Australian Blog Review of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ballerina – a review

Deirdre Kelly has written a compelling and insightful history of the ethereal creature that is the Ballerina herself. It is an intelligent glimpse into the world of ballet, but more precisely an examination of the creation and ongoing evolution of the Ballerina. Whilst you are given an understanding of how ballet was first created  in the grand courts of France’s King Louis XIV, Kelly’s main point of focus – her protagonist, is the woman behind what she has highlighted to be a world full of pain and suffering, behind the red velvet curtain.
Ballerina is not a light-hearted read. Nor is it something I would be slipping into your child’s Christmas stocking as a surprise from Santa. Not to be misunderstood – this is an excellent book and worth the read, however the realities that Kelly highlights are brutal and often harsh. In some respects I feel that she has delved too deeply into the darker side of classical ballet – often dwelling on the tragedies that befall some dancers as they pursue their ultimate goal of perfection. Yes, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls, trials and tribulations that dancers have faced throughout the centuries but is it not important to also understand the light that ballet brings to dancers and the reason why ballerinas love their art so unconditionally?
Kelly’s tone throughout her book almost reigns resentment, this undertone of inner-hatred for the torments that ballerina’s once had to endure to survive. It’s like the first five chapters of this book (where there are a total of six chapters) are dedicated to making point the negatives behind this profession. She does offer a silver lining in the end, denoting that ballet is changing for the better, but I feel this glimmer of optimism comes too late.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend anyone (ballet lover or not) to read it because there are some valid historical facts that are both insightful and incredibly fascinating. Occupational hazards that involved one literally going up in flames, as Kelly outlines frequently happened in the 19th Century French theater, where one notable Paris Opera ballerina Mademoiselle Emma Livry’s tutu caught on fire and consumed her entire body, were incidents not so far and few between. Livry survived the flames but later succumbed to her burns. Tales of such dramatic ends to young ballet dancers made one aware that a life in the theater was fraught with danger. This I found fascinating….but also heartbreaking.
This book is not one for the faint-hearted, but it is a compelling portrait of the ultimate slave to her art – the Ballerina. The symbol of utmost purity and the symbol for perfection.
by Jacquelyne.

The Santa Fe New Mexican Reviews Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection Book



Michael Wade Simpson

Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection by Deirdre Kelly, Greystone Books, 272 pages

Forget any assumptions you may have about the glamorous lives of prima ballerinas. Deirdre Kelly, a Toronto-based dance critic and journalist, has written Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, which makes Black Swan look like a Disney classic for kids. The cliché of suffering dancers in bloody toe shoes is the least of it in the story Kelly presents. Her version of ballet history is filled with prostitutes, anorexics, and tragic figures like Emma Livry, one of the great Romantic ballerinas of the Paris Opéra, who caught fire in front of a dress-rehearsal audience in 1862 when her skirt got too close to the gaslights; she died months later from a related infection.

Kelly seems to assume that in this age of reality TV, what lovers of dance really want to know is that ballerinas were glorified concubines in the early days of the art form, that George Balanchine ran his artistically groundbreaking New York City Ballet like a sexually abusive despot, and that the careers of today’s stars are becoming shorter and more difficult due to age discrimination and increasing levels of competition — more dancers and fewer jobs.

Every art form is full of tragic tales of lives cut short and brilliant artists who go insane or kill themselves or who are not discovered until it is too late. Ballet is no more a haven for sad stories than is music, the visual arts, or theater. Dancers are perhaps even less likely than other artists to have interesting biographies because their careers are so short. An attempt to rise to the top in dance is, in its essence, a doomed endeavor. In dance, longevity is an oxymoron.

Kelly presents a thoroughly researched and well-presented primer on dance history. She traces the evolution of ballet from a pastime for the ruling elite in 15th-century France — the age of Louis XIV (who choreographed and performed in his own ballets) — to a more egalitarian art form after the French Revolution and to a 20th-century profession. Her feminist perspective cuts out all the saccharine excesses presented in other dance-history volumes, but her tendency to go “shocking” adds its own particular slant to an art form that, no matter what happened backstage, has always involved beauty and the highest artistic expression.

The examples of African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, who has struggled because of her race, and Jenifer Ringer, the New York City ballerina (and mother) accused by a New York Times dance critic of eating “one sugar plum too many,” shed no light on the art form. They underscore the challenges that all performing artists face, which is nothing new.

Ballerina Book Event

In Conversation:

Deirdre Kelly

About this event:

Join Ronda Nychka, former National Ballet ballerina, in conversation with Deirdre Kelly, the Globe & Mail’s award-winning dance critic and Style reporter, about the often brutal backstage experience of the ballerina.

Deirdre Kelly will be signing her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering behind the Symbol of Perfection, following the talk and Q&A.

Date and Location:
Indigo Manulife Centre, Toronto, ON
Wednesday, April 17th
7:00 PM