Deirdre Kelly

New Book Probes Delicious Scandals and Bold Triumphs of Ballerinas

Deirdre Kelly's New Book, BallerinaBallerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, by Deirdre Kelly. (Greystone Books)

By Adina Goldman

Journalist, author and critic Deirdre Kelly has been obsessed with dance all her life, and has been covering dance since her first gig at The Varsity (UofT’s student paper). Her recently-released book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, focuses her passion for ballet in a vibrant exploration of the history of the art. It is vividly depicted, peppered with startling facts, scandalous details and wistful beauty. Get out your holiday wish list! This book that will appeal to both ballet lovers and anyone interested in the historical evolution of art and its relationship to women.

You cover every era of ballet history with such vivid detail. Which moment in ballet would you most want to revisit and explore?
I am crazy about the Diaghilev era: What a cast of characters! From Vaslav Nijinsky, the proverbial mad artist, to Igor Stravinsky, a genius composer whose Le Sacre du printemps is my all time favourite ballet score, the artists who comprised Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes, represent to me the height of creativity in ballet.

Nothing that has come since has ever rivalled it in terms of its social and artistic impact. Before hand there had been the Romantic ballet of the mid-19th century which had initiated the cult of the ballerina against which Les Ballets Russes in many ways rebelled, replacing ethereality with brute eroticism and the delicacy of the female dancer with the pantherine prowl of the male dancer.
Then there was Isadora Duncan, early in the 20th century. The legendary American dance artist had turned her back on ballet, thinking it too punitive an art for women. She invented the bare-foot art of modern dance which she performed uncorsetted, the better to allow her full female figure to imitate the undulating waves of the sea.

All the principal choreographers of Les Ballets Russes, among them Nijinsky, Mikhail Fokine and also Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky’s super talented sister, were deeply influenced by her movement innovations. Isadora was a trailblazer, and so I would have liked to have been in the audience in St. Petersburg with Diaghilev and the other seminal members of Les Ballets Russes as they watched Isadora dance for the first time, and saw in her the future of ballet as an iconoclastic art form full of daring and verve. I would have found that most thrilling.

A similar question, but this one about the dancers: Which dancer in ballet history would you like to sip champagne with?
Marie-Madeleine Guimard, the 18th century ballerina who was a Paris Opéra star. She had been prostituted by her own mother before she was even a teenager as part of her early training as a ballet dancer. She rose from the most miserable poverty to become one of the most sought after female artists of her time, and largely as a result of her talent as both a ballerina and a courtesan. Among her lovers had been the Bishop of Orléans who helped bank-roll a series of beautifully designed and decorated pornographic theatres (the interiors were painted by Fragonard and Boucher) located in the suburbs of Paris. There, the unfashionably thin ballerina nicknamed Le Squelette des graces (the Skeleton of the Graces) oversaw live sex shows performed by other members of the Paris Opéra, both dancer and singers, for an audience that represented la crème de la crème of Paris society.

During the French Revolution, she was able to escape with her head intact by hiding out in Montmartre where the incorrigible dancer continued to stage erotic entertainments, this time using puppets, for those surviving members of the ancien régime who climbed the hill after her, cherishing their memories of her in her glory days. Paris continues to honour her memory. A chiselled bust of Guimard has pride of place in the foyer de la danse of the Opéra Garnier. There the celebrated dancer with a racy past presides over all the other ballerinas who have come after her, serving as their muse. I think Guimard would relish the irony of that. Her own letters which survive to this day show her to have been a ballerina with a wicked sense of humour! I admire her guts and staying power.

You describe the history of ballerinas as plagued by power struggles, exploitation, and wrestling with the female ideals of the time. At what points were ballerinas actually more emancipated than the average woman?
Believe it or not, ballerinas who were more emancipated than the average women belonged to the 17th and 18th centuries – and not the modern era as you might well think. Largely this is because of Louis XIV who early on passed a law exempting all professional women of the theatre from the authority of their husbands and fathers and from persecution by the law. The first ballerinas were servants of the state and they given unprecedented protections and freedoms, making them unique in comparison to other women of their day. Many ballerinas took advantage of these freedoms to carve out their destinies as they saw fit. Some, like the aforementioned Guimard, were able to rise to the highest echelons of their society even when of low birth. This was quite an accomplishment and it as largely as a result of the ballet.

You describe a period in pre-revolutionary France where there were women in their 40s dancing with much younger counterparts. How has that changed in recent history?
Actually, those ballerinas were in their 50s. See what I mean about the 18th century being better? Today, a ballerina could only wish for that kind of career longevity. Ballet today is so tough on the body that the average age of retirement is now 29. As for older female dancers dancing with younger partners, that can still happen. Look at Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev: She was already well into her 40s, when the twentysomething Slavic stallion arrived on the scene and gave her dancing career a second life. But such January-May partnerships are rare. Ballet dancers today are more likely to be kids, not mature artists in the prime of life. And more’s the pity because with age a ballet dancer ripens.

Your coverage of Kimberly Glasco landed you in a difficult position with the National Ballet of Canada. How has this controversy affected your relationship to Ballet?
My relationship to ballet continues as it always has – I still love it. I still go to the shows and I still review ballet, and other genres of dance, for the online arts publication, Critics at Large. I am also Canadian correspondent for the Dance Gazette, the magazine of the Royal Academy of Dance in London, England, which is distributed to over 80 countries world wide.

Is ballet is changing in positive ways for women, away from the anorexia and injuries of the past?
Yes it is. There a greater awareness now that a thin dancer is a wasted dancer. A ballerina who continually obsesses over calories can no longer keep up with the demands of today’s choreography which is now faster and more athletic than before. Emaciated dancers are more prone to injuries than healthy ones. They don’t have the bone density. Ballet companies are increasingly creating new policies with which to deal with these health issues, employing squadrons of health professionals, among them physiotherapists, osteopaths, dieticians and psychiatrists, to help ballerinas maintain optimum levels of physical and mental health and well-being. That’s a positive new direction.

Did you study ballet as a child?
I did an after-school program where I, and other girls my age, held on to the backs of chairs for balance. My mom didn’t like ballet and still doesn’t. She wanted me to do jazz or tap, dance forms she knew from the movies. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I decided that dance was actually what I was deeply passionate about. I would have wanted to have made it a career. But by then it was too late. I didn’t have the training. I didn’t have the turn-out. I became a killer social dancer instead. I was once on the now defunct Boogie Show on CITY-TV. And I won first prize at a dance contest organized by Toronto Dance Theatre, beating out all sorts of professionals. I move from the hips.

When we spoke with you last year, you mentioned your daughter takes ballet lessons. What words of wisdom would you have for her, should she decide to pursue a career in dance?
First of all, ballet has to be a calling. It’s not for dilettantes. Right now, I am encouraging my daughter to explore all sorts of options, not just ballet, because I want her to decide what it is she wants to do with her life. I am giving her ballet lessons in the off chance that if she one day decides, like me, to pursue dance, at least she will have the body preparedness in place. Then, if she were to choose dance as a career I would tell her to cherish every second, because it is a short career. Dance, like life, is here today, gone tomorrow – best experienced as a blaze of glory.

Deirdre Kelly will be signing copies of her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, at Books on Beechwood in Ottawa on Oct. 20, 1 to 3pm. She will be at the L.E. Shore Library in Thornbury, Ont., on Oct. 28.,The Writer’s Trust Gala on Nov 15, Metro Reference Library in December and Princeton on Nov. 29.  More information on her books and engagements can be found at


Reprinted from iVillage which first published this interview on Oct 19, 2012 at 1:45 PM.

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