The Beauty of Performance: An Inexpedient Illusion
Humans have been drawn to beauty for as long as our existence can account for. As a species, we strive to find the wild impracticality of impeccable perfection. We are captivated by aesthetically pleasing sights, spellbound by splendid performances, and mesmerized by extreme and seemingly impossible movements. For that is what we, humans, love; possibilities that have been pushed to the extremes, performances that present the image of the impossible, while always striving, looking for, that elusive perfection. It is this undying love of beauty that has been the driving factor for dancers, gymnasts, and every other type of performer to push what they are physically capable of, demanding extreme movements of their bodies in order to create this illusion of beauty. Performers often have to go to severe measures to achieve this, frequently taxing themselves beyond what they are able to bear, slowly destroying their bodies through pain and disfiguration. The almost unrealistic expectations that have now developed because of this fixation have led some people to believe that pain is a normal, and even a necessary part of making performance beautiful. It is thought by some that in order to create the illusion of beauty in a performance that involves athleticism, pain is a necessary part in its development; but not all performances require this pain to show beauty. Not all displays have to be an illusion to be beautiful.
Many different articles and persons discuss the illusion of beauty in the performance of ballet. Ballet is an illusive performance of beauty, one that often results in the dancers performing unnatural and extremely demanding movements in order to captivate and create awe amongst the audience.
“Dancers trick themselves and their audiences in order to produce a time-honoured art form based on unnatural and highly ordered movements and positions.”
It is no secret that ballet dancers undergo great pain in their quest for improvement and perfection. The physical pain of aching muscles, and the more permanent pain of disfigured toes and bruised feet. Pain and injury are often part of the process in creating this illusion of beauty. “In this quest for perfection, there is pain and often injury, but to a dancer, that is simply part of the cost of creating the art” (Aeraeber). In ballet, it is thought that pain is a necessary part of the performance, the performance of a beautiful illusion.
The belief that ballet, in order to be beautiful, must be an illusion is partly what has created the thought that it must also be painful. With the added factor of pain, this “illusion” becomes much more paramount. It is often thought that this pain is a normal part of ballet, and of performances in general; that in order to create the illusion of beauty, sacrifices must be made. That we must surrender and accept pain as being a part of performing. However, this is not always the case. Not every performance has to be an illusion in order to be beautiful. In fact, there are some performances that are supposed to focus on the true, pure beauty of movement. A focus of harmony, not pain, a performance where illusions are exactly the opposite of what is to be achieved. This performance, this dance between two creatures, between man and beast, is known as the equestrian sport of dressage. A dance that should be, but is not always, quite different than ballet.
Dressage is defined by the International Federation of Equestrian Sport as the highest form of training for the horse, and is also the most artistic expression of all the equestrian sports, which sometimes leads people to the false belief that it is acceptable for it to be presented as an illusion. Dressage is an intricate dance between horse and rider, one that comes about through harmony, trust, a great deal of hope, and an ever growing flower of faith. Through select and progressive training, the horse’s natural abilities are enhanced through balance, cadence, and rhythm. While some people prefer to describe dressage as gymnastics for horses, the more common way to classify it is as a dance. The definition of which is simply “stepping or moving through a series of movements” (Merriam Webster). While both of these descriptions are an acceptable way to define the performance of dressage, still other people prefer to call dressage ballet for horses, which is not a wholly accurate description. Even though ballet is defined as an artistic dance requiring precise and highly formalized movements, it is primarily based on illusions, which is exactly the opposite of what correct dressage is supposed to portray.
Not all dressage however, is correct. Dressage riders have often been led astray, following the same train of thought of the ballet dancers; that the performance of this dance must be extreme, it must verge on the impossible, leading the audience to be struck with awe and wonder. These riders strive to find the perfection of what they have imagined to be “dressage”, the perfection that is, in all honesty, impossible to find, for nothing in this world is perfect. As it is said in the book “Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage” by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, a German Veterinarian specializing in equine sport medicine, “misguided ambition or simple ignorance” of riders has led them to force their “horses into a frame that may cause long-lasting damage to their health” (p. 1). Dr. Heuschmann goes on to discuss the fundamental problems with biomechanically incorrect riding; a type of dressage that really can be classified as ballet, for it revolves entirely around illusions. In his book, Dr. Heuschmann examines the relationship between equine health and welfare, and anatomically “cruel” riding methods, such as riders forcing their horses into a frame and creating hyperflexion of the neck, or more commonly known as rollkur.
