Deirdre Kelly

5-Star Review of Ballerina

“The theme of the ballet dancer’s career being far from beauty and glamour, presents itself right from the very beginning of the book…”

Book Review

Title: Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection

Author: Deirdre Kelly

Publisher: Greystone Books

Published: September 29, 2012

Number of Pages: 264

ISBN: 978-926812-66-3

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Reviewed By: Elizabeth Merchant

Deidre Kelly is the perfect authority on her subject, being a dance critic for 16 years for the Globe and Mail, and whose articles on dance have appeared in such top magazines as Elle, Vogue and Chatelaine. In Ballerina, Kelly takes us on a journey from the beginnings of this elegant art form to what ballet is today, exploring its darker side along the way, until concluding with proposed changes for the ballerina into the 21st century. She wants the ballerina to be seen as more than just a romantic idealized feminine figure, and more like a real person who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

The theme of the ballet dancer’s career being far from beauty and glamour, presents itself right from the very beginning of the book in the form of a tragic story from 1961 involving popular French dancer Janine Charrat, which ends with a warning “Dancers beware!”

In Chapter 1: The Feminization of Ballet (It is called “Feminization” because originally it was men that danced the ballet), Kelly says, “The history of the ballerina is tarnished by institutionalized suffering, poverty and sexual exploitation.” Through extensive research, Kelly is able to cite numerous sources, to back up her statements, including 19th century dance critiques that appeared in the paper of the day by Jules Janin and Théophile Gautier, two important male dance critics, and observers or critics like Albert Vizentini, a French composer and music writer.

After more and more women entered the ballet, sexual liaisons began to take place between ballerinas and wealthy male patrons who attended the ballet. The practice became so prevalent that fiction writer Ludovic Halévy based his trilogy of fiction on it. Sex for favours and a better way of life was condoned, even encouraged; sometimes even by a ballerina’s mother!

Dancers often endured harsh and unsafe working conditions such as being hoisted up with no safety net and the threat of their dresses catching fire by gaslight fixtures. An 1868 article in The Lancet in the British Medical journal mentions the tragedies associated with what was a new lighting system at the time.

Kelly details accounts of the experiences of an abundance of dancers through the centuries including Madeleine Guimard, Marie Taglioni, and Anna Pavlova, as well as validating her statements of more recent times with quotes from dancers themselves such as Gelsey Kirkland and Evelyn Hart, who recount what it was like dancing for gifted but tyrannical artistic director George Balanchine. In the Balanchine era, eating disorders and plastic surgery were common as ballerinas strived to attain his ideal as described in the book: “tall, with long legs, narrow hips, and a small head.” On top of the pressure to stay very thin, Kelly brings to light other ills of the profession such as age discrimination, (although there were few exceptions; one being popular Canadian dancer Karen Kain who danced until 46 and Soviet ballerina Ektarina Maximova who danced until 60!), forced retirement, and wrongful dismissals. But, dancers did fight back for their rights, and Kelly goes in-depth on the case of dancer Kimberly Glasco, who took on the National Ballet of Canada and won.

Kelly ends on a positive note, with changes that are starting to take place such as dancers being able to take maternity leave with pay as with other careers, and there is more of an emphasis now on maintaining a healthy weight.

This eye-opening book is well written in a literary style, but at times exhaustive, especially in the beginning where it goes into the history of the ballet; the key points could have been scaled down. Photographs are included in the book for a nice touch. Kelly treats her subject with an abundance of respect and admiration. It is interesting that as she examines the lives of some of the early ballerinas (ballerina-courtesans), she does not sit on a moral high horse in regards to what dancers of the time felt was necessary for them to do to achieve a better place in life. If anything, because prostitution seemed to be a necessity, the dancer’s self-worth should never be called into question. Ballerina is an honest and at times horrendous account of the reality of the ballet dancer’s life and career, and makes for a spectacular read.

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