Celestial Bodies by Laura Jacobs
Publisher: Basic Books
Sight, Laura Jacobs argues in the introduction of Celestial Bodies, cannot retain dense tomes of steps - in the mind’s retina the fluid drawl of dance will splinter into separate images. What we take with us is a certain sensation, a feeling, a snapshot. And because every performance promises a new concatenation of images, that precious sensation of wonder, of experiencing something for the first time, will return to us with each new-old viewing.
Much of this ties in with Laura Jacobs’s central concerns in Celestial Bodies. Firstly, the primacy of sight is an acknowledgement of subjectivity. In dance the old adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, holds true. One senses though that, for Jacobs, it is this very subjectivity that is the pulse of the art form. Its virtuosity lies in its ability to spawn and admit a versatile spectrum of interpretations. Secondly, the word “see” which is a corollary of the visual nature of this art form disguises what we really do, which is that we think; and so in dance, “looking and thinking, separate faculties at first, eventually begin to work as one faculty.” It is the mind that processes images, that tells us how to make sense of what the sight arrests. This book is, at its best, a freewheeling journey through the mindscape of one of dance’s leading critics, uniting both thinking and seeing.
While Jacobs explains the mechanics of movement with a painterly touch for imagery and word association, she is less patient (though no less poetic) zipping through vast swathes of dance history. Jacobs offers a way of thinking about dance, a way of looking that engages both the cerebral and the romantic in us. But that assumes, of course, that we already know (and agree) what ballet, and its appendages, is broadly about. For a reader seeking deeper instruction this is an edifying approach. But this not a book for the uninitiated.
Jacobs explains the key terms found in ballet (arabesque, turn-out) and ballet companies (corps de ballet, soloist, principal, and separately a chapter on ballerinas) but Celestial Bodies is not quite a glossary. If it were, she would be more prescriptive. Nor is it an encyclopaedia. Again, one senses that the ground she covers, the dancers she chooses to highlight, are guided by felt experiences rather than a need for representativeness - these are the dancers she saw, the performances that spoke to her. Neither is it quite a collection of critical essays. She errs on the side of the romantic; the reader looking for a discussion of more contemporary concerns would be disappointed.
Instead, perhaps, Celestial Bodies could be read like a collection of essays, a personal commentary on classical ballet’s essential structures and geometries. And all said, this is a lovely paean to a beautiful art form and finds, in the artistry of Jacobs’s prose, proof that the slippery streams of movement can find repose in words and on paper.
Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet by Robert Greskovic
Publisher: Limelight Editions (2005)
Though stars have come and gone, ballets faded and resurrected since 1998, the year Ballet 101 was first published, Robert Greskovic’s guide remains an invaluable resource for both the neophyte and the aspiring balletomane. With a foreword by a certain Mikhail Baryshnikov it is as accessible as it is comprehensive. Or to quote Joan Acocella, “[t]ruly expert and truly understandable - a rare combination”. From the court of Versailles, the aristocratic birthplace of ballet, through the steppes of Russia, the cradle of Petipa’s great ballets, to the metropolis of New York City which inspired Balanchine’s oeuvre, Greskovic offers a compelling, well-researched overview of ballet’s history and various traditions. He brings, of course, the weight of decades of writing on and watching ballet. But he also invites the reader to form his or her own judgements - a sixty-page videography accompanies the book and where possible he has indicated the video resources that support his musings. Appended is a thirty-page glossary of essential terms in ballet.
The Everyday Dancer by Deborah Bull
Publisher: Faber & Faber
In The Everyday Dancer, Deborah Bull, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, sets out to capture the quotidian routine of a dancer’s life. Structured around a single day, it is a charming, occasionally autobiographical look at a dancer’s daily rituals - class, rehearsal, stage, repeat. Bull brings to it a dancer’s elegance and a certain feel for its inner metronome and drama such that we get a sense of its reiterative quality without risking banality.
This is not the first book from Bull, today the Vice President and Vice Principal of King’s College London (the second act of her life has been no less fascinating than the first). While still a dancer, Bull published Dancing Away, a chronicle of one year at Covent Garden. Through a series of journal entries, dance or rather a dancer’s life became the lens through which the reader glimpses at the structures that carry and impel its survival: changes in the political wind, the need for funding, dealing with injuries. Dance was only one node in a larger web. It was less rosy and perhaps more honest. But The Everyday Dancer, aimed at a younger demographic, succeeds because it is transparent about both the work and the reward, the challenges and the joys.
Observer of the Dance, 1958-1982 by Alexander Bland
Publisher: London: Dance Books; Dance Books Ltd (2011)
Observer of the Dance is a collection of writings, mainly critical reviews, by the noted critic Alexander Bland. Bland was the ballet critic of The Observer from 1955 to 1982 and these articles, chronologically arranged, take the reader right into the belly of the beast of British ballet. Written at digestible lengths and with wit to spare, they educate, humour, enliven. With its British lean, Bland’s writing coincided with a period of creative flourishing in British dance, giving it an unwitting narrative centre to map the story of twenty-five extraordinary years in dance. Bland’s observations are also invitations - an invitation to transcend time, an invitation to think about dance, an invitation, in short, to the ballet.
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.