March 8, 2022
Here are two photographs which capture a young woman, a ballet dancer in the character of a warrior, posed with shield and spear; in the first, she steadily takes aim; in the other, she’s marked her target and about to pin it down. This is, of course, a staged act—studio shots taken in 1933 of a solo performance called Warrior Dance. And yet, there is a war of sorts raging beneath and between all that poise and armour—an inner conflict to push against the social conventions that would not easily permit a woman, even if of a high social standing, to stretch her limbs, and dance. The protagonist of this war? Mary Scicluna.
Her story to find more secure footing in the art of ballet, from her studies under Princess Nathalie Poutiatine to her performances on the stage of the Royal Opera House in Valletta and, incredibly, to her Parisian experience at Lubov Egorova’s internationally renowned School of Dancing, is traced in a forthcoming article in Treasures of Malta, written by dance historian Dr Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel. Both poignant and outright inspiring, it is a story set against a context which was not kind to women who desired to seriously pursue a ‘career’ in dance, especially upper-class women who were raised to fulfil their domestic and social duties. Women were expected to have an attitude of submission and service to the household, not one which would have held the gaze of an audience during performances celebrating the beauty of the body in motion; a situation verging on the quasi scandalous to a pious Catholic Maltese community in the 1930s. Yet, there was Mary Scicluna who, along with other girls and young women, were busy learning and displaying a very different kind of attitude… within the dance studio and on the theatre stage.
And if social conventions were not burdensome enough, there were also the physical demands and competitive pressures which come with such an art form, geared towards grace and linear perfection. Scicluna did not have the ideal form, and yet it was her confident presence and resolve to defy the odds which probably most attracted sculptor George Borg to carve her image in Danse Classique. Here, the line stands out in its ability to hold things in perfect tension: it both ‘fixes’ and suggests movement, and it reveals as much as it conceals; it recalls the inner conflict of a woman expected to bow before the norm and a dancer who cannot be forever still.
The story of Mary Scicluna, like others not told enough or still waiting to be told, highlights one crucial and regrettable fact: if such were the demands on a woman hailing from a privileged background, one can only wonder how much talent remained in the dark, having nor the means or support to be developed in schools, thus enriching, and advancing the art form. Such is the result of the social-political-religious-economic-physical-aestheticchain of restriction: all stands to lose until loosened. Only then, really, may the line of progression continue: when a strong-willed individual comes along, notes the ‘straightness’ of things, and chooses to bend it.