BWW Book Reviews: BALLERINA by Deirdre Kelly Reviewed by Seyna Bruskin
by Deirdre Kelly 2013
Greystone Books: Vancouver, Toronto, Berkeley
Reviewed by Seyna Bruskin
"Like Emma Livry!" cried Janine Charrat,a French dancer in 1961, as her costume caught fire. She survived, but Livry, one hundred years earlier, had not.
So begins "Ballerina," a new book by Deirdre Kelly, who vividly describes the treatment of women in ballet from a historical perspective. Ms. Kelly examines the dance form's roots as an amusement of kings (in France, in the 15th and 16th Century), to today's amusement for anyone who can afford a ticket.
Ms. Kelly's two main points are that while dancers have been treated with less than respect and kindness, they have maintained an illusion of poise, purity, daintiness and virtue since the days of Louis XIV, (who established what is now the Paris Opera Ballet), despite the harsh realities of their lives. The illusion often disguised hidden lives as courtesans or even prostitutes. As a result, the public image of dancers is justifiably divided.
One great XVIIth C ballerina, Marie-Madeleine Guimard, maintained a stellar career while building a fortune as part owner of a series of "Pornographic theaters" (Ms. Kelly never quite defines this, though she does detail some tawdry activities in theater boxes). Ballerinas at that time often juggled multiple lovers from business, clergy, and royalty who supported them. Since many originally came from great poverty, they often supported their families with these extra-curricular activities, many of which came to an end with the French Revolution.
One of the most well-known of all these dancers, nearly anonymous until now, was used in the 19th Century as a model by Edgar Degas in his paintings, and most famously, his statue, "The Little Dancer." One casting is in our Metropolitan Museum. It is quite a coincidence that a new historical novel, "The Painted Girls," by Cathy Marie Buchanan has just been published. It features the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, who became a soloist in the Paris Opera Ballet and then vanished from historical record.
In the 20th century, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, was a benevolent dictator to many of his dancers, particularly in New York City Ballet. His taste in body type was taken as law by many dancers, who starved themselves or had plastic surgery to conform to Balanchine's tastes. Ms. Kelly, who details some of the criticisms that have been leveled against Mr. Balanchine, feels that the dancers' sacrifices went too far for their well-being. At least they didn't set themselves on fire.