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With 'Black Swan' and attacks on 'sugar plum' ballerinas, body fascism rears its head

January 29, 2011 |  9:15 am

Portman It's Oscars season and feathers have been ruffled. While Darren Aronofsky’s ballet thriller, “Black Swan,” received five nods, terpsichorean talk has again turned to the issue of weight.

Best actress nominee Natalie Portman reportedly lost 20 pounds to sculpt a sleek body for the role, while New York City Ballet star Jenifer Ringer was called out last month by the New York Times dance critic for looking as if she’d “eaten one sugar plum too many” in a recent “Nutcracker” performance.

Ouch! The notion of body fascism -– placing a value on one’s physical appearance -– continues to rear its harsh head, more so now with the hit ballet movie drawing attention to the scale and the mirror, the double whammies that feed into the inherent narcissism of dance. Weighing in on the discussion, then, one wonders: Is it the critic’s job to judge the body or the performance?  Are they inextricably intertwined?  When does the aesthetic pronouncement become personal?

Body-critiquing in the arts is nothing new, though how the body is viewed has decidedly changed over the years.  Indeed, reactions to the packing on of pounds and other fleshly flaws can be charted back to at least the mid-18th century, when Paris Opera ballerina Marie Allard was relieved of her pointe shoes because frequent pregnancies had contributed to her excessive weight gain. 

To read my Arts & Books section essay on this hefty subject, including the notion that, to some extent, dance critics are all body fascists, click here.

-- Victoria Looseleaf

Photo: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight.