While waiting for ballet to return to local stages (Pacific Northwest Ballet will resume live performances this fall), I found myself entranced this summer by an unusually wide assortment of new ballet-themed books. In their different forms — one novel, two memoirs, one investigative analysis — all were graceful and compelling; all of them brought back memories of evenings at the ballet, thrilling to an art form that always seems both effortless and impossible.
In the fictional realm, Megan Abbott’s psychological thriller “The Turnout” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27, out Aug. 3) mines the creepy underside of ballet explored in the movie “Black Swan”: the idea that an extended leg pushed too far can become grotesque, or that a pointe shoe can be a symbol of not just swanlike grace but blistering pain and unnatural distortion. Sisters Dara and Marie Durant, assisted by Dara’s husband Charlie (a former dancer whose art has crippled him, turning his back to painful powder), run the ballet school founded by their late mother. It’s “Nutcracker” season — the busiest time of the year — but everything isn’t beautiful at this ballet: The school’s threadbare building, like Charlie’s back, is disintegrating, and the contractor hired to solve the problems turns out to be as dark a figure as any “Swan Lake” villain.
Abbott’s masterful crime fiction (“Give Me Your Hand,” “Dare Me,” “The Fever”) usually focuses on intense circles of women, and this one is unusually rich in atmosphere: You can smell the stale sweat in the studio, hear the hammers pounding on fresh pointe shoes (“pink satin fantasies we beat into submission so they can be used and then discarded”), vanish into the not-so-hidden darkness behind “The Nutcracker.” Abbott takes her breathless reader to some very dark places, but also to beauty. I loved her description of a teenager’s arabesque, “her neck so long and her leg so high in the way you can when you’re fourteen, fifteen, your body both feather-light and molten, and everything is forever and nothing ever changes.”
Moving to nonfiction: A curious thing about American Ballet Theatre principal dancer James Whiteside’s “Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-Memoir of a Boy in Ballet” (Viking, out Aug. 17) is that there really isn’t much ballet in it. Instead, the witty Whiteside — whose alter egos include pop musician JbDubs and drag queen Ühu Betch — writes a series of essays about his early sexual experiences, fondly remembers his childhood pets (sample observation: “Do you know how much work Persian cats are? They’re like putting together IKEA dressers every day for the rest of your life.”), crafts a musical screenplay from the experience of being stranded in Casablanca, and writes of the bigotry and violence he’s experienced as a gay man in America.
While I wished the book contained more about Whiteside’s work at ABT, particularly his mastery of pointe shoes (which he’s documented in viral videos), “Center Center” is nonetheless a delight. And one chapter, simply titled “Nancy,” is an absolute gem: an essay about his “brilliant, complicated, unicorn of a mother.” Written from the dual perspectives of James the child and James the adult (who can see things about his mother that an adoring grade schooler can’t), it’s an affectionate and honest portrait of a unique, flawed and remarkable woman’s adventurous life and too-early death.
Writing of his mother’s last time seeing him dance — one of the few ballet descriptions in the book — Whiteside described performing with Misty Copeland, who played a spectral being descending from the heavens to dance a pas de deux with him. “I thought of my mother in the audience, dying of cancer and high on painkillers, and cried into my hands as Misty was carried away from me, into a bright white light. It all felt too on-the-nose to affect me so, but then again, sometimes on-the-nose is just how you feel.”
In contrast, Gavin Larsen’s eloquent memoir “Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” (University Press of Florida, $26.95) focuses almost entirely on the details of dance: what those first morning stretches feel like in a dancer’s body, or what it’s like for a young dancer to fall onstage, because she’s “testing the limits she didn’t yet know were there.” Larsen’s ballet career included training at New York’s School of American Ballet, seven years in the corps of Pacific Northwest Ballet in the 1990s and seven years as a principal at Oregon Ballet Theatre until her retirement in 2010. It’s as if she spent those years meticulously recording every sensation; her book, written many years after her dance career, flows beautifully, like a writerly equivalent of muscle memory.
Balletomanes will love the details in this book (there’s even an appendix that explains, step by meticulous step, how to do a supported pirouette), and the rich portraits of the dance teachers, choreographers and fellow dancers Larsen met along the way. I particularly loved her portrait of Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell, in whose company Larsen briefly performed, and who was so quiet in the studio that “most of her words … evaporated before they could be caught … She was not mean, not demanding, not harsh. Just quiet and expectant.”
“Being a Ballerina” floats along like a lovely adagio solo; we both feel a dancer’s constant pain and share the magical soar of a perfect lift. Reading it is a reminder that words can dance too.
It’s easy to imagine, watching ballet, that it takes place in some sort of celestial dream world; journalist Chloe Angyal’s “Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself” (Bold Type Books, $28) reminds us that, like so many art forms, classical dance is in a process of growing and evolving. Though Angyal’s writing is often more serviceable than elegant, her research — including dozens of interviews with members of the dance world — is impeccable, and her book neatly sums up many of the issues facing an art form with an “unusual blend of glamour and repression.” Among those issues: a lack of opportunity for dancers and choreographers of color, the prevalence of male artistic directors (and subsequent power imbalance) in an art dominated by women, the body-image struggles experienced by many dancers, and instances of predatory behavior in the dance world.
“Turning Pointe” isn’t always an easy read, but it’s an important one. And it’s one whose message is, ultimately, of hope. “Ballet cannot afford to succumb to crisis,” writes Angyal in her book’s conclusion. “There are simply too many people who need it.”