Pas de Trois: Three Books About Ballet

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence



Not too long ago, loose in New York for an evening, I went to see the Bournonville ballet La Sylphide at the Met.  This was a last-minute decision, not too many dollars in my pocket, but a chance to see the ballet that’s at the heart of my novel Life Among Giants.  At the Tonight’s Performance ticket window I swallowed my pride and asked for the cheapest seat available, found myself in The Family Circle, top tier of the wedding cake.  Nosebleed!  But as the lights went down and the curtains rose, I quickly found that the birds-eye view was perfect for dance.  From so high above the choreography was visible as if drawn by a swift hand on a sheet of paper in a practice room, entrances and paired arrows, arcs and exits and lifts and stops, the overall shape of things clear and rousing.  Nixies and nymphs!  Magical blankets!  Love and temptation and, well, degradation, one of the bleakest endings in theater, all expressed in gesture, impossible leaps, tragic fades.  Anyway: I’ve found over the years that books provide a similar birds-eye view to dance, and even offer entry to another world, a world as different from ours as that of the sylphs and fairies of Bournonville’s ballet, but perhaps as dangerous.

Nureyev, by Julie Kavanaugh, is full of the juiciness of scandal, Rudolph Nureyev a man who adored women but loved men.  The barefoot iconoclast was nearly wild onstage, reshaped the image of the male dancer.  Add to that his harrowing defection from the Soviet Union and you complete the portrait of a courage that defied mid-century American notions of masculinity.  I loved showing the book to classes of young writers just to let them examine the photo of our man leaping across a stage over the heads of his partners, the seemingly total freedom from gravity as he hits the top of his arc, the ecstatic and yet rather show-offy look on his face, arms and legs angled just so, a man flying, it’s true, but a man who knows how to land, even if landing looks impossible.  Write like that!  I’d say.  And later in a given semester some fine student critic would applaud a classmate with the words, “That was a Nureyev moment!”


To Dance identifies itself as a graphic novel, I guess to avoid using the phrase graphic memoir, which has an accidentally tawdry sound.  But this is the true story of the early years of its author, Siena Cherson Siegal. The drawing is by the dancer’s husband, Mark Siegal, and they make a great team. To Dance has been in our house for some years as my hopeful ballerina daughter has moved from childhood into adolescence.  I notice it on her night table often now, though we’re past the days when we read it together.  She still adores the fairy-tale glamour, but also the dose of reality: one panel shows a casting list going up on the wall in the rehearsal studio of the School of American Ballet, captioned “Not every girl was on the list.”


The Painted Girls, a new novel by Canadian author Cathy Marie Buchanan, is the story of the real-life young woman who posed for Degas’s masterpiece “The Young Dancer at Fourteen” in the Paris of 1878.  It’s an imaginative look into a world in which a young woman was unprotected by law or custom.  I hadn’t realized how close to a prostitute a ballerina was regarded in those times, and how difficult their lives were.  Hopeful girls—and not ones from nice families—danced for coins thrown at the stage by a gallery of well-to-do men, politely thought of as suitors.  Because, okay, there was always the chance a girl might be noticed and marry above her station.  And how I love a good story that teaches me history, makes me consider the cost of beauty, even if I’m only looking on from high above.

  1. Kerry Headley writes:

    I avoided reading this until I finished Life Among Giants in case there were spoilers. I worked at the Russian Tea Room in the eighties and made the mistake of not recognizing Nureyev when he came in. I still have the claw marks from that encounter.

  2. This is excellent, and it’s wonderful to have TPG included. I have a lovely vision of you perched in the rafters of the theatre, hands clutching your heart.

  3. Peter Peteet writes:

    “A good story that teaches me history, makes me consider the cost of beauty”would also describe Life Among Giants well for me.A customer just gave me a copy of L. Cohen’s Beautiful Losers as she found out I’d not read it-a line from it is “grief makes us precise”.Serendipitously I next read of the discovery that snake “spectacles'(the fused eyecoverings we have as opaque lids)have pulsing blood flow which is increased and allows sharper vision when they are alarmed or aroused-so the cost/benefit study-so debased in our myopically economic times -is revived in it’s expansive glory once again.

  4. Janine writes:

    “graphic memoir, which has an accidentally tawdry sound”, love it!