What is your book about?
It’s a behind-the-scenes history of the ballerina, from the court of Louis XIV to the present day. It lifts the curtain on the earthy reality behind the ethereality, everything from institutionalized prostitution in the 18th and 19th centuries when the Paris Opera ballet company was known as the brothel of France to institutionalized starvation in the 20th century as a result of the influence of the choreographer, George Balanchine.
Why the ballet world?
I am, by profession, a dance critic, and have written on all aspect of dance, including ballet, for close to 30 years. I am fascinated by dancers, ballerinas in particular, and as a child I used to obsessively draw them, along with flying fish -- one a rarity of nature, the other a rarity of art -- compelled by their strange beauty. I thought of ballerinas, even then, as beautiful but strong ideal images of a femininity I wanted to live up to.
What is it you admire about ballerinas?
Ballet is very hard to do and yet these women in their pointe shoes strive to make it look effortless and graceful. I admire their tenacity and their dedication along with their artistry. But when I became a professional dance critic at age 24, I saw that, behind-the-scenes, the ballerina was not always accorded the respect I felt she deserved. I saw great artists fired for being deemed fat even when whippet thin by overbearing artistic directors who seemed to take pleasure in pulling these creatures of the air down to earth, and down to size. This shocked and appalled me, and I wanted to explore in more depth a culture that to me seems inherently quite schizophrenic -- putting ballerinas on a pedestal in public, and demeaning them behind-the-scenes.
Did you ever dance yourself?
I was never a professional dancer, but since the age of 11 I have gone constantly to dance performances to feed my obsession. I am instinctively drawn to ballet; it compels me. I had a wonderful encounter once with the actress Shirley MacLaine, who spontaneously read my so-called aura, declaring that I had a past life as a Russian ballerina, in Paris, over a century ago. She said I had been very popular with audiences! I was dumb-struck when she said that, and only could mutter, “Well, that explains it, then.” My own daughter I named Isadora after the great Isadora Duncan, who abhorred ballet, and was a true dance pioneer. But that’s another story.
Do you write about particular ballerinas?
I write about a great many ballerinas, both past and present, singling out those ballerinas who illustrate some of the themes of my book, from sexual exploitation to workplace conditions that have kept the ballerina in a state of dependency for centuries, at risk of losing her job if she dares speak out against some of the brutish practices associated with her profession. I include contemporary ballerinas but also ballerinas long forgotten, despite having introduced innovations that advanced the art of ballet. I think that’s my proudest achievement, having resurrected the names and reputations of ballerinas whose accomplishments ought be celebrated, not buried. Among these are Françoise Prévost, Marie Sallé, Emma Livry, and Ida Rubinstein. If you’ve said, “Who?”, in response to any of these names, read my book.
How did you research your topic?
I started out relying on my own first-hand observations of ballet and ballerinas as a seasoned dance critic, guided initially by my own experiences observing them for almost 40 years. I supplemented that personal experience with extensive academic research, relying not just on well-established books on ballet, but also the latest scholarship published in some of the world’s leading academic journals. I also quote from People magazine and from ballet bloggers on the Internet. My book is an unorthodox mix of journalism, scholarship, personal interviews and dance history. A lot of research (and pleasure) went into choosing the images, especially the historic ones, such as the images from Paris where ballet first flourished more than 400 years ago.
Who is your audience?
Obviously those who love ballet will be drawn to this book, because it sheds light on aspects of the profession not usually seen by the public eye. It will appeal to women, because women tend to make up most of the ballet-going population. I suspect it’s because women somehow identify with that transcendent creature on the stage, seeing her as a kind of superwoman, in charge of her own show -- an illusion, of course. Yes, yes, I know I sound sexist. But I don’t mean to be. I know men are genuinely interested in ballet, too. Historically, the art belonged to them. The king of France was the world’s first balletomane, its greatest practitioner. Men became the patrons and today they still very much rule the roost despite Balanchine’s claims of ballet being woman. I trace that heritage, linking past with present – ultimately I think this book appeals to anyone interested in cultural history and in knowing the truth behind the illusion. This book is an exposé, as juicy as that sounds.
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