Review: Bunheads by Sophie Flack

Bunheads, by Sophie Flack
Little, Brown and Company, 2011 (Currently Available)

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Face Value: I am so into this cover. It’s fantastic, the way it shows just the right mix of actual representation and wry commentary. I love the kaleidoscope effect, suggesting all of these identical dancers spinning in interesting, coordinated visual images. I love it aesthetically and I love it for the way it says something more about the story than “this is a book about ballet.” We get that, of course, but this bigger idea of the kaleidoscope, of breaking out of that symmetry, is subtly, not overbearingly introduced.

Does it Break the Slate? Yes, but not in the way I thought it was going to. I had sort of anticipated a “behind the scenes of the ballet, look at all these gruesome horrible inside secrets” kind of a narrative, and that’s not what this is at all. We get a glimpse into some of the negative aspects of the art form (cutthroat competition, excessive dieting, etc.) but we also get plenty of detail about why Hannah loves it. But what really makes this book Slatebreaking is that this is not a story about a girl being broken down by the art form that she used to love, it’s a story about a girl, her art, and growing up, and the choices she makes relating to all of these things. Hannah really grows up throughout the course of the book, and she does so in a way that is plausible and empowering.

Who would we give it to? There’s a market for ballet books, that’s for sure. I have a well worn copy of Ballet Shoes on my shelves to this day, and I watch So You Think You Can Dance each summer with an almost religious fervor. The constant market for films like Fame, Center Stage and the like suggest that I’m not alone in this reaction. So I think there are a whole lot of young women who will like this book, who just love the idea of ballet from a distance. However, what’s unique about this particular book is that I think it will appeal to both non-dancers and dancers. According to her author bio, Sophie Flack moved to New York City at 15 to dance with the School of American Ballet, and danced with the New York City Ballet for years. And even from my outside eye, it’s clear from her writing that she’s sharing an insider’s perspective. So I think actual ballet dancers will appreciate Flack’s narrative for its precision and empathy and outsiders will be thrilled at this inside look into the ballet world.

Review: Like a lot of little girls, I started ballet classes in preschool. I don’t remember, honestly, if it was my idea or my mom’s, or what, but I do know that I loved the idea of being a ballerina. I had ballerinas on my wall and I wore a tutu on Halloween for three straight years, from 1988-1990. I continued to take classes until I was 14, but I have to be honest – I never enjoyed the actual classes or the dancing as much as I enjoyed the idea of ballet. Because for me, the idea was magical. And even though I haven’t put on a pair of ballet slippers in more than a decade, the surrounding narrative has stayed incredibly appealing. So this book has been on my radar for awhile, and I was really pleased by how much I enjoyed reading it.

In Bunheads, we follow Hannah Ward, a 19-year old dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company. Hannah’s whole life has been ballet for ages – she moved to New York on her own at 14 to study with the Manhattan Ballet Academy and moved up into the company after she finished high school. Ballet is her life, but as she starts to get older (and meets the alluring Jacob, a college student and musician who has nothing to do with dance whatsoever) she starts to wonder if she really does want dance to be the only thing in her life.

Ballet is one of those things (and I’m speaking extremely generally here) that can be a complicated issue for feminists. It gets a pretty bad rap, with stories of rampant eating disorders and the push for hyper-feminine performances and pre-adolescent bodies, plus the stereotypical harsh, male instructors or directors. But it’s also a female-dominated art form, one that requires tremendous strength, athleticism, precision and artistry. So it’s truly fascinating to read about this world from Hannah’s point of view. And I love her perspective, from the first chapter:

Besides, the word ballerina sounds too pink, too froufrou. Yes, we wear tutus and tiaras, but only when we perform each night. We spend most of our time hidden from the audience, working as hard as we possibly can to strengthen and control our bodies so that we step onstage, everything we do looks perfect and effortless.

We rehearse in old leotards, threadbare tights and torn leg warmers We rarely buy new dance clothes, because we know that most ballet careers are short-lived. Today, for example, I’m wearing a faded navy cotton leotard and black, slightly less faded leggings. There’s nothing pink or froufrou about that.

No question, Hannah’s world is full of hard work. And Flack doesn’t shy away from those expectations, about dieting or demanding instructors. The girls in Hannah’s corps range from hyper-vigilant about calories to seriously disordered eating. At one point, Hannah is catapulted into full on distress based on the suggestion that she should wear an “undergarment” (no one even wants to utter the word bra), and “lose weight in her breasts.” The onset of puberty has the potential to be tantamount to disaster. As Hannah worries,

“I mean, I had, to go through puberty eventually; it’s a biological necessity! But the reason for weight gain doesn’t matter to Otto; only the fact of it does.”

Which is, obviously, horrifying. Luckily for her, however, Hannah manages to maintain a relatively healthy relationship with food (at least compared to some of the other girls). And Flack does a great job of pointing out these problems with the ballet world without making them the only thing the story is about. She also gives us a great sense of why Hannah loves what she does, the intoxicating feeling of being onstage, of being a part of the dance. We get the romance of it, with just enough of the reality to bring us down to earth.

The non-ballet romance in this story might come a little too easily, but it’s so sweetly written and charming that I can’t help but love it, and root for the two of them as a couple. And – something that the author does very well is make sure that we understand that Hannah’s big decision is not between Jacob and ballet. Jacob never asks, or expects Hannah to give up dancing, and he loves and admires her dedication. But he does, understandably, get frustrated when he is consistently placed as an afterthought to her work. Jacob is not the opposing side to Hannah’s decision. Instead, he’s a catalyst. Meeting him, and spending time with him is Hannah’s first interaction with a life outside of ballet since her childhood. And the opportunities that are open to him intrigue her, and get her wondering about what else might be out there for her.

Ultimately though, this is a story about growing up and making decisions about your life. Hannah loves ballet. We never question that she loves ballet, that this art form is an essential part of who she is. But she has to decide whether or not she wants it to be her whole life, as she gets older and starts to see what else might be out there. And I truly appreciate that it really is Hannah who makes the decisions about her life in the end. There are a million factors. There are people, ideas, art, passion pulling her in all different directions. But at the end of the story we see one girl making a personal decision about her own life. And really, what could be more Slatebreaking than that?

Reviewed from library copy.

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