You’ll never catch this San Francisco Ballet star looking ordinary. Kochetkova fills her wardrobe with bold one-of-a-kind finds and pieces that make her laugh. But what’s most impressive is how she puts everything together into fantastical outfits that are truly her own. “I’m always mixing different prints that most people would say are unmixable,” she says. “I don’t think about it—it just happens. My style is just a part of whoever I happen to be on a certain day.”
American Apparel top: “American Apparel clothes are loose and light, and don’t make me look like a Barbie ballerina.”
Phobos Bodywear skirt: “I bought this when I was in Amsterdam learning Cinderella. I like how it’s cut high in the front so you can see your legs, and the flow of the material makes it nice to move in.”
Feathers Dancewear legwarmers: “These are made by a dancer I used to work with at English National Ballet. Clothes made by dancers are more grown up, and quite different from what you usually see in ballet shops.”
Julien David button-down: “This print has ducks and dinosaurs, though I like to pretend they’re dragons. I like dragons.”
Tatiana Parfionova coat: “This designer uses a lot of Russian folklore, and when she put out a collection with swans, I had to have something!”
Pants by contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama: “Whenever I see artists collaborating with fashion brands, I try to get a piece. What they create is often quite unusual.”
When it comes to fashion, this Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer is fearless. She will unabashedly wear a leotard—and just a leotard—out clubbing with friends, or put on a pair of five-inch Giuseppe Zanotti heels to go to work. “The great thing about living in New York is that there’s so many different people with different influences, you can be yourself,” she says. “I can go out in a bow-tie or suspenders or a full-body catsuit.” Williams’ biggest fashion influence is her mom, who always dolled her up in pumps and dresses as a kid. “She likes me to have style, to look like a girl. And to make sure I’m not coming out of the house looking crazy.”
Crop top: “This used to be a unitard that I wore once while dancing with Beyoncé. I just cut off the legs.”
Earrings: “I always wear earrings, even when I’m dancing. They’re a little decoration for the face, especially when I don’t want to wear makeup.”
Pants from a boutique in Puerto Rico: “I need some color on my body when I dance. Too much black kills me.”
Blazer from Zara: “My pop of color.”
Top: “It’s got an open back, which is my signature look.”
Leather shorts: “I work hard for my body. Why not show a little skin?”
Heels: “I have 50 pairs of heels at home, and more in storage. I can do anything in heels: go out after rehearsal, run to catch a bus—no problem.”
90 degrees - BalletArt
So that people applaud (2001, Russia).
Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a ballet class
Paris Opera Ballet, September 28th, 1978
Photo by Atelier Robert Doisneau
Isabelle Ciaravola and Mathieu Ganio
In the super competitive world of ballet, body standards are very different. Is it fair? Real dancers tell their stories.
At five feet tall and 95 pounds, fourteen-year-old, ballerina Christina Dewan is so not fat. But if body language is any clue to what’s going on inside someone’s head - and when isn’t it? - she does have some weight issues. Clad in a short sleeved black leotard and surrounded by mirrors, the dark-haired teen sits on the wooden studio floors twisted up like an anxious pretzel, with both arms and one knee literally wrapped around her torso. And when she talks about weight, she hugs herself even tighter. “After we get out of ballet school, my friends and I just go straight to McDonald’s and pig out.” Christina practically whispers. “Our schedules are so busy that we don’t really have the chance to just hang out. So if we have the time, we act like kids.”
Chowing down on fast-food is hardly typical behaviour for dancers: Yogurt and bananas, not a Big Mac and friends, are a ballerina’s staples during a long day of demanding rehearsals. Although Christina and her friends at New York City Ballet Tech are’nt depriving themselves of food, other dancers are - and they stress about it. Big Time.
"Sometimes a girl will say, ‘I look fat,’" says Christina. "I’ll go, ’ You do not look fat - you look perfectly fine!’ It drives you crazy to see something this thin" - she illustrates her point by holding up one slender index finger - "say she looks fat."
Still, if it’s fair to say that everyone in ballet is obsessed with weight, it’s also pretty obvious that the rest of the world is too. In 1994, gymnastics faced intense scrutiny when 22-year-old Christy Henrich died as a result of anorexia. Earlier this year, figure skater Michelle Kwan caused a minor uproar at a press conference when she reportedly responded to questions about her weight with “Really? I look skinnier? That’s a good thing!” Guys are immune, eighter; both college-level wrestlers and champion jockeys have died trying to meet their sport’s strict weight requirements. And, of course, let’s not forget those paper-thin models and actresses (or that the camera adds ten pounds). Lately, however, it is ballet that’s come under fire for discriminating against girls who don’t have a certain body type - and for driving some of them to fatal extremes in their pursuit of physical perfection.
