12 January 2013

Library Limelights 20

Deirdre Kelly. Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2012.

Shades of my distant past demanded I check this out since I was not very up to date on names and events in the world of dance. The book is not a history of ballet; numerous others have done that. Kelly concentrates mainly on the suffering, so familiar even to short-term students, yet taken for granted, that it seems odd someone should have to write a book to tell about it. It's all about sacrifice, pain, and endless physical labour from a young age. And nowadays, a career ends in one's early 30s.

Clearly Kelly undertook major research to delve behind the image of the airy, untouchable ballerina goddess. She traces the public and private lives of some famous figures from the 17th to the 21st century to illustrate her point: the stage persona could not be more different from the real person. In the early days it was a given that most ballerinas of merit were available as courtesans, and indeed, only their wealthy patrons provided them with any kind of security. Performance payment was so pitiful (a situation continuing to the late 20th century), their lesser acknowledged sisters turned to plain prostitution. Kelly does a marvellous job showing how the ballerina's image shifted over the centuries with technical achievement becoming more and more demanding.

France originated the concept of ballet and dominated it for two centuries, about half the book's exploration. The author shows how domination of the art then moved to Russia, and how the autocratic Russian-born Balanchine of New York influenced the 20th century:
"Balanchine's preference for long-legged ballerinas with narrow hips, long arms, and small heads established a new feminine ideal in ballet so difficult to attain it sparked a global epidemic of eating disorders that persists, to a large degree, today.(111)
A photograph of the great artiste and my favourite dancer, Evelyn Hart, speaks to this plight louder than words.

Surprisingly little mention is made of iconic British ballerinas. And while I would have liked more about development of various schools of dance technique, Kelly sticks appropriately to her stated study of lifestyle and health.

V.L. McDermid. Hostage to Murder. London, UK: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.
This pocketbook edition travelled with me to North Africa and back without getting beyond page 4 through no fault of its own. Luckily and happily, the long flights provided distractions of their own so nodding off over a book propped on your food tray was unnecessary. But I have to say, Oh Dear. Methinks I should not have gone back that far to savour earlier McDermid. Giving it the benefit of a doubt, Hostage might have been one of those occasional off-par efforts that happen when a series (Lindsay Gordon, girl journalist) is involved. Or it might reflect a more personal side of the author. There's little to captivate the investigative mind. McDermid has basically crafted a love story. Sorry, not what I came for.

Iris Johansen. The Search. New York: Bantam, 2000.
Another relative oldie (not to disparage gap-fillers from the in-house library between bestseller waits). Dogs would not be found on my bucket list of world fascinations let alone mystery/crime reading pleasure, but some (vaguely recalled on my part) series characters beckoned. New to me was Sarah, an experienced search and rescue operative with her Golden Retriever Monty. Logan the mysterious millionaire appears from something I'd read previously. Not to worry, it's a stand-alone with satisfactory leaps of plotting, especially locales. Not precisely a thriller, but engaging characters. Sentiments of the above McDermid review notwithstanding, this particular novel develops a more than satisfactory romantic tension between the two leading figures.

Maybe I should worry. When I look up Johansen's intensely prolific output, Sarah and Logan sadly do not seem to appear again. Their friend Eve Duncan, forensic anthropologist, seems to claim most of the author's creative attention. No, I won't worry. Eve and her ongoing tortuous relationships look just as complicated and absorbing as any mystery lover requires.         

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