The Dancing Whore and the Body as Spectacle: Ballet Girls and the Romance and Ravishings between Ballet and Prostitution

By Sharmain van Blommestein.

Published by The International Journal of Civic, Political, and Community Studies

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Some ballets feature plots about prostitutes or allude to female impropriety, for example Miraculous Mandarin and Manon Lescaut. The Miraculous Mandarin was originally written by Menyhért Lengyel (1880-1974) and is based on a tale of prostitution, murder, and theft. Similarly, Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) Opera, Manon Lescaut (first performed in 1893), based on Abbé Antoine-François Prévost’s novel L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux de Manon Lescaut. The novel was scandalous and controversial for its time and was banned in France. However, in order to understand the connection, “fictional or factual,” between ballet and prostitution, the historical overview of the 18th and 19thCentury Ballet is necessary, since Ballet was gaining momentum and flourished as an institutionalized form; and “it not only celebrated the feminine form, but liberated, empowered, and unfortunately, at the same time, objectified, scrutinized, and controlled the feminine body,” and later bodies in general. Thus, weaved into this mostly historical article is the connection of the ballet performance to Mulvey’s element of spectacle and later to Butler’s gender performativity, which firstly demonstrates the basic principle of the power of the male gaze over women and women’s objectification in order to gratify the male’s/audience’s scopophilic gaze. And secondly, the female, and eventually the male, dancer’s body had to fit into the culturally assigned conventions of what makes the female body feminine: soft, fairy-like, and one that tantalizes; and also the male body must exude masculinity: muscularity in dance. Hence, with the innovations in Ballet over the centuries, female dancers were a spectacle of eroticism, which they eventually challenged when they danced with more athleticism and technical footwork, and took over the principle job of male dancers. This paper briefly discusses the traditional constructions of gender, via ballet, which are even being challenged in Modern Ballet, via its performances and its fashion, where there seems to be a fluidity of gendered bodies. In this modern art form, the ideology of spectacle seems to be deconstructed/re-constructed because the modern conventions of gender and the scopophilic gaze are moving away from the patriarchal ideal.

Keywords: Ballet, Opera/Opéra, Dance, Prostitution, Courtesans, Impropriety, Performance, Masculinity, Femininity, Body/bodies, Dancer, Danseur/Danseuse

The International Journal of Civic, Political, and Community Studies, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2012, pp.107-119. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 472.650KB).

Dr. Sharmain van Blommestein

Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of English and Communication, SUNY, Potsdam, Potsdam, New York, USA

Dr. Sharmain van Blommestein is an associate professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of English and Communication; and the Interim Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at SUNY Potsdam. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida and specializes in medieval/early modern literature, feminist theory, and women’s and gender studies topics via British and American literary studies. Her research formulates a cultural and political context for the relationship/parallel between Medieval/Early Modern and contemporary issues on ideologies of the gendered body; the semiotic body; and the body/skin as book. She examines the cultural significations of, and the semiotic prescriptions deployed in, “writing” on, and reading of, the body/skin as an act of agency. Her research interests are also connected to topics pertaining to medieval medicine and the social approach to health and healing; the female body and prostitution; menstruation and reproduction; women and religious women; and disease from ancient to modern. Her present research involves partly writing/editing two encyclopedias: Women’s Reproductive Lives: An Encyclopedia of Health, History, and Popular Culture; and Gynecology and Reproduction in Medieval/Renaissance Culture.