’Tis little I — could care for Pearls —
Who own the ample sea —
Or Brooches — when the Emperor —
With Rubies — pelteth me —
Or Gold — who am the Prince of Mines —
Or Diamonds — when have I
A Diadem to fit a Dome —
Continual upon me —
— Emily Dickinson, No. 466

In the poem “’Tis little I—could care for Pearls,” written in 1862, Emily Dickinson positions the artist as the richest of royals. Earthly treasures, those brooches and baubles bought at Cartier and Fabergé, are nothing compared with the imagination’s vast seas and deep mines, a kingdom of boundless wealth. Queens and their daughters may regularly wear diadems, but they measure only the circumference of their heads and the size of their country. Dickinson’s diadem fits a “Dome”—the celestial sphere above and around us—and its diamonds are the stars in the sky. Indeed, Dickinson could easily be describing that artist we call a ballerina, whose body is trained on circlets, halos, and hemispheres, and whose serene power feels supreme. Though it isn’t quite possible to pinpoint the moment that the ballerina’s reign began, three or so centuries ago, it has ever since been continual.

Cornell’s Box

Think of the tiny ballerina that is poised—two inches tall and wearing a tutu—inside a girl’s pink jewelry box. When the lid is opened, the ballerina spins, usually to music by Tchaikovsky, her pirouette reflected in a small mirror. How many of the countless young recipients of these charming boxes, one wonders, have actually seen a ballet? And does it matter? It is instinctively understood that this figure, statuesque and solitary in a cozy theater of melody and velvet, exists outside everyday norms and simultaneously inside the imagination—the box!

Consider one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, a man who was obsessed not with dancers but with ballerinas. His name was Joseph Cornell, and in the mid–1900s he constructed hundreds of boxes that were makeshift theaters of the mind and soul. Like Emily Dickinson, he was solitary and became increasingly reclusive as he grew older. But he had epiphanies and passions, which he pursued in his boxes, and one of these was ballerinas.

Cornell was a studious fan. He went to the ballet, wrote about it, kept up with its costume and set design, and delved into its history. Because of this delving, which he called “exploring,” he was as obsessed with ballerinas of the past as he was with those of the present, perhaps more so. The Romantic ballerinas Marie Taglioni, Lucile Grahn, Fanny Elssler, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito—heroines in an era that saw the male dancer’s bravado rendered ridiculous when compared with the ballerina’s weightless virtuosity, her new reach into netherworlds of existential complexity—all were subjects of Cornell boxes. Cerrito, in her role as Ondine in 1843—the water sprite envisioned by Friedrich, Baron de la Motte Fouqué in his short novel of 1811, Undine—most of all.

Rising out of the Water

Women of the water have long been symbols of the subconscious, hybrids swimming between states of being—reality and dream, matter and myth, consciousness and the unconscious. Ondine, the water sprite with a human form, longs for a soul, yet her kiss can kill. In The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s story of 1836, the mermaid longs for both body and soul so that she may marry the human she loves. Asking the Sea Witch to transform her fishtail into legs and feet, she is told she must give up her voice in exchange. This paradigm speaks eloquently to the dancer. The wordlessness of the ballerina is part of her physical containment and grace. It has certainly kept her mystery intact in a world that grows ever more verbally cacophonous.

Cornell understood that the ballerina was less a person than a metaphysical entity—or deity—her dimensions deepening and enlarging with every role she danced. The rarefied air in his magical, glass-fronted spaces—this is the air she breathes.

The wordlessness of the ballerina is part of her physical containment and grace.

Air, of course, is the ballerina’s primary element. From ballet’s beginning, which technically dates to 1661, when King Louis XIV oversaw the founding of France’s Royal Academy of Dance, lift was built quite consciously into the classical technique. The dancer strove for placement that was light yet plumb. Weight was balanced in the ball of the foot, never settling in the heel; the derriere was pulled in; the breastbone and head were in regal league with the sun above. Upward momentum, vertical mobility—the art’s lexicon of steps, jumps, and leaps aimed ever higher.

In 1832, when the ballerina Marie Taglioni rose to pointe in the ballet La Sylphide, it was neuromuscular logic and aesthetic fulfillment at once. Suddenly the ballerina existed in a higher sphere, her connection to the earth seemingly one of choice rather than necessity. Pointe opened up a whole new dimension—a metaphorical plane—that offered entry into myriad states of being. It took the female, and the art form, to a place the male dancer could not follow.

