Restraint and Resistance: Exploring Ballet’s Political Aura

Art Of BalletBallet’s involvement in politics is no accident. For centuries, dance has been an ideal vehicle for seeding political agendas. Purists and critics would disagree, for sure, and argue that ballet, and dance in general, remains unpolluted by politics.

But art critic John O’Mahony has denounced this argument in an article in The Guardian, saying that there’s no other art form that best “captures the horrors and hypocrisies of conflict.” Many dancers are social-minded, he claims, and it is they who elevate the art into acts of resistance in a time of political strife.

Political Content in Ballet

Perhaps, one can say that ballet is a slave to form and technique, but the many nuances in the dancers’ individual style and emotional interpretation provide plenty of room for political content. And dance vocabulary is just one part of the narrative. There are music, visual and spatial elements, which all enhance the telling of the story.

There is an intricate link between ballet and politics. One example is the use of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as a powerful instrument of propaganda, through Bolshoi Ballet, to demonstrate and spread Soviet culture to “backwards” regions and other parts of Europe.

Escapism was the traditional inspiration for ballet. But since the French Revolution all the way up to the 9/11 attacks, ballet gave life to the values of freedom and illuminated hope. Ballet also produced a revolution, in that dancers adopted new styles and movements to break from the rigid dance techniques of the elite. The movements were more natural and expressive – far from the aristocratic image of “noble perfection.”

Meanwhile, Promethean Fire, Paul Taylor’s emotional response to 9/11, depicted images of despair and physical collapse in a grand and spiritual way. But in the grand coda, the dancers swiveled and leapt to form a complex grouping, portraying a structure rebuilt from the rubble.

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Ballet was a cultural enabler and a tool to unite communities, as dance companies toured the regions and the world. Today, the impact is far-reaching, as organizations, such as Dance Network, fuel discussions about dance styles from across the globe.

Ballet can be slow, fluid and exquisite but can also be bold and vivacious. But the narrative and content are never subtle. The audience will marvel at the dance, but weep over the underlying story and rage over the realism.