TOO BIG FOR BALLET SCHOOL
Founded in 1933, the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School is no small-town dance academy: many of its more talented students join the San Francisco Ballet (SFB), one of the best companies in the world. So it’s no wonder that nine-year-old aspiring ballerina Fredrika Keefer - whose mother, Kirssy, is a former employee of the SFB and director of a modern dance company - was dying to go there.
Fredrika auditioned, but it wasn’t meant to be. According to the school, she didn’t meet their qualifications, which include, “A well-proportioned, sledner body; a straight and supple spine; legs that are well turned out from the hip joint and correctly arched feet”; well as “an ear for music.” Krissy thinks the rejection had more to do with her daughter’s size: At the time of the audition, Frederika was four-foot-one and weighed 64 pounds. So last NOvember, Krissy filed a complain with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission to figure out whether or not the ballet school unfairly discriminates by weight. (As of press time, no ruling has been made).
"I want to force them to change the audition process so that teachers look at child’s training rather than her body," Krissy says. "You don’t get company members by eyeballing eight-year-olds."
Unfortunately, ballet teachers can see a lot just by looking at the way a girl moves. Along with natural turn-out, which allows a dancer to open her legs 90 degress from the hips (that’s why ballerinas have that duck walk), proportion not weight or body size, is key in determining which dancers get into dance schools and which ones don’t.
Clinical psychologist Linda Hamilton, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet (NYCB) who now specializes in eating disorders, thinks Fredrika’s mom is making a mistakes, “If a little girl is looking kind of stocky, chances are she’s not going to develop into a swan when she’s sixteen or seventeen,” she says. “I konw a lot of people say, ‘Why do we need these requirements?’ but I think we have them for everything. With ballet dancers, it’s just more extreme because of the technique. I think Fredrika would do better to take different kinds of dance classes and not focus exclusively on ballet so she isn’t set up for failure.”
Modern dancers, for example, perform barefoot, they’re often more muscular (especially in the legs), and they use the momentum of their weight in their movement. And another great think about modern dance? There are no rules - especially how thin or fat a dancer, should be. But in the baller world, Hamilton says, approximately 15 precent of all dancers suffer serious eating disorders. Compare that to the general population, where the statistic is only 1 to 3 percent.
Heidi Guenther, a 22-year-old corps dancer with the Boston Ballet (and graduate of SFB), was among that 15 percent. At the time of her death - which was officially blamed on irregular heartbeat - in 1997, Heidi was five-foot-three and weighed 93 pounds. Her mother felt the pressure to be thin drove Heidi to anorexia, and sued the company for wrongful death. (Earlier this year, the judge threw the lawsuit out of court.) Krissy Keefer didn’t have Heidi’s tragic story in the back of her mind when she decided to take on SFB, but it broke her heart all the same.
"We all know this goes on," she says with a sign. "We know that dancers are told to lose weight or they’re fired. It’s harassement, and there’s anorexia and bulimia to make it happen. When I was with SFB, I saw some of these girls throwing up in the bathroom. I heard from more than one person that they change the pipes in the bathrooms at the NYCB every three or four years because the stomach acids from the girl’s throwing up erodes them."
Whatever the dance company’s plumbing situation - an NYCB spokesperson says that “Ms.Keefer’s secondhand gossip is simply preposterous” - many in the ballet community acknowledge that problems exist, especially among young dancers in ballet schools. “one out of every two dancers in stuggling with their eating to some degree without have a full-fledged eating disorder,” says Hamilton. “It’s the aesthetic. Ballet dancers are preoccupied with weight for good reason. Weight will play a factor in whether they get promoted or get scholarships or jobs. That is just reality.”
TWO DANCERS, TWO DIETS, TWO OUTCOMES
Eleena Melamed can attest to that reality. Her trouble began when she was twelve - the first time her teachers at the prestigious School of America Ballet (SAB) told her to lose weight.
"They had always told me I had the perfect body," she says. "I wasn’t heavy, I was just starting to develop. It was devastating." At the time, she thought starvation was the only way to get her teachers to like her - and the scary thing is, it seemed to work.
"I became severely anorexic," she says, sitting on a sofa in her New York City apartment. "You know those little boxes of cereal? I would eat half a box of bran flakes for breakfast, the other half for lunch - no milk - and an apple or a cup of broccoli for dinner."