The Romance of the Tutu

La Sylphide was custom-made for Marie by her father, the choreographer Filippo Taglioni. A sylphide (or sylph) is a sort of wood nymph, winged and capricious, her energy benevolent yet wayward. Filippo Taglioni used this role to frame his daughter’s unique gifts of featherweight lightness and soaring ballon, the attenuated line of her low shoulders and long arms, and her ability to take a breath, a momentary pause, on the tips of her very strong toes. The theatrical charge of this ethereal being captivated audiences everywhere.

Anne, Countess of Rosse, wearing a silk-tulle evening dress and wrap by Charles James, photographed by Peter Rose Pulham for British Harper’s Bazaar.

Furthermore, as the British historian Cyril Beaumont writes, “La Sylphide also marks a revolution in stage costume.” Sylphs had been depicted onstage before 1832, but in high-waisted Regency costume, tunics that followed the figure. “The new dress of the new Sylphide,” Beaumont explains, “created by Eugène Lami alone or in collaboration with Taglioni herself, was designed not to display the lines of the body, but to conceal them by means of a milky haze.” Here was the classic Romantic tutu: a tight-fitting bodice, a bell-shaped skirt.

The influence of Taglioni’s sylph—her heightened sighs en pointe, her skirt of vapor—was enormous. Composers, virtuosos, and playwrights paid homage to her. She “inspired the dreams of poets,” the Russian critic André Levinson writes in his book Marie Taglioni. A taste for the luminous ballet blanc (white ballet), once created, demanded to be fed. “After La Sylphide,” the French critic Théophile Gautier famously wrote, in 1844, “the scene-painters received orders only for romantic forests, valleys illuminated by the pretty German moonlight reminiscent of Heinrich Heine’s ballads.... The new style led to a great abuse of white gauze, tulle, and tarlatan; the shades dissolved into mist by means of transparent dresses. White was the only color used.”

Smooth as Silk

Tulle, which is thought to have originated in the city of Tulle in central France, became the ballerina’s raiment, a netting in which warp and weft are twisted to form a state of tension—a weave of tiny hexagons. Tulle is a honeycomb of air, and it allies ballet dancers with those winged sisterhoods of eternal purpose. Is not the queen bee the ballerina of the hive? Tulle floats and rests like a butterfly’s wings, a hummingbird’s blur. Paired with bodices of satin or damask—fabrics as iridescent as a beetle’s shell casings, or glittering as with dewdrops, diamonds—there is always something of Cinderella’s metamorphosis about the ballerina’s tutu. It is both mist and crinoline, cloud and gown, not one or the other but something in between. In Giselle, the ghostly glamour of the Act Two Wilis in their white tulle has the property of ectoplasm—a substance or spiritual energy.

Gelsey Kirkland, in 1975, a purist preparing for her New York debut in Giselle, was entranced by the moth-like tutu that the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci wore in Act Two, when Giselle emerges as a newborn Wili. “The material flowed,” Kirkland writes in her memoir, Dancing on My Grave, “the hem was frayed, radiating behind her body like a soft flame.” Kirkland asked Fracci where she might get a tutu just like it, and Fracci demurred. “I buy from a little old man,” she said. “But he stop making.” It was ever thus; ballerinas are like goddesses on Mount Olympus, competitive even on a good day.

Paired with bodices of satin or damask, there is always something of Cinderella’s metamorphosis about the ballerina’s tutu.

But Kirkland was not to be put off. She stole into Fracci’s dressing room and snipped a small sample, the size of a quarter, from the costume’s inner layer. Its secret? The tutu was made of 100 percent silk tulle, far more extravagant and expensive than tulle of nylon, polyester, or rayon—and far more alive. With no regrets, Kirkland spent a thousand dollars on her own silk tutu. In a short film clip of her first solo in Act Two, that tutu wreathes around her like a whirlwind of frost.

Tulle is volatile matter. In the 19th century, lofting too close to gas jets, too many tutus burst into flame. Most famous was the loss of Emma Livry, a protégé of Marie Taglioni who shared Taglioni’s gift of ineffable ballon. In 1860, Taglioni created a signature ballet, Le Papillon, for Livry, who danced the role of Farfalla, a young woman magically turned into a butterfly. Near the ballet’s end, when Farfalla singes her wings in the glow of a torch, the spell loosens and she regains her human form. This happy ending contained a terrible clairvoyance, for, in 1862, Livry did more than singe her wings. Backstage, preparing for her entrance in La Muette de Portici, she fluffed her skirts near a low-hanging gaslight and they instantly ignited. The gentle Livry died of her burns eight months later.

Fire is not the ballerina’s element, though she may dance with heat or temper. Classical dance is water and air.