A former dance teacher once told me that the essence of ballet can be encapsulated in one word: up. Modern dancers, with their shoulder rolls and deep, sweeping lunges, stay close to the floor, while ballet dancers are in a constant battle with gravity: chins high, necks elongated, muscles constantly tugging on bones to lift arms and legs up, up, up. There is even a word—ballon—for when a ballet dancer appears to hover in the air longer than is physically possible, a pertinent symbol of what dancers spend the entirety of their careers slaving over: the appearance of effortlessness in the face of utmost control, a virtually unobtainable illusion.
With this in mind, it’s understandable that most of the dancers in Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me (Knopf, April) are propelled forward by chronic feelings of inferiority. Despite devoting her youth entirely to dance, Joan Joyce will always be a corps member, resigned quite literally to the background and forever falling short of her childhood fantasy. Even Joan’s much more successful friend Elaine Costas feels she is chasing a fantasy: “I don’t have that dazzle…you work and work, and you’re still just you, and then one day you realize you’re not getting better, only older.” In the world of ballet, perfection is the only acceptable course of action, and for most dancers it’s perpetually out of reach. So when Joan meets a man who seems to have achieved the unachievable, she can’t help but want a piece of it for herself.
Outside the studio, the hierarchies of ballet break down and world is much clearer: there are dancers and there are non-dancers. “Dancers are not just people,” thinks Joan’s prodigious son, Harry, as he watches a musical, the actors’ abilities paling in comparison to those of a dancer. Whether they’re corps members, soloists, or prima ballerinas, dancers are met by the average civilian with reverence, curiosity, adoration, and even envy. After spotting Joan doing ballet routines in the backyard, her new neighbor Sandy avoids discussing “Joan’s ballet shoes, the exercises at the chair, the flexibility that the husband must enjoy” when she introduces herself.
Can we really blame Sandy for being intimidated? To compare herself to a ballet dancer is to compare herself to a master of elegance, athleticism, refinement, and restraint. And you can’t talk about our infatuation with dancers without bringing sex into the conversation. At the base of both ballet and sex is a series of repetitive motions, mixed up and modified by the performers to communicate something. But with ballet, there’s much more up for interpretation.
“‘Made-up things can be true,’ says a young Harry on a trip to the theater. ‘It’s like, if a story matters to you, it’s true for you, even if it never happened.’” Our idea of the typical ballet usually involves “bizarre stories of love and devastation and enchantment, women dying from heartbreak, women turning into birds.” The simple, magical nature of these stories leave much open-ended, and we the audience fill in the holes wherever we see them, eager to project ourselves onto beautiful bodies that have the ability to boil down months of rehearsal into a three-act performance. The dancers become our own vessels of expression, each flick of the wrist and ankle taking on an audience-load of meanings. And what catharsis that can be for us.
Over the past few years, we’ve been inundated with a sea of articles, books, and talk show programs posing a simple yet daunting question: can we really have it all? No matter the answer, the fact that this conversation has been at the forefront of so much recent discourse is proof that we’ve at least been trying to have it all, and it hasn’t been easy: the job market is tougher, getting into school is more competitive, our stress levels are higher than ever, and on and on. In the way that ballet dancers are always moving up, up, up, we’re always moving forward, forward, forward, and we want it all to appear effortless like the movements of the artists we project ourselves onto.
Shipstead’s succinct, psychologically apt prose has a ballon of its own, moving Astonish Me’s rather twisted story along with a graceful buoyancy. The messy family drama reminds us that nothing is as effortless as it might appear, from dance to aging to love, so much so that we can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy towards Joan for the sins she commits to get closer to effortlessness; to make it a part of her. Our next step: saving some of that sympathy for ourselves.
Cover Image: https://afww.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/swanlake1.jpg
Ballerina Feet: http://ilovewildfox.com/ilovemywildfox/2012/11/28/beauty-is-pain-the-nyc-ballet-company.html
Child Ballerinas: http://bambinoballet.com.au/bambino-ballet/
Seated Ballerina: http://www.dancestudiolife.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Ballet_book.jpg