Ballet has a look. Not only does it evoke images of glittering sugar plum fairy costumes and bubblegum-pink tutus in the heads of audiences young and old, but the way those characters look is just as burned into the public’s consciousness. People are used to being entranced by tableaus of The Ballerina: the covertly strong, lean, dainty girl floating around stages across the world from Moscow’s Bolshoi to the American Ballet Theatre. They are different names of the same face — and body. Ballet has an ultra-rigid set of criteria for its top dancers, and those who don’t meet this specific body standard cannot participate in the elite form. Does the way that we think about ballet need to change? Marcus Schulkind, a professor at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee, thinks so.
Although Schulkind’s resume — which includes a stint at Juilliard, a position working with Martha Graham, and a professorship at one of the most elite conservatories in the country — suggests that he’s been dancing his entire life. His path to dance boldly fouettes in the face of the current blueprint, showing that anyone with enough passion can be an accomplished dancer. While most famed dancers start with the discipline when they can barely walk, Schulkind picked up dancing at 17, becoming “enamored” with the artform and improving exponentially. He quickly moved from The Goddard School to a Juilliard audition with the assurance from his mentor that he would be “the worst person there” if he made the cut — which he did.
But observing the greats makes the true greats-in-waiting even greater, and Schulkind quickly found success in the conservatory and company machine after moving from Juilliard to Batsheva. And while his recent strides have included things that may seem typical of accomplished dancers — like starting his own conservatory, his own studio, and taking a professorship — he offsets teaching the next generation by poking them through his acupuncture business. But not only does Schulkind’s unconventional path deserve praise for his own achievements; it also defines his teaching style.
Schulkind envisions a future for ballet that’s just as unique and diverse as his own circumstances. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson he spoke on the importance of establishing a “yin yang” relationship between dance, health, and “movement and energy,” citing his acupuncture work as the catalyst for making him more aware of this vital connection.
“One is the dance, which is the external energy, and then I work with internal energy, which is acupuncture — all the time — and so it totally changed my teaching skills, and I thought it was really important as a choreographer and as a dancer that if I hurt someone or someone got hurt, I could fix them.”
However, Schulkind’s propensity towards healing does not stop at physical health. His background has led him on a quest to heal the broken pieces of the dance world.
The old standard of the ballet system has distilled what it means to be a ballet dancer into the hyper-specified look and measurements of the body: again, the long, strong, and lean Ballerina reigns supreme. However, the sacrifices that dancers make to maintain this physique often lead to bodily and psychological harm.
“If you’re coming from one of the five major ballet schools in the world, there is unfortunately a stereotypical body type that is not only liked but actually is considered the only body type that should do this,” Schulkind said.
“We need not to be saying that someone has to be weighed every week, and if they’re not, then actually causing them specific body harm, and causing them harm not just to their body, but to mentality,” he added. “I don’t do that, I’m not interested in that.”
The abuse that many of these company ballerinas face is often ignored by a dance world led by an old generation who want to see the 147-year-old “Swan Lake” simply because it’s a centuries-old tradition. But Schulkind posits that it’s time to change that perspective. Ballet needs to reckon with its harmful expectations and move into a more sustainable future.
“It doesn’t really read to the truth of where we are right now, and we need to move along,” he said.
But the only way to truly soften the rigidity of the system is by completely overhauling its antiquated structure, and, much like the dancer, heal it wholly. Although the task of re-examining ballet may be daunting, Schulkind simply advises that we must look for the work that exposes and seeks to treat the wounds of our times. Whether that be a retelling of an old standard or something completely new, dance only evolves when it’s at its healthiest — when it's addressing something real. Prokofiev wrote “Cinderella” in response to the strife of World War II, and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” composed in the political firestorm pre-World War I, famously inspired a riot on its opening night, so whether the next great ballet addresses the war in Ukraine or the rise of facism in modern America, the public must be ready to accept a new framework with healthier dancers and a healthier system, as Marcus Schulkind has been waiting for years to.