Rollkur is a painful and highly debilitating practice used in equestrian sports to gain submission from the horse, and also to create awe amongst the uneducated audience for the extreme position the horse is put in. Rollkur is defined through the International Federation for Equestrian Sport as “flexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force”, in which the neck has been extremely hyper-flexed and curled in, bringing the horse’s chin to touch his chest. This severe position results in the perceived illusion of beauty by presenting a dramatic, and extreme spectacle. This type of riding, despite its distasteful definition, is used extensively throughout the entire world. In every discipline of equestrian sport, in both riding arenas hidden from view and those available to public viewings, at low level regional shows, and at the highest form of international competition available, the Olympics, evidence of rollkur can be found everywhere.
The rollkur training method falls into the category of “modern” riding, christened so because it has primarily been in effect for only a few decades. Modern riding is primarily based on illusions, designed to deceive the audience from what they are actually seeing. This type of training method, if it can be called such, has gained popularity not just for its ability to create submissiveness in high-spirited horses, enabling them powerless to react which in turn creates the illusion of harmony and willingness, but also for its ability to create breathtaking and high stepping movements of the horse. And the curled in neck? It is just thought to add to this illusion of beauty. This “beauty” of pain and force. This poor excuse of riding goes against every principle of correct, classical dressage, the foundations of which were laid thousands of years ago, for the good of the horse.
Whereas modern riding revolves around demanding movements of the horse, and telling him how to respond, classical riding is exactly the opposite. Modern riding is based on illusions, the illusion of beauty, of harmony, of trust; when in fact it is nothing more than a brilliant spectacle in which the horse’s pain is concealed behind a veil of deceptions. In contrast, illusions are strictly shunned in classical riding. The fundamental principle of classical riding is for the horse and rider to be partners, a mutual relationship based on respect and understanding. A rapport is first developed, and then the rider asks for, rather than demands, movements of the horse. A relationship first and foremost, with the technical aspects of riding coming after. A true representation of harmony and trust between man and horse, a genuine depiction of the beauty of natural movement.
This classical approach to training is not the most favoured training method amongst riders because, when compared to modern riding, it takes a substantially longer time. Correctly building up a horse, both mentally and physically, takes years. As Dr. Heuschmann says “No athlete is able to perform to his utmost, peak at the right moment, and remain healthy without having built up his body (and mind) over a significant period of time” (p. 38). The modern style of riding is all about cramming and jamming while simultaneously trying to present the illusion of beauty. Riders will pull their horses into a frame before they are physically capable of it. They will demand high level movements before the horse has been taught the correct foundations of the preceding movements. This rash training results in the early onset of arthritis in the horse, and their riding career usually has to be ended in their early teens due to lameness and unsoundness issues, whereas healthy and correctly ridden horses can often be ridden into their twenties. Dr. Heuschmann says that “more and more horses develop health problems because they’re used incorrectly or are trained with the use of force.” (p. 23). The nuchal ligament, for example, which stretches from the back of the horse’s skull to the base of the neck, is put under great stress when a horse is pulled into a rollkur frame. A boney calcification grows on the back of the skull due to the pressure that is placed on it by the over-stretched nuchal ligament. The ligament itself also undergoes damage. The fibers in the ligament are torn by the excessive stress, and bony nodules form inside the ligament, causing pain for the horse.
