Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Obsession with Ballet: Adriana's List of Must Read Ballet-Themed Books

Ever since I was a child, I’ve gone through very specific reading phases. When I was ten, all I wanted to read about was gymnastics, although this might have had more to do with the ’84 Olympics and the success of one Mary Lou Retton. Two years later I went through every book I could get my hands on about the holocaust and World War II. In my teen years, I had a Vietnam phase, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches still has a special place on my shelf. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to steer myself away from reading in such a themed way, preferring a slightly more regimented selecting of titles so as to have a little more variety. I’d say I’ve been pretty successful at pulling it off, at least until very recently. The reading phase I’m in now has come as a complete surprise, especially to myself. All I want to read right now are books about Ballet. You heard that right: Ballet. Now what could have sparked an obsession so specific, especially to a non-dancer like myself? A book I’ve had on my shelf for a long time and read sporadically here and there. The name of the book: The Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose. Towards the end is a chapter about George Balanchine and his last muse Suzanne Farrell. The way she describes the ephemeral nature of ballet and its otherworldliness, I began to think of it in a way I never had before. I needed to absorb as much as I could and fast. So began my new love affair. Below are a few of my recent favorites.

1. Ballerina Swan by Allegra Kent. One of Balanchine’s ballerinas, Kent had many important ballets created for her. She is also the author of her own exceptionally written memoir from a few years back entitled Once a Dancer. Now she has written an enchanting book for children ages 5-8, wonderfully illustrated by Caldecott-winning artist Emily McCully. Lovely and sweet, Ballerina Swan is about a swan named Sophie who lives in a pond in Central Park and loves to watch the ballerinas in Madam Myrtle’s Dance Studio. She wants to dance though, not just watch. She tries to join the ballerinas in their class but keeps getting shooed out by Madam Myrtle. One day, Madam Myrtle is replaced by a nicer teacher named Miss Willow, who lets Sophie join her class. Sophie does so well that she is asked to perform in the class’ end-of-year performance of Swan Lake, as the swan no less. Give this to the budding ballerina in your life.

2. Bunheads by Sophie Flack. No relation to the television show on the ABC Family, but definitely in the same age bracket. Slightly superficially, I was immediately drawn to the striking cover, ballerinas in giant tutus dancing in a circle on a stark black background. Now I’m not normally drawn to books in the teen section, but this book gave me pause to take a look, & Flack definitely knows of what she speaks. At seventeen she was accepted into the New York City Ballet and danced with the company for nine years. Her protagonist Hannah is nineteen and dancing with the Manhattan Ballet Company. She thinks she wants to dedicate her life to ballet until she meets a musician named Jacob who makes her question whether she really has what it takes to make it. Beautifully written, it’s definitely a great crossover book for teens as well as adults looking for a good love story, with all the hope & angst that goes along with that age, and definitely appreciated by those of us a lot older.

3. The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey. I was not expecting such a tour de force from this one, especially from an author I’ve never heard of. The story centers around two talented sisters, Kate & Gwen Crane, both belonging to a prestigious New York City Ballet company. When Gwen suffers a breakdown and returns home to their parents’ house to recuperate, Kate, alone for the first time, must deal with the guilt and pain of what has happened to her sister. Similar in theme as the movie Black Swan, The Cranes Dance is unflinching in its portrayal of the harsh and painful life dancers lead. It’s written in such a way as to make you feel a part of the company, a witness to backstage happenings you wouldn’t normally see. Long, detailed exposition on certain ballets almost proves too much, and yet doesn’t when all is said and done. Surprisingly dark, Howrey leads us by the hand into a dark tunnel only to see the light at the very, very end. I could not stop thinking about this one, long after I’d finished.

4. The Master’s Muse by Varley O’Connor. This is very much in the vain of The Paris Wife, and one of the best books I’ve read this year, ballet not withstanding. Its center is Tanaquil LeClercq, Balanchine’s fifth and final wife, who tragically contracted polio at the young age of 27 on a European tour in 1956. Smartly told in the first person, you feel every ounce in your body ache for her as she lies in the iron lung that enables her to breathe, only days after dancing on stage for the very last time. O’Connor has definitely done her research. Her novel feels more like a lost journal than something crafted at someone’s desk. LeClercq’s essence is there, even down to LeClercq’s own words, thanks to the few interviews she gave for various newspapers and dance magazines. Despite such a tragedy at such a young age, and in spite of Balanchine’s betrayal of her years later, Le Clercq was able to lead a fulfilling life, later on even teaching ballet. Don’t be discouraged by the apparent darkness of this book. It is supremely inspiring.

Further reading:

Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans

Holding onto the Air by Suzanne Farrell (currently out-of-print)

Chasing Degas by Eva Montanari

I Was a Dancer by Jacques D’Amboise
Adriana is a bookseller at Warwick's


  1. The well received novel For Love of Anna is ballet-themed and might be worth a look