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Sugar Plump? A critic is lashed

Dancer's defenders weigh in.

NEW YORK - Christmas is upon us, and for a top ballerina at New York City Ballet, that means one sure thing: suiting up in tulle and sequins as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the annual classic, The Nutcracker. What Jenifer Ringer surely didn't expect was to be accused of having "eaten one sugar plum too many."

That remark two weeks ago by the nation's most prominent dance critic reverberated across the Web, with many coming to Ringer's defense and calling the reviewer a cad.

Even worse, angry fans wrote on chat boards, Ringer has been public about struggles with eating disorders earlier in her career, which she triumphed over to become one of the ballet's most popular dancers. How cruel, then, to criticize her body now.

Through two weeks of chatter, though, Ringer remained publicly silent, as most dancers do - until Monday, when she appeared on NBC's Today to address the controversy swirling around her like the confetti in Nutcracker's famous snowflake scene.

"I'm not overweight," said the ballerina, who at 37 is not only a company veteran but one of only three mothers in its ranks. "I do have, I guess, a more womanly type than the stereotypical ballerina."

But she declined to demand an apology from New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay.

"It's his opinion," said Ringer, whom the ballet would not make available to the Associated Press for comment. "He is a critic and he's paid to put his opinion in the paper." She added that "there were 2,000 people probably out there ... and everyone else had a different opinion as well."

Amid the kerfuffle over whether and when a dancer's weight becomes an issue is an even more basic question about ballet, an art form in which the body is subjected to untold rigors - not to mention the constant threat of injury - in order to fulfill strict, time-honored requirements. Are different body types allowed? Must one be rail-thin to qualify as a top dancer?

To longtime observer Wendy Perron, editor of Dance Magazine, the answer is no.

"Perhaps she is not the thinnest dancer on the stage, but who cares?" Perron said in an interview. "What she has is warmth. She is just wonderful in the role of the Sugarplum Fairy, welcoming Marie and her prince to the Land of the Sweets. Not every dancer can pull that off."

Indeed, one imagines that Ringer's proficiency in the role is what led New York City Ballet head Peter Martins to cast her in the opening night of Nutcracker this season, one of only two performances to which critics are invited. (Martins, too, was unavailable for comment.)

Yet Macaulay wrote: "This didn't feel, however, like an opening night. Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm."

Interestingly, the criticism of Angle has not drawn nearly as much attention. Nor has Macaulay's other comment about the couple, that they lacked "adult depth and complexity."

But fans thought there was something particularly cruel about the weight comment, probably because body type is one thing, as company principal dancer Wendy Whelan puts it, that you can't do anything about.

"It's just unfair when somebody criticizes a part of you that you can't change," said Whelan, also one of the ballet's most popular and admired dancers, in a phone interview. "Jenifer has always looked like that. I think she's absolutely gorgeous! She's one of my favorite dancers in the world. And when I watch her dance, my eye doesn't see anything wrong with it."

The New York Times said Macaulay was not available for comment, and that "the reviews of our critics speak for themselves."

Macaulay did write a follow-up column to answer criticism of his comments on Ringer several days later. Noting that one reader had called his review appalling, heartbreaking, childish, hurtful, and incompetent all at once, he wrote: "If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion. I am severe - but ballet, as dancers know, is more so."

That position did not sit well with many - especially those who are familiar with eating disorders.

"His comment was just below the belt," said Katharine Halmi, a professor of psychiatry and a specialist in eating disorders at Weill Cornell Medical College. "It's well established that dancers are at a tremendous risk for eating disorders.

"Ballet companies are just now dealing with it. So this is really bad."

As Ringer herself pointed out, one of the things many people admire about New York City Ballet is that it celebrates different body types.

"We have every body type you can imagine," she said on Today. "We have tall, we have petite, we have athletic, we have womanly, we have waiflike, we have every body type out there, and they can all dance like crazy and they're all gorgeous."