Art & Culture

Was 2020 the Year of the Ballet?

From the preponderance of athleisure to new streaming shows "On Pointe" and "Tiny Pretty Things," the art form of ballet has rarely been more dominant in pop culture than it is today.
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Mariya Semenyachenko photographed by Alikahn for for L’OFFICIEL Latvia.

Despite a dearth of in-person performances, traditional classes, or star-studded annual galas, ballet has emerged as a stealth cultural force in 2020. It’s taken over our TVs, infiltrated the books we read, and has even affected the clothes we wear. But how? And why? Certainly neither TV showrunners nor fashion designers could have predicted a year like 2020 in which many turned to Instagram Live for barre classes when they weren’t choreographing their own routines on TikTok.

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A New York City Ballet dancer performs on the rooftop of The Empire Hotel. Photo: Nina Westervelt.

Indeed, it might be fair to say second-skin spandex blends ruled 2020—sorry, sweats. Trend forecaster WGSN even noted that legging sales are up 60 percent this year. With everyone from Cher to U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris donning them lately, there’s little doubt to their legitimacy. While often marketed as a flattering, modern-tech marvel in the athleisure movement, leggings aren’t actually au courant, as the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology February exhibition, Ballerina: Fashion’s Modern Muse showed. Along with leotards, leggings were worn as far back as the 1940s, when designers began looking to the ballerinas then appearing in high fashion magazines for creative inspiration. The trend continues apace today, with runways not only reflecting the stage, but with renowned dancers like Misty Copeland appearing in ad campaigns for Stuart Weitzman and Estée Lauder.

Copeland, who in 2015 became the first Black woman promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s history, came out with an illustrated children’s book, Bunheads, this past September. (She previously authored another kids’ book, Firebird, and a memoir, Life in Motion.) For its part, Rizzoli published at least six dance-themed books in 2020, including works about Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark, and the first authorized photographic tribute to Copeland by Gregg Delman.

Speaking of homages, it would be remiss not to mention Season 4 of The Crown, which, though fictitious, is nevertheless based in part on real events. In the first episode, we see Emma Corrin’s Diana Spencer slinking around the grand entry hall of her family estate dressed in tights and a green leotard as a “mad tree” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later, the season’s penultimate episode captures Princess Diana’s surprise performance of “Uptown Girl” at the Royal Opera House in honor of Prince Charles’s 37th birthday. In 2017, Wayne Sleep, the dancer who actually performed alongside Princess Diana that year, recalled the experience in a newly rediscovered clip from 48 Hours.

Dancing with Diana: Princess wowed audience in surprise appearance

This year also marks the 10-year anniversary of Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror film Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as dueling, deranged ballerinas. The thriller clearly influenced Netflix’s Tiny Pretty Things, which is based on a YA novel of the same name and debuted this month. Already renewed for a second season, it centers around a group of talented, albeit debauched and perhaps deadly dancers at a Chicago ballet academy. 

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Natalie Portman in "Black Swan."
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Netflix's "Tiny Pretty Things."

Anyone looking for a more wholesome, realistic take on the genre should check out the new Disney+ docuseries, On Pointe. Featuring School of American Ballet students from all across the U.S., the six-part show offers a rare glimpse into the daily rigors of performing at an elite level at arguably the country’s top institution. Like the dancers in Black Swan, the kids in On Pointe are gearing up for The Nutcracker. Unlike Tiny Pretty Things, no one nearly perishes in the process. 

While balletomania isn’t likely to reach this year’s fever pitch again in 2021, it’s safe to say the genre shows little chance of fully receding from the spotlight anytime soon.

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