The hunt for success and recognition often doesn’t allow time or space for thoughtful, quiet work with the horse and a naturally oriented training program. Thus, what has developed is a bad “craft” of horse training, in which the “repairman” (especially the veterinarians) of poorly “crafted” sport horses have become firmly established as a “necessary” part of the training team. (Heuschmann, pp. 19-21)
The widespread use of rollkur, and consequently an abundance of photographs in which horses are being ridden in a rollkur frame, have the ability to drastically change and influence a person’s perception of what is acceptable and correct riding. As Dr. Heuschmann says “Pictures and videos of winning horses or winning riders at international levels in all countries reach thousands of people far beyond the actual show arena. The majority of riders … look to these riders who win championships as role models, and emulate them” (p. 27). As a result of the extensive use of rollkur, and the many photographs depicting horses being ridden in this way, people have become insensitive to it. As the American writer, film-maker, and teacher Susan Sontag eloquently says in her article, “Looking at War”, “in a world saturated, and even hypersaturated, with images, those which should matter to us have a diminishing effect: we become callous” (p. 120). More and more people are unable to recognize rollkur as incorrect, because it is so prevalent. As Sontag notes “flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretch to its limits, is going numb” (p. 121). Because of this inundation of images in which horses are being ridden in a “modern” style, people may be lead to believe that rollkur is normal, correct, and even beautiful. Some even fail to notice that what they are witnessing is an illusion, and instead see it as pure, true beauty.
How would we, as a united people, stop this disservice being done to horses? The answer is perhaps not as impossible as one might think, and it all begins with you. As Aeraeber says in her article, “The Beautiful Illusion”, “in some ways the audience drives the need to create the illusion” (para 4). The public has never been informed of this training method in any large scale effort. The spectators who go to watch the equestrian dressage competitions are uninformed of what exactly it is they are seeing. Instead of being disgusted by what they see, they cheer to witness the dancing horses, the wonderful illusion of beauty, the performance that looks all too impossible, all too perfect. The modern riders receive great applause from the crowds because of their horse’s impressive and extreme movements, while the more modest classical riders go unnoticed. Rollkur is rewarded, and the ambitious up-and-coming competition riders try to emulate it so that they too can be cheered from the world stage. Even though Sontag says “Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to “care” more. It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed” (p. 118), this is one scenario where globalizing what is happening is the only way to change what has become of dressage.
People must be shown what rollkur is, or else this inhumane and insensitive treatment of horses will just continue to grow. Without the realization that the illusion of beauty they see in modern riding is just a mask, behind which is hiding the horse’s pain and discomfort, rollkur will continue to succeed. Instead of cheering when they see a horse being ridden this way, instead of rewarding the rider for his “training”, they must realize that there is in fact no real or pure beauty in what they are witnessing. The steps to change what has happened to dressage start with the spectators, for as long as people continue to cheer for the modern style of riding, the riders will try to meet this demand, and the expectation of over-extreme movements. To quote Martin Luther King Jr. “Those who do nothing while witnessing injustice and wrong-doing do worse than those who commit acts of injustice”. The public can no longer stay silent, or in this case, applaud, the modern style of riding.
In its present form, rollkur can only be classified as a great disservice done towards a horse, not acknowledging them as a living, breathing, feeling creature, but as an inanimate and insensitive body. As it stands, rollkur is an abusive and violent training method which must be changed. This type of training is not a necessary part of riding or showing horses. Riders and trainers deceiving the audience of what they are actually seeing, and indeed even deceiving themselves, is an avoidable component of riding horses. Horses can be ridden and shown, very successfully, while being trained in the classical style. Horses can be treated with kindness and respect, without the trainers having to forego competing, or riding. Spectators, general non-horse people, the majority of whom have no idea that a training method like rollkur even exists, let alone are aware of its consequences, must have brought to their attention the reality of rollkur. That the illusion of beauty presented in it is in fact a falsity; imagined to be so as simply a means to an end, with no thought given to the horse, the noble steed who does as we ask, without question, and without a murmur. Even though ballet is a dance surrounded by illusions, not all displays need to be deceptions. Classical dressage is one performance where illusions are not beautiful, and it is one performance where they should never be rewarded, or applauded.
Aeraeber. “The Beautiful Illusion: Alterations of Perception in Classical Ballet.” Serendip Studio. Serendip, 13 May 2010.
“Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster Incorporated, n.d.
“FEI.” FEI.org. Fédération Équestre Internationale, n.d.
Heuschmann, Gerd. Tug of War – Classical versus ‘modern’ Dressage. 2nd ed. North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square, 2009.
Sarah. “Martin Luther King, Jr. On Complacency.” Paradoxologies. WordPress, 28 Aug. 2010.
Sontag, Susan. Looking at War. New York: Conde Nast, 2002.