BALLET IS AN ART FORM TYPIFIED BY GRACE AND STRENGTH, AND WHILE PHYSICAL LOOKS MATTER, DANCERS WITH HAIR LOSS ARE MAKING THEIR MARK IN THE WORLD OF DANCE.
The beautiful Tchaikovsky score insinuates itself in the ear as the eye beholds the familiar setting. It’s “Swan Lake,” and the titular avian creatures slowly make their appearance. The expected long, muscular legs flow out of the tutus and down to bare feet already on tiptoe. The figures glide gracefully across the stage, their arms raised above their heads – atop which not a single hair is visible.
Welcome to the Cullberg Ballet’s unique production of what is arguably the world’s most well-known ballet.
Cullberg’s version differs in ways other than the hairlessness of the cast. For example, the swans are all male; however, it is the baldness of the birdlike beauties that is notable and striking.
To be sure, the dancers themselves are not required to be bald; they are fitted with skullcaps to give the illusion of baldness. But in an art form such as dance, in which physical appearance is crucial, the illusion is important.
That’s not to say that physical appearance is all that matters in dance. But physical appearance is part of the whole package, and because choreography is concerned with making an impact through a visual representation, how one’s appearance affects that impact is a factor.
Hair loss and ballet: From dancers to choreographers to directors
Put another way, if there are two dancers whose talents and abilities are equal, the one whose physical appearance most closely fits the choreographer’s vision for a role will be given the part. This is one of the reasons why many (though certainly not all) dancers tend to be tall and have similar body types. A choreographer may feel that a particular role works best performed by a dancer with hair, but there are also many works for which a performer’s “haired state” does not have to be a factor.
Indeed, many of the world’s top choreographers are or have been bald-pated themselves. Take, for example, the immortal George Balanchine. For many of Balanchine’s active years, his forehead was gracefully high, his hairline perhaps receding so that the visions he saw in his head could more easily pour forth from his imagination and grace the world’s stages. “Jewels,” “The Nutcracker,” “The Prodigal Son” and many of the other masterpieces he created will live on as long as ballet is performed.
Balanchine’s colleague at New York City Ballet, Jerome Robbins, was another staggeringly talented choreographer who joined the hair loss club as time went by. While Robbins is perhaps best known for his work on Broadway, where he helmed such classics as “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “On the Town,” his ballet work also is impressive. He burst on the scene with the fresh-as-a-daisy “Fancy Free” in 1944 and later added more than 50 challenging works, including the wonderfully inventive “Dances at a Gathering.” Robbins’s ballets and his Broadway work cross-fertilized each other, creating a hybrid that is highly artistic while remaining immensely accessible.
Beauty, ballet and baldness
Over at American Ballet Theatre, the pate-happy Antony Tudor created stunningly beautiful works such as “Pillar of Fire” and “Leaves Are Fading.” Roland Petit’s receding hairline in no way kept him from becoming one of the leading lights of French ballet, giving appreciative audiences such works as “Les Forains,” “Jeune Homme et la Mort” and “Paradise Lost,” the last created for the one and only Rudolf Nureyev.
In more recent years, a number of other bald choreographers have made their mark on the scene. James Canfield led the Oregon Ballet through 13 years of exciting performances that raised the company to a new level. Jonathan Burrows has emerged as one of England’s premiere dance masters. Daniel Gwirtzman’s use of a variety of idioms gives his work with the New York-based company a particular style and flair.
Stephen Mills took the helm of Ballet Austin in 2000 and has done a remarkable job of raising the company’s profile. His work is acclaimed for its freshness and innovation while still remaining true to classical roots.
Finally, Akram Khan has gained a lot of attention for his bold experiments in dance. While some of them, such as the recent “In-I,” created for himself and the actress Juliette Binoche, have been greeted with wildly differing reactions, his work is undeniably interesting and bespeaks a personal point of view.
Many of the above-named choreographers have also achieved recognition as dancers themselves, and bald or balding dancers have been accorded appreciably greater recognition in recent decades. The power that can be found in a proud pate has been utilized by many choreographers, and today compelling dancers such as Kerville Jack and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges demonstrate conclusively that hairlines have no effect on the grace, beauty and command that a dancer has at his disposal.
As with other areas of entertainment, baldness in dance is becoming more accepted. Perhaps a bald prince in “Sleeping Beauty” is still a rarity today, but how long will it remain so?