Many people complain that they are a slave to their job. But there are few professions where one is expected to give oneself entirely. Of all the occupations, that of ballet dancer is one of the most demanding.
A discipline based so much around physical strength and grace will necessarily favour the youthful. Perhaps the most cruel thing about the life of the dancer is how quickly their flame can fade and die. Dancers peak young and even the un-named chorus girl in a classical ballet must be skilled beyond anything the ordinary man could even dream of. I can only imagine that they must be driven by some compulsion, they must dance, all other occupations are meaningless to them.
I love The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen, the story has suggestions of a moral tale about vanity and frivolity, but the motif of the young girl who is obsessed with dancing could also be interpreted in a positive way. Rather than being a listless youth with no ambition, she has found something she cares passionately about. The Red Shoes Film starring Moira Shearer emphasises the all-consuming pact of the dancer. In this case it is literally demonic, the shoemaker in the ballet being a somewhat unearthly figure. Here the dancer pays the ultimate price, she is brilliant and furious for a season, but then when the shoes are removed and the spell is over, exhausted, she dies.
But what if the Prima Ballerina were to survive; just fading into the background, and growing frailer by the day?
I recently read Gold on a Darkened Background by Polly Tuckett. The archetype of the Ageing Diva is particularly pertinent to the world of ballet, because it is so physically demanding, that any hint of weakness or decay can be the end of a career. I found it particularly poignant that the diva has lost her relationship with her son, her passion for dancing has caused her to neglect her only child. It reminds me of a talk I once listened to by the son of Mervyn Peake, while he was in awe of his father’s work, he did also discuss how difficult it was be to be the child of such a prolific artist and writer. Giorgio Vasari in his work The Lives of the Artists, does hint at a slightly sacrilegious idea; that men are not created equal. God is perhaps more generous with some than with others. Whether you agree with his suggestion or not, it is widely believed that very great people often pay a price for their ‘gifts’. The retired heroine of Gold on a Darkened Background is suffering the physical and emotional strains of her chosen profession. While the early life of a great ballerina is glamorous and glorious, the later life is painful and lonely. She is travelling from town to town, visiting the places where she was once the attraction. There is a question hanging over her as we see her filling a scrapbook of memories, but alienated from her family; was it all worth it?
The ageing diva also symbolises our fear of time. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard portrays this beautifully. Her fixation with preserving her youthful looks and still being a star is an extreme version of something that most people feel as time passes. We all know that her quest is futile, but we are probably guilty of the same vanity.
The question you have to ask yourself every time you envy your heroes and heroines, is what are they sacrificing, and would you be willing to pay that price?