Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Dying for Art

Just over a week ago, Sarah Guyard-Guillot died after slipping free from her safety wire and falling 15m at a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. Her death was the first fatality during a live performance in the show's 30 year history.
Guyard-Guillot's death was clearly a tragic accident. But it has made me consider whether there can ever be any justification to die for art, and whether the notion of death and the very real danger involved in many circus disciplines is undervalued by audiences and directors.
For dramaturge Bauke Lievens, circus is a “a celebration of life through the challenging of death, a demonstration of the superiority of the human race to master the universe.” I wonder, is this really necessary? Why not have a safety net?

Search for circus deaths on Google, and there are numerous incidents described, from angry circus animals attacking their owners, to trapeze artists falling or missing crash mats. In ballet on the other hand, stories are obsessed with and frequently end in death (think Swan Lake and Manon), but thankfully, dancers do not generally put themselves at risk of death in performance.  
Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb rehearsing Trespass
Photo: Johan Persson
Nevertheless, contemporary choreographers have become increasingly interested in creating movements that defy the usual laws of gravity and the body's capabilities. Dancers also frequently cause long-term damage to their bodies through eating disorders or dancing when injured. In fact, ballet dancers can even die for their art; in 1997, Boston Ballet's Heidi Guenther died at the age of 22 after suffering from anorexia.
So is it worth it, for that brief moment of glory onstage? Most professional dancers would say they'd do anything to perform, believing that it is. But for those who don't succeed or end up hospitalised or dead, the response would probably be different.

What can we do as audiences and directors? I think we need to provide a safety net, whether literally or in the form of sports psychologists and physiotherapists. And we need not to tolerate unsafe practice, by demanding better safety checks on equipment and ongoing health education and advice for performers.

At Central School of Ballet, dancers that are too thin are not allowed to take classes, but in the professional world, performers have to make their own decisions. For Kevin O'Hare, Royal Ballet director, "we can provide all the tools for health and wellbeing, but the dancers are adults, and it's up to them whether they choose to use them or not."

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