Dancing Around It

Thursday, May 02, 2013 /by

Ballet is not my area of expertise, but I’ve been coming around to it lately. As someone who no longer looks forward to standing for hours in dark and dingy clubs to hear rock shows, the opportunity to sit and listen to music is always a plus. And seeing a great choreographer’s interpretations of that music only adds to the experience. Politely beaming crowds, between-set cocktails, a subliminal bell that beckons you back to your seat at the end of intermission, and the chance to go to the warmly monumental State Theater at Lincoln Center (I can’t bring myself to call it by its new, title-sponsored name, the David Koch Theater): All of it has a civilized appeal. 

The last couple of times I’ve gone, though, I’ve had a slightly disturbing thought: How would balletomanes feel if they found out that the dancers were taking performance-enhancing drugs? Like tennis and gymnastics, this traditionally elegant pursuit has become more physical over the years. Athletic excellence and physical achievement are part of what ballet audiences come to see. How does he leap that high? How does she hold that pose, spin so fast, stay so thin?

The New York Times wondered the same thing back in 2006, in an article entitled: “For Dancers, a New Athleticism, at What Price?” That’s something of a sensationalistic headline—the writer finds no evidence of steroid use, just the possibility of it in a field where “energy, weight control, muscle building, and pain management” are highly desirable, and more easily achieved with drugs.

Reaction to the question from people who follow ballet has been pretty uniform. Basically, they don't think about it, but they don't believe it would lessen their appreciation for the performers. If the fans were concerned about anything, it would be for the dancers' health. The artistry, rather than the athleticism, is what comes first in ballet. According to fans, the spell cast by the dancers wouldn’t seem any less entrancing if PEDs had helped cast it.

I believe that, but I do think drug revelations would have their affect on ballet audiences. On the surface, PEDs in sports would seem to be worse because they create an unfair competitive advantage. Ballerinas don’t directly compete once they’re on the stage, but they do battle each other fiercely to get there in the first place. They don’t make as much money, and aren’t as famous, as today’s professional athletes, but it’s hard to think of a line of work that’s more intense and demanding, and filled with big dreams, as that of a ballerina. 

Still, drugs aren’t on the minds of ballet fans as they get swept up in a Balanchine dance, and they aren’t on my radar then, either. More than athletes, dancers and artists are involved in creating an illusion. In sports, we want the results to be “real,” because our heroes inspire us with their personal achievements. If those achievements are phony, we can’t take anything from their stories, can't identify with them, can’t draw any lessons from them about the value of work and perseverance and courage.

If rumors ever did begin about dancers using drugs, we could probably convince ourselves that the artistry, the feeling, the beauty of what the performers do wouldn't be affected—no stimulant could create something so delicate and complex as a ballerina's line. Plus, we aren’t as wrapped up in their personal stories; mostly, we have no idea who the dancers are. But, and I’m speaking purely hypothetically, I wonder how people would feel if it turned out that the main reason Mikhail Baryshnikov was better than his colleagues was that he was using PEDs.

Watching the NBA playoffs this spring, I’ve transferred some of those thoughts over to basketball. Does it ever cross anyone’s mind that the players could be doping? The only drug-related case I can recall is Hedo Turkoglu’s 20-game suspension this year for testing positive for methenolone, an anabolic steroid. Maybe the NBA is clean, or maybe it doesn’t have a strong enough testing program to catch anyone. Either way, the sport’s fans don’t seem to care, or even consider it. Does that count as denial, or obliviousness, or just a love for sports that can't be shaken?

In the last few months, I’ve been a little surprised by the sudden awakening in the tennis world, since Lance Armstrong’s confession, to the possibility that players could be doping. Andy Murray’s 180 degree turn, from a man who once complained about testing to a man who now demands much more of it, was continued this week when he ripped a Spanish judge’s decision to destroy evidence from the Operation Puerto raid. Murray isn’t the only one. The topic of doping and testing went from back burner to front burner in a hurry.

There’s an element of ballet, of artistry, in tennis; it’s not purely athletic, the way running and swimming and cycling are. No one wants to believe that a beautiful one-handed backhand is anything but a product of nature and practice. Unfortunately, it’s a good thing we've started thinking about it.

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