Dance and Theatre are both incredibly exposing disciplines – in one, the entire focus is on the way your body looks and moves; in the other, outward perception can be a way into the industry, or a sure way out. In both, the performer is placing themselves in front of vast numbers of people, completely vulnerable and open to everyone.
Ballet is probably the most criticised art form for its attitude towards body image; horror stories about ballerinas starving themselves only to be told at rehearsal that they must ‘lose weight’ has been said to prevent mothers from letting their young daughters take part in classes. The threat of eating disorders seems constant, and films such as Black Swan have been criticised for building up or even glamorising this harsh side to the industry. It is, of course, natural that ballerinas traditionally have a certain physique – this is true of any athlete. However, in response to the uproar stemming from the Aronofsky film, several of Britain’s best ballerinas weren’t so impressed at the stereotyping. Quoted in the Guardian, Lauren Cuthbertson (principal dancer with Royal Ballet) said the film “makes ballet look as though it’s all blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice”, whilst Cassa Pancho (artistic director of Ballet Black) stated “don’t worry about the ballet – go for the … horror”, realising that it was less about the dance and more about the psychology. But it still created an image of ballerinas as obsessive, paranoid types bordering on schizophrenic – for any young dancer starting out, that is an intimidating and frightening prospect. Stereotypes and Hollywood movies aside, dance activity has enjoyed a boom over the last few years, with many styles, (including ballet!) encouraging anybody to dance. No matter the shape, colour, size… If you’ve got a body – you can dance.
In the theatre too, minds seem to have shifted. Before, in order to make it on stage you had to be young and beautiful – the epitome of perfection, elegant, and easily liked. Many people are now finding the stage to be a source of confidence boosting – as they tread the boards, they are encompassing someone else, someone confident, someone strong. Their own insecurities are lost because they are not themselves, and this helps them in everyday life remember their own value, worth and talent. I myself remember being a very self-conscious child with low self-esteem following several years of bullying – the theatre opened me up to embracing new people, and was a real form of escapism that filtered into my normal life. Nik Jameson who writes for Yahoo! Voices found that theatre saved his sense of self because he was “revealing my body to crowds and to judges and to my peers”.
This summer, Peer Productions toured schools and colleges with their performance Body Image, highlighting the issues around eating disorders and providing a forum for young people to engage with and question the reasons and support behind these topics.
Body image on the stage is a personal battle for each individual, and is something that performers of any sort will always be faced with. Although casting directors are broadening their nets and focusing as much on the talent as possible, there will always be an element of the aesthetic in these industries. However, the amount of support is incredible and constantly increasing, both in and out of these circles, and attitudes are changing about ‘traditional’ beauty and what should and shouldn’t be seen. Fundamentally, it’s about being comfortable in your own skin – that confidence can do far more than a pretty face and a skinny waist, and will make the journey far more enjoyable.