The term “ballerina,” based on the Oxford English Dictionary, originated from the late 1700s and has been the female of ballerino, Italian for “dance master,” which descended in the Latin ballare, “to dance.” More recent definitions include Merriam-Webster’s “a girl who’s a ballet dancer” and American Heritage’s “a primary female politician in a ballet company.” The term, an individual might say, dances about, never landing at an exact fifth place.
It is not wrong, if we go by Merriam-Webster, to phone a corps woman a ballerina, and those who don’t know a lot about ballet blithely use the word to anyone who wears pointe shoes. However the more one knows about this artwork, the more reverence one brings to the word, possibly because it’s the last vestige of those vaunted titles of yore–“prima ballerina” and “prima ballerina assoluta”–mantles of esteem that were made just like a knighthood and flanked by queen, nation or company director. Such names are now defunct, having been substituted by the gender-neutral, everyone’s-equal “principal dancer.” (The Paris Opéra Ballet is the exclusion, calling its flaws étoiles, or “stars,” but afterward, France was the birthplace of ballet and also is a law unto itself.) It is an invisible crown which comes into a priest on invisible hands.
There are different views, naturally, concerning that dancers are wearing that crown. Last July, a post inThe New York Times created a tempest among balletomanes when it attempted to define the American ballerina (“ornery, direct, unaffected”) compared to the idealized Old World version, and went on to state that there were currently “11 prodigious American young girls dancing in six American companies, who deserve to be known as ballerinas.” A correction was issued four days later when it turned out that one of those girls were born in Britain. Which goes to show how catchy it is simply to categorize ballerinas, let alone attempting to specify one. And every little girl who possessed a particular type of jewelry box, one that opens on a very small ballerina pirouetting in a pink tutu, feels the significance of this word, this dancer is somehow more special than the rest: a precious gem, a jewel of the civilization.
Certainly, the initial ballerinas–emerging from the early 1700s–were glittering prizes, frequently kept and protected from kings, aristocrats, and men of high culture. Stars at home and abroad, love items in the boudoir, these girls had liberty unique for their time and were the focus of aesthetic debate, romantic dream and loving fans ( therefore it continued in 2013!). Indeed, just as thoroughbred racing has its foundation stallions–the first great steeds from that which the entire breed surfaced–you could say the art of ballet has its base ballerinas. Françoise Prévost’s noble feelings, Marie Camargo’s feisty virtuosity, Marie Sallé’s dramatic naturalness: All these 18th-century originals were the classical templates upon which prospective dancers would operate their innovations. In 1841, the artless and scenic ballon of Carlotta Grisi, at the premiere of Giselle, brought the age of Romantic ballet to the ravishing full moon.
These epochal moments where the girl, the role and the ballet fuse into a single phenomenon direct like stepping stone through the centuries, as if ballet is always reborn with every new ballerina and those properties specific to her.
But what properties spell out the difference between a beautiful dancer and a ballerina, for there are several beautiful dancers who don’t wear the crown? And technical command does not a ballerina create; ballet is not, after all, gymnastics in toe shoes. Every lover of ballet will have her own answer to the very subjective question. Some point to the air or atmosphere that attends a ballerina–the perfume of her inflections, the projection of a larger soul or deeper spirituality. Others try to find control, how a ballerina owns the steps along with the mark that she leaves them. And still, others want strangeness, something they’ve never noticed before, a wayward energy that carries the ballet into a place beyond.
Beyond is where a ballerina breathes. She goes beyond prettiness and perfection to create a language of ballet–not a speech of words but of dreams. When she is onstage, you see more because she shows more–concentration, transformation, lighting, connection. Tallchief’s Firebird brings us into its deep-woods trance, a soundless ripple moving through the shoulders, the head dropping forward into fantasy. This can be virtuosity turned upside, a slowed down the center in a silent glade, magical à Terre. Gelsey Kirkland, on the flip side, dance Theme and Variations with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast, is so glowing, swift and committed she’s just like a hummingbird darting between shadows. She is heat, flight and isolated longing–a fairy tale in a prism. And Wendy Whelan, dancing the pas de deux at Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, her hair loose and her legs bare, is the ballerina stripped down, modern, a millennial single. She expresses all the awkwardness, sexual and despair vulnerability of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.”
Back in the 1970s, talking a dance celebrity he’d had the chance to hire but did not, Balanchine explained that she had been fantastic dancing with other people but that he “wasn’t interested in seeing her dancing” Whether twirling in a pink satin box or diving into a cutting-edge pas de deux, then she’s powerful, inspiringly and unforgettably alone.