique considerably less ideal than any of those I have mentioned. Acute asthma in childhood gave me a chest deformity that often made me miserable into my adolescence. (It was ameliorated by major thoracic surgery at age 20.)

Whatever that intimate awareness gave him, clearly compassion wasn’t on the list. He also ducks the question of whether or not he knew about Ringer’s anorexia by saying: “Some of my correspondents feel I should know this history of hers …. I think otherwise. Dancers do not ask to be considered victims.”

To which we say two things: One, it’s never foolish to believe that a ballet dancer has struggled with eating disorders. In fact, it might be a wise first guess. Two, if dancers do not ask to be considered victims (does anyone?), where does he get the license to victimize them?

The utterly fabulous response, however, comes from New York City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Devin Alberda, in his blog Golden Perseid Showers (we’d love him for the name alone). In an open letter to Macaulay, Alberda says:

This summer you wondered what the future holds for ballet as an art of modern expression. Noting the heteronormativity of story ballets, replete as they are with regressive gender roles, you greeted their current resurgence with trepidation. I took refuge in your analysis. Being a young gay man dancing in a large classical ballet company who is deeply invested in issues of gender and sexuality, the fact that someone was finally subjecting this rapidly obsolescing art form to contemporary gender standards gave me hope for the future.

Months later you meet public outcry over snarky remarks you made about a ballerina’s weight in a review of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ with charges of reverse sexism? If you’re mystified by the lack of protest your criticism of male bodies has received, you’re forgetting the centrality of the female form. Do you really need to be reminded that classical ballet, especially as Balanchine quotably promulgated it, emanates from Woman? The wealth of historical context with which you supply your readers on a regular basis suggests that you do not. No one really cares what you have to say about the men’s bodies because no one’s really watching them during the pas de deux anyway.

No one is challenging your right to zing; we expect you to say that we dance “without adult depth or complexity.” You’re a dance critic, it’s what you do, but saying that it looked like a ballerina had “eaten one sugar plum too many,” without explaining how her size hampered her dancing exposes the facile nature of your snark. You contribute to the objectification of the ballerina’s body further by divorcing her appearance from her movement quality entirely. You can’t ponder the representational struggles of contemporary story ballet in the summer and then fail to acknowledge your injurious participation in the construction of the ideal female form in the winter.

The only thing we can add to Alberda’s trenchant analysis is to point out just how well he draws the point away from Ringer’s figure and toward the heart of the issue. The objectification of women’s bodies is a necessary building block for stereotypical heteronormative love stories, in ballet and elsewhere. Macaulay, like so many others, is shoring up and protecting the structures he wants to despise.

3 Responses to “One Sugar Plum too Many: Critics, Ballet Theory, and Anorexia”

  1. Wordweaverlynn Says:

    I’d seen the story, but not the fabulous followup. Thanks.

  2. Donovan Sanchez Says:

    My family and I were sitting near the front of the stage watching this great performance and my younger son lean over toward me and in a low voice asked me?, ‘Dad, what are those lines running down her legs?’, I answered, ‘Son, they’re not lines those are varicose veins.’

  3. Lizzy L Says:

    I hadn’t seen either. Thanks. I don’t read much dance criticism any more; I love it when dancers talk about what they do, but comments from non-dancers tend to irritate me.

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