Jane Howard on how Meryl Tankard exposes the unbeautiful pain behind the beauty on stage, in her remarkable work Two Feet
To be a classical ballerina is to suffer, beautifully.
There is the extreme stress put on the body: the idealisation of hyperflexion; the creation of a singular body type to fit into the corps de ballet, with muscles which must be able to withhold hours of punishment yet look sleek and long; the repeated moulding of feet to heighten arches; the stress of supporting the entire body weight only on the tips of toes.
Then there are the stories the ballerina must tell. She is killed by an asp in La Bayadiére; she is murdered by Don José in Carmen; she is stabbed with a dagger Romeo & Juliet; she drowns in Swan Lake. In Giselle, she dies from madness caused by grief. She believed the man she loved was a peasant, like she is. When she finds out he is a nobleman, she knows they will never marry. After her death, she becomes a willis: spirit women who die after they are betrayed by their lovers.
And yet, as she dances the steps which will kill her, she must suffer. Beautifully.
When they die on stage, even now, these ballerinas are most likely to be directed in their death by men. At the three largest ballet companies in Australia in 2019, women make up 54 per cent of company dancers but only 14 per cent of choreographers. Of all the full-length ballets (excluding triple bills), only one – West Australian Ballet’s Giselle – is choreographed by women. Alice Topp, one of the Australian Ballet’s resident choreographers (alongside three men) has never had a full-length ballet staged by the company.
The history of dance companies in Australia is often a story of companies started by women now run by men. Bangarra, Dancenorth, Sydney Dance Company, and the Australian Ballet all began with female artistic directors. Australian Dance Theatre was established by Elizabeth Dalman in 1965; she was sacked by the board in 1975. Meryl Tankard joined the company as artistic director in 1993. She was sacked by the board in 1998.
Two decades on, Tankard is perhaps better known in Adelaide for her sacking than her work. She has been a constant fixture in Adelaide’s festivals, but the turbulence at ADT in the late ’90s still looms large. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a story if it wasn’t about an extraordinary choreographer.
Before coming to Adelaide in 1988, Tankard premiered Two Feet: a solo performance about the suffering of women in ballet. A demanding work, it not only pushes at the demands of the athletic and artistic body, it radically allows this suffering to not be beautiful.
To be a classical ballerina, Tankard says through the work, is to suffer. Watch this pain.
Olga Spessivtzeva suffered. She danced at the Ballet Russes, the Paris Opera Ballet, with companies in Buenos Aires, and in London. She was most famous for her role in Giselle – perhaps because she also became famous for her mental breakdowns.
On stage she was beautiful. Her partner and biographer, Anton Dolin, wrote: “The quality of beauty she produced caused the heart to miss a beat. She had a calm, glowing integrity, a serenely devotional approach to her work.” She gave her last performance in 1937. She lived in hospital from 1943 to 1963. She died in 1991.
Two Feet is an episodic dance work that looks at Spessivtzeva’s incredible talent and suffering. It’s also Tankard’s story of her love of and joy in dance, her personal sacrifice and satisfaction. For this Adelaide Festival, Tankard has reworked the piece to include Russian dancer Natalia Osipova’s story: we see photos of Spessivtzeva, looking simultaneously severe and serene and home video footage of a young Osipova, mugging for the camera while pretending to take her ballet class seriously.
Osipova plays at being a young child. Following instructions from a book, she attempts a child’s ballet movement; listening to a record, wearing too-big high heels, she joyously stumbles through Betty White’s Learn to Dance: How to Tango. She is tortured by the endless repetition of the barre, turning against herself with a stick to hit her legs as a parasite of a ballet mistress. She is tortured at Christmas lunch: a mere taste of cream and she frantically exercises to erase the extra calories. Giselle and The Rite of Spring infect the stage, and her mind: extreme stress and tension.
Osipova currently works as a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, London. Her body is remarkable: her pointe work glides her over the stage, seemingly effortlessly. Her muscles shoot her into the air. She dances through to her finger-tips, thinking of the whole body. With long lines, she holds her a leg above her head as if she is held together with springs rather than bone. “I never felt anything,” she says to the audience of being over-stretched as a child, “because I’m used to pain.”
In Two Feet, Tankard wants us to see this pain. Not in the comical way Osipova grabs her leg like this, but in the demands: the perfectionism, the singular visions, the never-ending work of making an obedient body. Thinking of Tankard’s place in Adelaide dance history, of the dominance of male leaders in Australian dance history, it is hard to watch this work without seeing this pain, too.
The work goes on. Tankard shows us more and more pain. Osipova shows us more and more pain. She is suffering, and it is far from beautiful. She is striving for something that can never be reached, she is torturing herself because she will never reach it. Her body becomes wracked with anger and frustration. She suffers. And we must watch. She winces. She falls. She gets back up again. She winces. She falls. She is Spessivtzeva, and Giselle, and Tankard, and Osipova, and every dancer who suffers. Over and over again. Until there is nothing left to give.
There is so much remarkable about this production, which makes it sad that it’s let down by its staging at the Adelaide Festival – at least in the first four rows. A small lip is built onto the stage at the Dunstan Playhouse to hold back the water which floods it in the final scene. But it obscures the view of the stage: specifically the eponymous two feet of the title whenever Osipova performs in the front two-thirds of the stage.
I was sitting in this fourth row, the last row before the rake in the Dunstan playhouse begins, in a seat classified as A Reserve. And so, while intellectually I can write about how the work ends with the suffering, there is so much I cannot tell you: feet, water and toil were all hidden behind a two-inch lip on the stage. There is, surely, so much to be said about this water, the way it plays into the work, the resistance it adds to Osipova’s body. But I watched this scene only from the calves up. perceiving the water only through splashes. The dancer’s suffering, the choreographer’s story, hidden. In the light of a work about everything that goes unsaid in the world of dance, this obstruction feels particularly cruel.
Two Feet, created by Meryl Tankard, performed by Natalia Osipova. Visual Design Regis Lansac, lighting Design Ben Hughes. Adelaide Festival. Closed.