Ballet News Reviews| Sophie Flack’s Bunheads
Ex New York City Ballet dancer Sophie Flack’s debut novel, Bunheads, draws heavily on her own experiences of life within a ballet company at the Corps de Ballet level. Flack danced with New York City Ballet for nine years in the Corps.
Bunhead, a pejorative term used to describe a ballet dancer for whom nothing else exists besides their ballet life, is an apt depiction of 19-year-old Hannah Ward, dancing in the Corps at the fictitious Manhattan Ballet Company, right until she comes up against indifference, hard work and rivalry in a professional ballet company, and slightly loses the plot.
Ward lives in a world filled with theatre trunks, leotards, Advil, water bottles, Therabands, corn pads, pointe shoes, tights, warm-ups, make-up, leggings, leg warmers, mirrors in messy dressing rooms and tiny physical therapy rooms squished into a fortress of a building in Manhattan which she hardly ever leaves except to go home and sleep. All the references to popular culture, architecture and food are American, as you’d expect, but since I’m reviewing this book for it’s UK release you should know that you may not be familiar with them. It’s a bit like the English sense of humour – you either get it or you don’t. As a young dancer, Ward dreamed of dancing ‘Marie’ in The Nutcracker. Elsewhere the dream part from The Nutcracker would be the Sugar Plum Fairy as it’s the Principal role, or Clara at a push – the Nutcracker productions in the US are very different to those in the UK.
Throughout the book Ward mostly battles with relationships rather than the actual business of ballet, which she seems to be quite good at when she’s given the breaks – relationships with her parents who have sacrificed a lot and who she has hardly seen since her teenage years because of her ballet training, with her work colleagues who are all competing for the same roles/promotion, with her Artistic Director who appears disinterested to the point of disdainful, and with two guys – one a balletomane who spoils her with gifts (yes, these include lunch and yes, he spoils other dancers in the company too) and one a handsome musician that she meets in her cousin’s Italian restaurant (on a rare night out to celebrate being selected to understudy a part along with her friend/rival Zoe and yes, they do eat carbs). She is endlessly conflicted between taking more and more classes on top of her already exhausting ballet rehearsals – Bikram yoga, Gyrotonics, Pilates – in order to be noticed by the Artistic Director and his ballet staff, or having some time with the heart-throb musician, Jacob, who makes her tingle all over but confuses her even more because of his easy access to learning and eager discovery of new experiences. Ward barely knows Manhattan; she’s always in the theatre, and Jacob makes sure she knows this.
Harry, the stagehand with a long history of working in the theatre (his father and grandfather were also stage hands) has a 9 yr old daughter Matilda who idolises Ward and typically wants to be like her one day. Cliche ? Ward later watches Matilda dance and discovers that she is an enthusiastic dancer but, less promisingly, is built like a fire truck (engine, in the UK). For Ward, her working days often leave her feeling invisible and expendable; and even when she happens to be backstage during a show when a dancer is injured and she goes on in her place, the exhilaration is short-lived. When the Winter season casting is posted she discovers that, along with everyone else, she’s dancing the same Corps roles she’s been dancing for three years.
When one of Ward’s colleagues is promoted, and despite the fact that at the same time she has been given a prize soloist role, she makes a bold, life-changing decision that answers the question posed on the cover of the book.
Having made her decision, I found Ward’s handling of her previously scary and remote boss quite at odds with how she has depicted him in the rest of the book – standoffish, aloof, unapproachable & disinterested. Where does she find the courage to march into his office having been told he’s busy, to say her piece ? I’m not convinced that a real-life dancer would handle the situation in a similar way, nor even to draw the same conclusions about her longed-for career after only a couple of years in the company.
Bunheads is an easy read; it doesn’t assume zero knowledge of ballet and so some terms are explained and others are not. What I don’t buy is the way that the question raised in this book is handled. Ward becomes frustrated by her own lack of ‘outside’ or as she calls it, ‘pedestrian’ knowledge/experience, recognises the stifling confines of a ballet company and wants out, having been training all her life for this one thing. I can only think of rare occurrences where a professional ballet dancer looked at their daily ballet life as anything other than their dream job. In those instances, the dancer would have left because they had already developed skills/knowledge that would enable them to branch out into another career, and perhaps injury would have hastened the decision.
The other point made by a character in the book – that the all-consuming nature of a career in ballet would only become even more oppressive as a dancer is promoted is, well, not really accurate. In reality, Soloists and Principals perform less frequently and have more free time than Corps de Ballet dancers in most companies. Principals in particular might only have one or two shows in a month whereas the Corps are on every night. Flack should know this – though her novel is a work of fiction, her background implies a sense of authenticity to the story which isn’t entirely there. It is there when Flack describes the rehearsal studio or ballet class, but the restlessness that Ward experiences and her subsequent sudden decisions go against the grain.
In real life, students who have made it into the Company attached to their school are the best of their year, and they join that Company filled with the best students from every year before (and after) them. There is a recognition that a period of time must be spent in the Corps – to learn the rep, how the company works and to get to grips with professional ballet life. How long that period is, depends on the dancer and the Artistic Director, but all Corps dancers want to be promoted and hope (and work like fury) to make it more likely to happen no matter how long they have been in the Corps. Giving up isn’t really an option after all the years of compromise, expense, time and sacrifice in training ; it’s such a single-minded pursuit that to change tack is mostly unthinkable. Perhaps Flack wanted the book to follow her own pathway – she is currently studying English at Columbia University. This book won’t give you a realistic idea of life in a ballet company – it’s a work of fiction – but it’s an entertaining read that skirts around more serious subjects and remains light-hearted. So will you !
Bunheads is released in the UK on March 15th 2012