Close to the Knives

RECENTLY, MISSING THE BALLET PERFORMANCES I’d planned to attend this spring, I revisited a short video-installation piece I love: En Puntas by Javier Pérez, featuring a ballerina with long knives strapped to the soles of her pointe shoes. It was filmed in the Teatre Municipal de Girona, in Spain, in 2013. The dancer, Amélie Ségarra, sits on the lid of a baby grand piano, tying the pink shoe-ribbons around her ankles. With the help of a rope dangling from the ceiling, she hoists herself up until she’s balanced on the sharp tips of the knives, her feet hovering eight inches up from the piano lid that is now her stage.

Javier Pérez, En Puntas (detail), 2013, still from the HD video component (color, sound, 9 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising pointe shoes and stainless steel knives.
Javier Pérez, En Puntas (detail), 2013, still from the HD video component (color, sound, 9 minutes) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising pointe shoes and stainless steel knives.

Muscled arms up and back, as if considering taking flight, the dancer tries a few small, exploratory steps; the knives thud, then screech, carving the piano lid. Ségarra totters, venturing perilously close to the edge. Her arms windmill. She yelps, softly. It’s the first time she’s made a noise, but soon she’s shouting. Her face contorts and her feet speed up, turning her in tight circles, but she’s still yelling with effort, pain, and frustration. It’s moving and very strange. Each time I watch it, I worry irrationally that she’ll lose her balance. The lid is crisscrossed with deep gashes. It’s hard to tell if she’s dancing or just trying not to fall—but then, at the end of the piece, she holds her pose, in triumph, and in control after all.

It’s a startling video, and not only because of the knives. The part that’s really unusual is the bodily exertion made flagrantly, even gaudily, visible and audible. Dancers train rigorously for years, despite what can often be great physical pain, to have bodies capable of maintaining the illusion of extraordinary ease. This is especially true of ballerinas, who float, spin, and jump with faces as serene as mythical queens. In ballet, exhibiting visible strain is considered a failure, and this is part of the magnificence of the form: to see human bodies fly with such pain-disguising grace.

Much as I love the ballet, I find myself less interested, just now, in art that hides or pushes aside physical distress. “Even the artist—whose lifework and everyday habit are to refine and extend the reflexes of speech—ordinarily falls silent before pain,” Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain. Here’s to the artists who push up against that silence and the limits of what’s possible.

R. O. Kwon is the author of The Incendiaries (Riverhead, 2018).