It’s Nutcracker season! Every winter all around the country, ballet companies and dance schools put up the ballet that has become inextricably linked, in American culture, with Christmas. There are as many different versions of The Nutcracker as there are groups performing it, but a few things are usually constant. There is almost always a little girl, Marie or Clara, around who the story is based, and there is always a nutcracker and lots of candy. And of course, there is always The Sugar Plum Fairy.
In the ballet versions I’m used to seeing, The Sugar Plum Fairy is the adult star of the show. She’s the Queen of the Land of the Sweets, the sugar-coated dreamworld in which the second half of the ballet takes place, and her pas de deux at the end of the dream, usually danced to what, in my opinion, is the most heartbreakingly beautiful music Tchaikovsky ever composed, is one of the technical highlights of what is essentially a pretty fluffy ballet.
The New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, created by company founder and the father of modern American ballet George Balanchine, opened over the weekend, and the New York Times’ dance critic Alastair Macaulay had plenty of good things to say about it. He also said this about two of the principal dancers, whose rank in the company marks them as two of the best ballet dancers in the world: “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.”
Look, body snarking is nothing new for ballet dancers. As a former dancer myself, I can assure you that it happens all the time. I was lucky that several of the women who taught me when I was younger were determined not to criticize their students’ bodies in ways that might lead to the low self-esteem and disordered eating that run rampant in the dance world. But they only felt that way because they themselves had suffered from eating disorders when they were dancers, and didn’t want their students to suffer in the same way. Other teachers were not so circumspect, and indirectly encouraged eating disorders by telling students who engaged in unhealthy weight loss practices that they looked great. And as for body snarking between dancers, well, I’m sorry to say that that continued even when I was in college and dancing in a far more relaxed environment.
All of this gives Macaulay no justification for saying what he said. Ringer, as several people have already pointed out, has a history of eating disorders about which she has spoken publicly. It was insensitive in the extreme for Macaulay to publicly insult her body – and it have been even if she had no such history.
Angle and Ringer are highly trained, spectacularly talented dancers. They are professionals trying to do a job. Certainly that job involves public performance and public critique, and there are certain expectations of appearance as well as of ability. Ballet, like figure skating, like other forms of athleticism in which appearance is also a factor, requires a certain body shape. A ballet dancer with exquisite technique but unattractive lines can do all the steps, but won’t be very enjoyable to watch. And ballet is meant to be watched. That said, Macaulay didn’t seem to think that Ringer’s and Angle’s girth was interfering with their dancing. He just called them fat, without stating if that made their performance less compelling. In other words, this was a case of pure bitchiness.
If Ringer and Angle wanted bitchiness and bodysnark, they could go hang out in a studio full of thirteen-year-old ballet students. They don’t need to read it in the New York Times.