It’s spring, and the tutus are in bloom: The Kirov has come and gone, City Ballet is on view, and American Ballet Theatre opens next week. The so-called classical tutu, that skirtlet that sticks straight out from the hips, is a cultural icon, and we spectators construe it as we’re meant to. When a ballerina is tilted forward in arabesque penchée, the tutu frames her head and upper body and enlarges her design in space. When she’s erect, her torso and supple arms seem to blossom from the puff around her hips—a skirt short enough to free her legs lest they be prevented from pointing to high noon.
Compared with today’s skin-baring, form-sculpting dance clothes, it’s a dainty anachronism. While I was watching the Kirov whip off excerpts from the classics, a perception that had been drifting in and out of my head for years suddenly jolted into place. The extreme tutu favored by the Russians resembles a pancake (and is so nicknamed). When the ballerina turns to bourrée away from the audience, the orchestra seats get a generous glimpse of her scantily clad buttocks. The front view is even more revealing, and when she kicks a leg high, we see far more than the nineteenth-century choreographers would have liked. (American tutus are typically more modest: eleven tiered net layers, covering all but the crotch. Still, how modest is that?)
The “Romantic” tutu—the full, mid-calf-length tulle skirt preferred by the not-so-nice Wilis of Giselle—came into being around 1832 and has endured. But by the latter half of the century, many ballet costumes reached only to the knees (a scandalous vision for the day). And they kept rising, partly in response to the increasing technical achievements of female dancers. Who wants to see a prima ballerina whipping herself into 32 fouetté turns obscured by a cloud of fabric?
Women’s-studies writers have debated the image of the ballerina for some time: A powerful, skilled female is depicted as too fragile to stand without a partner’s grasp. However, the contemporary argument that women are empowered by embracing their sexuality finds a curious analog here. Take, for instance, Act One of Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty. It’s Princess Aurora’s 16th birthday; as she’s presented to the court, four suitors vie for her hand. In the “Rose Adagio,” they take turns rotating her on one satin toe. As she displays her poise and royal decorum, she also displays her crotch, and nobody onstage or in the audience seems to notice. Ballets like this, trafficking in illusion and uncanny skill, draw their bewitching veils over our eyes in more ways than one.