Aging Ballerinas: How Old Is Too Old to Dance?

'What is pathetic in the view of one person can be totally interesting to someone else.'

Shir Hacham
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Shir Hacham

In the opening scene in a documentary film about the Dutch dance troupe Nederlands Dans Theater 3, NDT3, a dancer with a head of gray hair is seen at a conductor's podium. Then a group of dancers, who all look about 60 years old, dance toward him.

NDT 3 is a statement as much as it is a dance company. Founded by Jiri Kilyan in the 1990s, its performers are of advanced age. The company, which in 2006 ceased operations for lack of funds, demonstrated that dance, which is perhaps the art form that relates to the body to the greatest extent, knows no bounds when it comes to age.

Up to what age should dancers appear on stage? Should dancers retire at 30 or 40 or can they continue to perform throughout their lifetimes? "Anyone who asks when a dancer of advanced age becomes an icon and when he is a subject of pity is himself pitiful in his outlook," said choreographer Ohad Naharin.

"What is pathetic in the view of one person can be totally interesting to someone else. Anybody who wants to dance is entitled to," the Israeli dancer, choreographer and artistic director said. "I don't think being pitiful and being iconic are contradictory. I saw a solo performance by [Rudolf] Nureyev at the end of his career and it was a little like seeing him dying, but he still had a passion and at the same time total contempt for the audience. Anyone who was an interesting dancer will always remain an interesting dancer. On the contrary, today dancers retire too early. Beyond that, dancing is not just being on the stage. What about someone who dances alone at home at age 80? Isn't he dancing?"

Over the course of the 20th century, there were many dancers who performed at an advanced age. They included Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, among the giants of modern dance in the United States, who continued dancing beyond age 70. Cunningham even went on stage in a wheelchair. In the world of classical ballet, contrary to expectations, star dancers continue to perform up to the relatively advanced age of 40, partly because government authorities regulate employment conditions and subsidize the companies.

Nonetheless, as the U.K.’s Guardian daily noted several years ago, the retirement age of ballerinas from classical dance companies has declined from 40 in the 1980s to 29 by the 1990s. That's not surprising when you consider the trend toward youth in the entire cultural world, which is also reflected in the sexuality of young female pop stars as well figures of both sexes in the music and fashion industries.

In Israel it appears that the closest example we have to Cunningham and Graham is the dancer and choreographer Rina Sheinfeld, who even said that the two American women have been a source of inspiration for her. Sheinfeld, a former dancer with the Batsheva dance company who has been known for her fine delivery of Graham's works, still performs them at 77. "I view it as a mission to change attitudes in society that have been distorted in the West," she says. "Dance is art, not acrobatics or sports. When I appeared in Japan, I was the youngest of the performers, and I was already over 60. [Japanese dancer] Kazuo Ohno was dancing at age 100. I am at an advanced age and think that I dance much better, or differently, than I once did. I also feel the change in the audience's love for me. They love me now not from a distance or out of elitism, but rather from a feeling of closeness and being one of them."

She says, however, that in dancing before panels of judges that they were, "showing me the door and telling me, 'Let's go, get out of here.'" That was the point, she recalls, when she resolved to fight the phenomenon. "I began to understand that this was a mission."

In 2004, a report from the Columbia University Teachers College stated that the average age of retirement of dancers in the United States was 34. As a result, opportunities have been made available to dancers for additional education while they continue performing. Non-profit organizations such as Career Transition provide educational scholarships as well as grants cumulatively amounting to about $300,000 a year, made possible by the support of donors. Long-term cooperative relationships have also been established between dance companies and universities that enable dancers to earn a Bachelor's degree while they continue working.

One former performer, 45-year-old Talia Paz, whose career has included the Batsheva company, Britain's DV8 Physical Theater and the Scapino Ballet of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, believes that age barriers for dancers are intimately related to how governments relate to the profession on such matters as unemployment and pension programs. This is something with which she had personal experience. After working for ten years with the Cullberg Ballet in Sweden, under the artistic direction of Mats Ek, at the age of 35 she decided to leave the company, but she had to consider whether it would be better to wait another five years and then get the pension that is paid dancers at age 40, which amounted to 80 percent of her monthly salary.

"In Sweden and other welfare states, dance is viewed as a profession that people invest so many years of training and study in and in which the career is so short that an early pension is understood as compensation for the years lost and is designed to make a shift in careers possible," Paz explained. "When I was required to decide, I told myself it was not worth my while to wait five years to get a pension at 40. But when I returned to Israel, things were not handled any better. To support myself, I needed to run around teaching. There is no pension here for independently employed dancers, and I can't get unemployment compensation now. By law here, I will get my pension for the three years that I danced with Batsheva when I am 64." In other countries with generous social welfare benefits, such as France and Belgium, independently employed dancers also receive pension benefits, including unemployment.

Dvora Bartonov, a 1991 Israel Prize laureate for dance, died in 2010. She performed into her later years. It could be argued her dancing improved with age as her German Expressionist style, with its neutrality, was unaffected by any physical limitations she may have experienced. The leading dancers employing the dance form have tended to be older.

The career of German dancer Pina Bausch developed from the same dance form, and she performed well past retirement age; she preferred as a choreographer to work with older dancers. American avant-garde dance of the 1960s was also open when it came to the issue of age – and gender.

"Society holds up the role of the ballerina as a model" says Iris Erez, a 42-year-old independent dancer and choreographer, "but dance as an art form has long ago developed in other directions. In Israel more than 15 years ago, people used to leave Batsheva at 25, 26 or 27 and retire. Over the years, Batsheva began to hire [dancers with children] and on the independent scene there are a lot of dancers in their 40s. It's also related to what has happened to dancers' salaries and the formation of the dancers' union within the Israeli Union of Performing Artists. They get paid, which didn't happen before."

Dutch dance company NDT3.Credit: CodartsLectoraat
Batsheva Company's Ohad Naharin.Credit: NYT
Dutch dance company NDT3.Credit: CodartsLectoraat
Talia PazCredit: David Bachar

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