Beyond the shimmer and flounce of the white tutu that swathes the graceful ballerina, past the blurring edges of the illuminated stage, lingering in the shadows of the dancers’ elongated limbs are those that may not occupy centrestage of the rarefied world of ballet, but they are nevertheless, not far at hand: the lovers of ballet, the ones who ran apace once with the blood, sweat and tears of dancing but are now out of the race — in a manner of speaking. Out of the race, but not out of love.
A dance critic who wrote for Los Angeles Times for nearly a decade and now a professor of dance at the University of California, Irvine, Jennifer Fisher’s latest book Ballet Matters: A Cultural Memoir of Dance Dreams and Empowering Realities (McFarland) goes into these little details of ballet and its surrounding world, a dance form that has captivated and dominated the imagination of the western world like no other. Combining history, dance theory and storytelling, Fisher tries to seek out the stories that remain hidden and untold amid the hurly burly of the lives of ballet dancers, not stories of success and adulation but relative anonymity yet strength.
It includes anecdotal accounts of the author’s own experience of being a young aspiring learner of ballet and her encounter with women who defied the truisms about ballet and its women: women who while playing the role of delicate nymphs and damsels, embodied personal strength and courage that helped them overcome the unique challenges that were laid at their doorstep. In that sense, this book could be seen as serving an important function of filling a gap.
It analyses the kinship that ballet helped form between its American practitioners and Russian peers across continents, in the face of the icy cold posturing between the two countries that have always had an uneasy political relationship. One of the chapters juxtaposes ballet with piety and religion. For those like Fisher and others who grew up in the libertine era of the 60s and 70s, where the purpose and diktats of religion were being questioned, ballet served as a proxy. The dance form’s repetitive motifs and its other-worldliness served as a template for a spiritual experience .
Ballet Matters is in many ways an extension of the work Fisher has already done with Nutcracker Nation (Yale University Press). ‘Nutcracker’ is a ballet that although thematically based on Christmas, draws people from different backgrounds, making it a truly secular carrier of common universal themes of community, family, childhood dreams etc. While her research on ‘Nutcracker’ was ethnographic involving case studies of several communities who were involved in the staging of it in different contextual set ups, Ballet Matters is more auto-ethnographic or what Fisher labels as ‘memoir ethnography’ exploring her own personal journey of rebellion against the established mores of the perfect housewife of the 50s, seeking refuge in ballet where she came in contact with non-conformist women who chose ‘dance’ as their raison d’etre, beyond the confines of traditional marriage.
Having been a dancer, actor, writer, radio commentator and a television critic, Fisher herself has had a very varied and rich career. As fate would have it, several years after she had left active performance, a visit to see the dance conservatories of Russia brought her back to the world of ballet. She felt an impetus to hitch her wagon of writing to the dance form. Subsequently, she went to graduate school, completed her master’s degree as well as her PhD in dance history and theory with an emphasis on dance anthropology. Fisher avers that it is this multi-ranging experience that has placed her with the unique advantage of being able to negotiate the different demands of being an academician with ease: “Studying acting made me more sensitive to the power of embodiment, and it helps with communication; I pay attention to how dance exists in popular culture after writing about TV for so long, and my ethnographic interviewing skills were honed talking to celebrities in Hollywood, so I was prepared for fieldwork.”
Although the field of dance studies is still very much nascent, it has the scope and malleability to be applied to everything — politics, race, gender, human rights etc. Fisher feels that the study of dance has immense potential in opening up the doors to understanding various aspects of human existence that touch our lives and consciousness. The body is a conduit for transmitting ideas, vesting in dance therefore an immense exploratory power to raise questions, make statements, provoke thoughts and delight senses — all at once. The study of dance as a serious pursuit in an academic setting is much warranted, says Fisher, who herself claims to be something of a reluctant academic.
“I’m not sure I would have wanted a lifelong career as a professor. It’s a rich opportunity to interact with students and colleagues, but I might not have appreciated it as much — or brought as much to it — if I hadn’t danced, acted, and reviewed movies before I came to academia,” says Fisher.