After watching Black Swan and The Company and reading Ballet Confidential and Bunheads in the past year, I’m coming to the conclusion that all stories about serious ballet dancers have the same themes. Driving ambition, punishing work, all-consuming competition, incredible discipline of mind and body, and inevitable breakdowns of both. Apparently being a ballet dancer is one of the most punishing and un-glamerous careers possible. So glad I’m short, ungraceful and clumsy – I just never had to face this painful existence.
I picked up Bunheads because of the beautiful cover, and because in honour of a well-loved former co-worker, I scope out interesting ballet books (she is a dancer). While Bunheads was nowhere near as dark as Black Swan, I did find myself thinking of that movie a lot as Hannah, the main character, subsumed her life, emotions and health to being a ballet star and achieving the elusive solo. Hannah is a nineteen-year-old dancer in the prestigious Manhattan Ballet. For the past ten years she has dedicated herself to this life of constant rehearsals and nightly performances, and she has loved it. However, when she meets a handsome college student, Jacob, Hannah begins to question why she can’t have a life, and begins to wonder about all the things she might be missing out on.
When an instructor suggests that she lose weight (she is still willowy and thin, but has begun to develop – gasp – breasts!), Hannah is thrown into further conflict – and experiences severe embarrassment at needing a bra. Through the book she alternates between fanatic devotion to dance – working out constantly to lose weight and develop her stamina and perfect ballerina figure – and a frustration with all the outrageous demands from the unyielding directors who see her as little more than an object.
The author, Sophie Flack, apparently spent nine years with the New York City Ballet, and this novel is clearly based on her experience. It’s a certainly well-described experience. I was sunk right into the world of aching muscles, bone-tired exhaustion, and the exhilaration that comes with performance and completing a dance beautifully.
In particular, her characters were well-realized. Hannah was complex and the conflict she felt between her dance ambitions and desire to experience real life was palpable. I also loved and hated Zoe, her best friend. Though Zoe is petty, often mean, and self-centred, she is also a loyal friend when it really matters and an extremely hard worker. Her family is ridiculously wealthy, but she is almost entirely neglected by her mother, and though she is priviledged, she earns her dance recognition through hard work. Flack created a wonderful character here – one that you can’t help but hate on occasion, but one who is clearly damaged and ultimately caring beneath her hostile shields.
All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book. Perfect for aspiring dancers, but also a well-drawn coming-of-age book for a world completely different from the norm.