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[ENG] Book Review

February 9, 2018

A Body of Work by David Hallberg

 

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Published: 2017

 

Dancing ends at the limits of the body. Which is also to say that when a dancer takes up a pen there is special interest. What does it feel, we want to know with just a hint of voyeuristic curiosity, to be touched by Apollonian grace. David Hallberg, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, is one of Ballet’s Apollos. With the release of A Body of Work he is also the latest to commit words to paper.

 

Memorialized lives, more often than not, are exceptional lives. In this, Hallberg, the first American to join the Bolshoi Theatre as a Principal, is no different. But if Hallberg’s autobiography alludes to a triumphalist arc – school bullying gives way to cruelty at the Paris Opera School which leads to a defiant promise that “I will return here, dance there, and prove my worth to them” – it  quickly subverts those worn Cinderella tropes.

 

In one chapter, Hallberg describes returning to the Paris Opera to dance as a guest; he has proved his worth. A lesser book would end there. But that isn’t the point of this book. Neither is it a dark, subversive take on a profession that makes exceptional demands of its practitioners. Even if Hallberg admits the occasional twinge of doubt, it is clear that he loves his craft. The proof lies in the pudding; nothing but love would make someone do what he does to dance again, again being the fulcrum on which this entire narrative turns.

 

Superstars, today, are made on a relentless and unforgiving guest circuit. Hallberg writes of how a combination of ego and artistic need drove him to chase shows in theaters from as far apart as the Great Theatre of Havana, Cuba to the Bolshoi in Moscow. If the latter was the site of his greatest triumph it was also a pyrrhic victory. In June 2014, Hallberg suffered a devastating foot injury.  He wrote this book in the margins of those two and a half years where he found himself bereft of both stage and profession. Much of the book is shot through with the desolation and vulnerability of those years. 

 

Of the rest, there are, perhaps surprisingly for a book dominated by the loneliness of the nomadic dancer, beautiful descriptions of human relationships – dancer and coach, dancer and partner, dancer and costumer. Of some of these relationships Hallberg tells us “there was no need for words”. It is a reminder too that dance is a mute artform. If writing and dancing have much in common they differ in the most fundamental of things – the  voice in which they speak, their instrument. Hallberg, a first-time author, is polishing his writerly instrument. He writes well but it is an earnest sort of well that occasionally slips into more pedantic sentences. Still his writing, like his dancing, has a certain honesty, a clarity of emotion that holds the rawest of passages from excessive sentiment. There is nothing wrong with sentiment but the ability to write with a simultaneous sense of restraint and lyricism is worthy of admiration.

Prologue: An Unconventional Life by Joan Brady

 

Publisher: Carlton Books Limited

Published: 1994

 

If we need any more confirmation that dance is no fairy tale, we have Joan Brady’s Prologue: An Unconventional Life. Prologue revolves around the seduction of that fairy tale and its cost. It is not a new book neither are its themes – the frustrated dancer, the interrupted life, adolescent angst – particularly novel; but what elevates it above other autobiographies is the way it combines fiction’s inventiveness with the sterner edge of fact. It feels as much apocryphal

as autobiographical. Partly, that is because the author’s life – battles with her parents, a relationship with her mother’s lover, apprenticeships with the San Francisco Ballet and then the New York City Ballet – reads like fiction. Partly, because Brady, the first woman to win the Whitbread book of the year award (for The Theory of War), manages to create an unconventional world which, after all, is a world proper to fiction.

Dancing on Water by Elena Tchernikova

 

Publisher: Northeastern University Press

Published: 2013

 

There are plenty of autobiographies from dancers, less so from those who make dancers. Perhaps that is because while dancers appear to be touched by fairy dust, the work of a teacher is primarily one of effort. In a way, this is what makes Elena Tchernichova’s autobiography so fascinating. Tchernikova is a former dancer with the Kirov Ballet and ballet mistress with American Ballet Theatre. Dancing on Water, which she co-wrote with Joel Lobenthal, is a retrospective account of the dances she saw and the dancers she coached. Written in spare, intelligent prose it is filled with penetrating observations and engaging anecdotes. Here, she tells us about the stylistic differences between Sylphide and Giselle, about coaching Natalia Makarova, about working for Mikhail Baryshnikov, about a golden generation of American dancers. Although it is on the cerebral side of things, there is just enough by way of narrative shape and tension to sustain attention.

《許芳宜 - 不怕我和世界不一樣》

Sheu Fang Yi  - Not Afraid to be Different from the World

 

Publisher: Northeastern University Press

Published: 2014

 

《許芳宜 - 不怕我和世界不一樣》which roughly translates to Sheu Fang Yi - Not Afraid to be Different from the World is Sheu Fang Yi’s account of how a girl from Yilan, Taiwan became a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company in New York City. It is an inspiring, uplifting tale that, depending on which light you turn it to, can be many things. With its gently dizzying sense of vertigo it could, for one, be a contemporary immigrant’s tale.  In its newest edition, the book is divided into two parts. The first part is written in the first person and the second part is a collection of accounts and interviews about Sheu Fang Yi. The movement between within and without makes for a lovely choral interplay of voices.

 

《許芳宜 - 不怕我和世界不一樣》是一個來至台灣宜蘭女生遠赴紐約,並成為瑪莎‧葛蘭姆舞團首席舞蹈員的故事。此書發人深省、令人振奮,隱約呼應著各種生命哲學。這個溫柔卻難以置信得令人眩暈的故事,或許更可解讀為一個現代的移民故事。最新修定版全書分為兩部份,上半部由許芳宜自述,下半部是有關許芳宜的他人撰文和訪談,譜成動人的歌頌。

 

 

===
Joy Wang X.Y.
reviews dance for SeeingDance. She has also written for Bachtrack, CriticalDance, and dabbles in script-writing for television. Based in Singapore, she tries to catch performances around the Asian-Pacific and beyond.

 

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