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I just came from a performance of Giselle, the classic ballet in which the heroine, a peasant girl, falls in love with a prince and then dies when she discovers that he is betrothed to a noblewoman. I love this ballet and watched it with rapt attention, but I was struck, in the context of our #MeToo moment, of its problematic appeal and that of other ballets that I love like Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake.

Not for the first time, but more strongly, I was brought up short by the contradictions inherent in what I was seeing. One cannot separate a classical ballet of this kind from its reliance on extreme, stereotypical gender representation. The tutu is a frilly exaggeration of a woman’s hips and the longer skirt is its more romanticized extension, not to mention the diaphanous nightgowns that figure in sleep-walking scenes and bedroom encounters. The male dancer is the support, the prop and pander, to this gauzy female caricature. Often the ballerina dies — in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet there is a duet, if it can be called that, with Juliet’s lifeless body. Ballet also demands rigorous physical conformity from the female dancer. She must be of a certain height and weight, must have a certain leg length, and must possess good turn-out and feet. (My teacher informed me that I had none of these at age 12.) The male dancer, by contrast, is mostly defined by his bulging codpiece and delineated buttocks. So long as male dancers can jump and support their partners, they can be more variable in their physique. More… “The Paradox of Pointe”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.

Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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