New York Magazine published a remarkable photo essay by Henry Leutwyler Behind the Curtain at the New York City Ballet. We can’t help viewing his image of a ballerina’s feet —  one pointe shoe on, and one off — as a powerful metaphor for the often-hidden and difficult “inside” of a creative work that appears effortless and in control on the “outside”. The ballerina’s unadorned foot speaks volumes about the harsh realities, discipline, suffering and commitment she (we) must sometimes experience to do what she (we) loves.

A number of people we showed it to thought otherwise.

They saw a cruel and archaic art form that insists on defying the body’s natural movement, with painful consequences,  for the sake of its particular brand of beauty…

photo: henri leutwyler

New York Magazine Behind the Curtain New York City Ballet
photo: henry leutwyler

What do you think?

photos: Henry Leutwyler

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11 replies on “en pointe: is suffering for one’s art a myth?

  1. I really resonate with your thoughts on the “often-hidden and difficult “inside” of a creative work that appears effortless and in control on the “outside”.” The image, no doubt, is a striking one.

    At first I was surprised that people would be upset by this image but upon further reflection it does make sense. At the same time, while it can be a harsh art form, the dancer chooses to move and make shapes and continue moving. Can we call her a victim to “a cruel and archaic art form…for the sake of its particular brand of beauty?” I’m not sure.

    Either way, I see this image as a powerful statement. What can be seen outwardly as an effortless creation, has often caused pain, in some form or another, to create it.

  2. I have often thought of ballet dancers and tenors in a similar way—when it’s done well it is extraordinarily beautiful, but it’s not natural.

    But so what?Many beauties in the world are not natural. Why should natural be the only measurement of achievement or beauty?

    The physical condition of the dancer’s feet could be a metaphor for any artist’s work—there is a level of pain or extremis to be endured, either physical or psychological, which is hidden.

    I don’t mean to be dramatic about it, but normal, well-adjusted people don’t usually have the NEED to go through what you must go through when you are any kind of artist. And that can include pain.

    Personally, I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I’m onto the next phase—teaching.

  3. I’m with you: “Many beauties in the world are not natural”…Thanks.

  4. I think several years ago I might have thought the physical results of dancing en pointe cruel and archaic. But ever since I started taking aerials classes (trapeze, rope, silks), I am more sympathetic to the dancers and can understand why someone would choose do that to their feet. I routinely come home from my classes with rope burns and bruises and ridiculously sore muscles, and it’s just part of the process. It’s not exactly pleasant or “normal” to have a rope burn halfway around your waist or bruises on your arms that make your doctor ask you if your domestic situation is ok. But I don’t mind at all because it’s just part of something I love doing that is very physically challenging. I think it’s the same with dance- it’s partly the physical challenge of it and the “unnaturalness” that make it so beautiful and worth doing.

  5. It’s a truly powerful photo. I love your interpretation, Sally, of what it says about suffering for one’s art, but I also think it’s a statement about the juxtaposition of surface and reality — a reminder that things are not always as simple as they may seem.

    Whether it’s your coworker’s perfect figure, your friend’s perfect marriage, or your neighbor’s perfect child, things that look perfect, beautiful, and effortless on the surface are often supported by struggle and sacrifice.

  6. You said it even more clearly: things are not always as simple as they seem. Thanks!

  7. Sometimes the most worthwhile things we do in life are painful. Sometimes the best memories are accompanied by injuries. And, as we all know, beauty is pain. The blisters, bunions, bleeding and myriad ankle issues often make the sparkling moments of floating on your toes, or better yet in the air, sweeter and cherished even further. Ballet can be a metaphor for life, you may have to suffer, but if you work hard and push through pain some incredible dancing can come out of it that proves so priceless and life changing!

  8. I have to disagree with most of the sentiments expressed above. I’m really surprised by how much one is willing to rationalize pain and suffering. Certainly, ballet requires that you work very hard, suffer the pain of any physical sport or art form (try holding your leg out at a 90 degree angle for one minute and see how you fare!), but to rip skin, distort shape, essentially mutilating feet, is not just pushing through pain but an unnecessary aspect of the art and, unfortunately, the dancer must acquiesce if s/he is to make it a career. Indeed, it is a metaphor for the work of the artist, but it is a barbaric one that should be a bygone just as the corset and the tiny shoes of China.

  9. I cannot believe how people are saying this is barbaric, and mutilation. Most of the women with feet that are actually deformed or distorted, became that way beacuse they were either put “en pointe” at too young an age (and, yes, that is barbaric), or through an injury to their foot or toes that is likely to happen to any athlete; I certainly injured my ankles more in soccer than I ever did in dance. The bunions, blisters, and bruised nails are all capable of healing and being repaired, especially when she is retired from dance.
    To the person on here that called it barbaric:
    Who are you to say that her feet are anything but beautiful. Her feet are strong, and flexible, and enduring. They represent her determination, andher dreams that are not always easy; they represent her choice.
    Comparing it to corsets and footbinding is completely outrageous. Dancers are not forced to go en pointe, firstly; there are many other dance forms including comtemporary that never require you to put on pointe shoes. The dancers who pursue ballet are pursuing pointe, and they know they are pursuing pointe, so they are not victims. If you want to demonize the poor teachers who put them en pointe when they are too young, encourage eating disorders, and turn a blind eye to injuries, then do so. But do not victimize these women who know they do not have to be a pointe ballerina to be a dancer; they do not even have to be a dancer to be an artist with their bodies; they want to be ballerinas. Women were forced to wear corsets, women were forced to have their feet bound, they had no choice in the matter, and these practices severely disabled them, sometimes even causing early deaths. How dare you presume to bring women back to those times of being objects, and condemn these strong, independent, beautiful ballerinas as victims. Don’t you realize that in doing so, that in removing their choice, and their decisions from your thesis, you yourself are now the one subjecting them to being things? You are taking their dream, their love, and their life’s work, and crushing it into nothing more than a waste of time with one statement. I would hope that women have come further than that.

  10. I have been a distance runner on and off most of my life. I have had blisters, blood blisters and countless bruised toenails that usually fall off. I think any intense physical activity will take a toll on ones body, especially if it is done for years. Any serious athlete and dancer will tell you that there is pain and suffering in most physically demanding activities. The key is to learn your body and take time off when you have to and learn your limits.

  11. If you are saying it *is* possible to dance en pointe and not have horribly disfigured painful feet, then please enlighten me. I am not initiated to the secrets of dance. I am very concerned about my 17 yr old grand daughter whose feet look like a 40 year old’s. I am also concerned about how she is estranged from normal teenage socialising because of her addiction to (not passion for) dance. If her life became such at the hands of a boyfriend everybody would be agast and try to help her. But because it is dance it’s not only Ok, but wonderful?

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