Ebook by Deirdre Kelly. Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. PDF, 250 pages.
Throughout her history, the ballerina has been perceived as the embodiment of beauty and perfection - she is the feminine ideal.
Fragment of the book.
Paris, December 18, 1961: Janine Charrat is backstage, preparing to rehearse the lead role in Les Algues for a performance on French television. The ballet is set in a lunatic asylum, and as Catherine, the woman who has lost her mind, Charrat is dressed in flowing white clothes and about to enter the scene holding a candelabra. Unbeknownst to her, someone has left the lighted prop next to the rosin box, and as Charrat rubs her ballet shoes into the sticky powder, her nylon skirt collides with the open flame and combusts.
The fire quickly engulfs her, the flames licking around her body, consuming her clothes and the pale, delicate flesh they were meant to protect. Like her character, Charrat becomes maddened, running wildly and screaming for help. Stagehands and fellow dancers gasp in horror at the sight of the dancer burning before their eyes. They rush to grab her, to throw her to the ground and stamp out the flames. But it is too late: nothing has been spared, with the exception of her pretty fox-like face.
The burning of the ballerina instantly makes headlines; all of Paris is riveted by the accident involving a beloved French celebrity, a dancer who first stole hearts when she was a twelve-year-old ballerina prodigy making her debut as one of the stars of Jean Benoît-Lévy’s 1937 film, La Mort du cygne (Death of the Swan). Reporters swarm the Hôpital Cochin, a public assistance hospital on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques, where the ballerina has been rushed by ambulance. They film for that evening’s newscast crying fans, among them Charrat’s fellow ballerinas—long-necked beauties with silk scarves tied tight around their heads—who are thickening the corridors. The cameras also capture Charrat wheeled in on a hospital bed, her eyes wide with shock. Her dark hair flows across the white pillow beneath her small head; an arm, badly burned, lies limply on the sheets. The camera closes in: the charred flesh is readily visible, peeled almost to the bone: a broken wing. A team of doctors and nurses pushes into the frame and rapidly wheels the bed down the brightly lit corridor toward an operating room. The blurred whiteness resembles a ghostly ballet.
Janine Charrat became a living torch, declares a reporter, recapping the day’s tragic event. She sustained burns to between 60 and 70 percent of her body.
It was a fateful episode in the life of the ballerina who had grown up in a Paris fire hall following her birth in Grenoble on July 24, 1924, during the dog days of summer. Charrat was destined to be a trailblazer—a gifted ballerina who defied the rules, an award-winning choreographer of experimental ballets created to reflect states of mind, among them Les Algues, considered her masterpiece. She also choreographed for film and television. The dark and dreamy dances she created for Benoît-Lévy’s 1952 short, La Jeune fille aux allumettes (The Little Match Girl), showed Charrat experimenting with the atmospheric effects of fire to heighten the film’s theme of disillusionment, a harbinger of things to come.
Charrat did not believe in movement for movement’s sake. Ballet had to mean something. It had to have symbolic value as well as tell a story—a way of thinking that she learned through her collaborations with leading artists of the day, among them Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau. A Ballets Russes alumnus, Cocteau so admired Charrat’s unique genius that he said she was a "marcheuse solitaire... va au-delà des étoiles!" (a solitary walker... who goes beyond the stars).
In the television studio that day in 1961, Charrat seemed to be fulfilling Cocteau’s prophecy. After the flames had been extinguished, she lay half-dead on the floor, still conscious, quietly moaning the same words over again: "Comme Emma Livry!" (Just like Emma Livry!).
In her delirium, Charrat invoked the name of an earlier French ballerina, another child prodigy, who had been burned alive in Paris just a century earlier, also while practicing her art: a sister in suffering. The similarity was eerily uncanny. Except that Charrat lived to tell the tale of how ballet, for all its transcendent beauty, is also fraught with hidden dangers.