She moved into the SAB dorms at fifteen, a decision she now terms the worst she ever made. “Everybody there was obsessed with food,” she says. “It was crazy. I wasn’t eating and I got extremely depressed, but I was very successful. When I was thin, all the teachers were drooling over me.” Everything changed for Eleena was sixteen and her grandfather died during Christmas vacation. Away from SAB, she began - the horror! - to eat again. “When I went on vacation, I weighed 95,” she says. “when I went back to the school, I weighed 116. But for someone who is five-foot-six, that is not a lot.”
After a brief stint abroad, she moved back to New York, where she was rejected by NYCB but eventually offered a contract at American Ballet Theatre. After two months, the horrible cycle started again. “One of the ballet mistresses pulled me asida and told me to lose weight,” she says. “How many times can you be told that you’re fat before you go crazy?” She continued to dance and diet for several months, but finally decided she’d had enough when a ballet director remarked.” You’re such a beautiful dancer - but you’re fat.” For the first time, Eleena’s response was swift and certain: “No, I’m not - I look good.” And then decided to quit.
Eleena, now 23, has been pursuing as acting career (she appeared as a dancer in last year’s film Center Stage), but, she admits, it’s a little too much like ballet. This month, she starts at Columbia University, where she’s thinking of studying Journalism. “Now I don’tweigh myself,” she says, “and I’ve never felt this good about myself. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Jenifer Ringer is enjoying a different sort of happy ending. The riveting and dramatic dancer has battled her weight since she was a fifteen-year-old ballet student nursing a broken foot - right about the same time she hit puberty. She joined NYCB at sixteen, but her weight issues persisted. In 1997, the company asked her to leave. “They said, “Nothing’s working with you staying, so go and fix yourself and then come back and everything will be fine,’ ” she recalls.
During her time away from ballet, Jeni earned a BA in English literature from Fordham University and worked as an administrative assistant. She also topped out at 45 pounds overweight. In her distress, Jeni forgot that she had promised James Fayette, an NYCB soloist (and her future husband), that she would appear as a guest dancer with him in a production of The Nutcracker. She went to a costume shop to rent a tutu - but nothing fit. “They ended up giving me a ‘romantic’ tutu [which falls below the knees],” she says. “It was humiliating. I called James and told him that I couldn’t fit into any of the tutus. Aand he was actually the first person who started my healing process. He said, ‘I don’t care what you look like, I do’nt care what you wear, I just want to dance with you.’ I almost burst into tears.”
Although it was anything but funny at the time, Jeni can laugh about that experience now. The 28-year-old ballerina rejoined NYCB in 1998 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2000. And believe it or not, she never actually dieted - getting back in shape and becoming a moderate, healthy eater was a gradual psychological process. “My eating habits were the last thing to change,” Jeni says. “I had gotten to the point where I hated my body and was disgusted with myself, but I had to feel all of that first - I had to like myself again. And once I got to that point, my relationship with food resolved itself. It happened very slowly but one day I realized that I was approaching food as sustenance and not for emotional reasons. I’m happy I went through it, because it made me who I am. I learned so much, and I think I’m a better person for it. And it’s kind of a miracle. When I look at where I was and where I am not, it’s wild.
By Gia Kourlas
Photo by Atelier Robert Doisneau
Ballet–classical ballet–is not a kind or generous dance form. That is, to a considerable degree, there is a very stringent and unyielding standard of what is desirable in the body of a dancer, and what is not. Attend any performance by a major company, and even a newcomer to ballet can get a basic sense of this: long and almost always thin. That said, there are ballet companies which take or even feature other kinds of bodies; the Joffrey, for instance, is known for the athleticism of its dancers. Some are downright stocky, and often very very strong, as opposed to the wispier physiques of other ballet companies.
The Joffrey aside (somewhat…their dancers are still very slim!) the prevailing trend in ballet these days is long and thin. Yet the demands that ballet makes of dancers go even beyond this already difficult to realize ideal; it extends to the very shape of the foot, and that extra inch of bone and flesh on the foot can earn a ballerina the envy of her peers. It’s no overstatement, I think, to say that dancers admire and want beautiful feet, even to the point of buying fabric inserts to give feet the desired appearance.
The ideal is, put simply: a strong yet flexible foot with a high arch and a high instep. As with hyperextension, high arches and insteps are all about the lines. When a foot with a high instep and high arch is fully pointed and stretched–oh, so lovely!
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Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Ingrid Silva and Stephanie Rae Williams perform an excerpt from Contested Spaces