If the camp object or person is always in quotation marks, as Sontag says, then ballet’s fairy-tale romances lend this treatment to gender. We do not see a woman in point shoes. We see a “woman,” just as the ornate Tiffany shade makes the lamp a “lamp.” (Tights and prince tunics can do the same thing for men.)
Christopher Isherwood was among the first writers to observe this citation effect. In his novel “The World in the Evening” (1954), he places Mae West drag on one end of the camp spectrum and classical dance on the other. “High Camp is the whole emotional basis of the ballet,” he writes. For Isherwood, the camp attitude takes serious subject matters — in ballet’s case, love — and expresses them, “in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”
But styles, even in classical dance, change. When Isherwood used ballet to make his point in the 1950s, the art form’s athletic feats were padded with triumphant presentational flourishes, emphatic acting and pauses that demanded the audience’s applause. The old Russian touring companies had not quite died, with their “smell of the greasepaint, the ballerina in excelsis, the demented fans,” as Joan Acocella described in a 2005 The New Yorker article about the drag troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, who parody this mode.
Ballet’s marginal status in the cultural sphere only enhanced ballerinas’ rarefied, self-conscious celebrity and the cultishness of their followers. Peter Anastos, the founder of the Trockaderos, said in a phone interview: “You would never see one of these dancers in a store or in a restaurant. They were like silent-movie stars. And they would never really get into the role. It was always them doing the part.”
If there is a camp essence in this Romantic style of ballet, with its jeweled costumes and feathered headdresses, it is related to the worship of a style that is no longer of its time. In an art form that prides itself on tradition, passed down from one generation to the next, the steps and costumes remain basically unchanged even if the audience, and sometimes the dancers themselves, no longer know what it all means.
To embrace the art form’s classicism, especially as exhibited in 19th-century story ballets like “Le Corsaire” and “Don Quixote,” you have to put aside a sense of contemporary tastefulness. Their landscapes are so artificial, their plots so dreamlike, that they require a different kind of appreciation from the audience — “tender” is the word Sontag uses — than the latest in, say, conceptual art.