I was never coordinated enough for ballet or dancing of any kind, but my taller, thinner, more graceful older sister was pretty seriously into it between the ages of four and sixteen. Her whole life was dedicated to dancing- every different style you can think of, classes every day, that sort of thing. And although she was amazing at it, and their performances were always beautiful (even to someone as generally bored by ballet as I am), I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence how much she flourished after quitting, how much healthier, happier and brighter she became.
So although I haven’t experienced it directly, I’ve always been really interested in the darker side of the dancer’s world, with all the pressure, exhaustion and psychological torment behind that façade of beauty. The pressure to have the perfect body, to have the perfect form, the perfect rhythm. It’s a pretty intense thing for anyone to endure, and the fascinating- and sometimes horrifying- thing is that it’s mostly young girls who suffer for this art.
Of course, ballet classes aren’t a traumatic experience for everyone, I’m sure, but it’s this extreme that I’m fascinated by. And that’s why I was fascinated by this recent exhibition that explores the limits ballerinas push themselves to in their quest for perfection.
En Pointe, on display at the Karen Woodbury Gallery in Richmond until the end of the month, is a collection of 12 digital prints and a short film by Magda Matwiejew. Both the prints and the film, Pretty Ballerina, feature a beautiful, red-haired ballet dancer who is prepared to sacrifice her body and her feet to her art. It’s rich with symbolism- the idea of pointe shoes is incredibly gendered, and demonstrates the physical challenges of dancing. Only female dancers have to go on pointe, and it represents, according to Matwiejew, the demand on women in general and ballerinas in particular to be more than perfect, more than human. ‘She had to look sublime, beyond mere mortal,’ she says. ‘These women were prepared to go through great pain and suffering to achieve this.’
In this sense, the images become less about ballet itself, and more about the broader pressures placed on women to look a certain way, even when it is deforming or painful for women to endure. But despite this perhaps darker subtext, the images themselves are beautiful and nostalgic, with romantic use of colour and a luscious sense of fantasy. So whatever other layers you choose to read into the images, they are delightful to look at. If you can’t make it to the gallery, check them out here!