In More than Enough, Doris Uhlich reads from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Hymn to Beauty’. It is a lovely poem, and one that befits Uhlich’s exploration of what we expect from and deem ‘beautiful’ in a dancing body.
However, Uhlich could also have explored another work by Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life.’ In this essay Baudelaire lays out what he means by beauty:
‘Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quality it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions…I defy anyone to point to a single scrap of beauty which does not contain these two elements.’
When Uhlich confronts that issue of what we find beautiful in a dancing body, she is also questioning what we find beautiful in bodies more generally. For the physique of a crane-line ballerina is not far removed from that of a fashion model – indeed there is cross-over between the professions. It is also similar to that of an actress and, all of a sudden, a TV presenter and that of all the girls I know who would certainly not enjoy a slice of my Nigella coconut cake. The ‘circumstantial element’ of our age’s ideal of beauty is based around being smaller and smaller, a physique which shows self-control and, often, wealth. It is a physique that takes up less space in the world and defies sensuality. It is, as one of the dancers Uhlich interviews says, ‘a religion’.
It is also a physique that is simply impossible to achieve for many women. Women who are born with hips far too wide and shoulders too broad. Women whose height talks to the 5ft mark on the tape measure, rather than the 6. I didn’t eat very much for a good year or so once upon a time. I shrunk and shrunk, but still didn’t look like a lady in the corps de ballet as dieting doesn’t change those motherly hipbones or those clumsy traipsing feet. I, like Uhlich and many other women, have a physique that speaks to an age in which ‘its fashions, its morals, its emotions’ are quite different to this one.
‘Have a look around an art gallery’ is often given as moral-boosting advice to the more solid amongst us. And yes, I see my body bathing my Courbet’s stream and trying a hat on Steer’s bedroom. Rossetti would have loved Uhlich, heroically strong as her body is. Walking down the street, especially in cold, drudgy England, there are hundreds of chubby Fornarinas whose beauty is now historic.
What is interesting though, is how not everyone shares the tastes of an age. The chunkier girls still have lovers and people, after seeing a larger, more muscular physique dancing in jiggling waves to Vivaldi, emerge smiling from the auditorium.
I wonder if this is because they are happy to be involved in a subversive act, one that involves nudity, realism and fat. Or maybe it is because Uhlich so exudes the ‘eternal, invariable element, whose quality it is excessively difficult to determine’ that the second part of Baudelaire’s equation is squished into submission.
She might be exploring the beauty of the body, but Uhlich herself demonstrates the other part of beauty. She has a very relaxed, lovely charisma. Her voice inflects banal sentences like the simplest ‘Jah’ with a charming humour. Uhlich’s body is, of course, beautiful – and impressive in its muscularity – but it is not a body contingent with the standards of the age, either for dancing or for simply existing. Uhlich’s real beauty is of the timeless variety. She is beautiful because she is warmth against the backdrop of the changing seasons. Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ is the perfect piece to dance to. It too is from an age which isn’t this one. But it has also transcended this and the waves of notes are inhaled into prickly tears. It sounds like beauty, whatever the date.