'Ballerina' by Edward Stewart review

By J M Cornwell,
The Turning Point with fangs, claws, and hope.
Author Rating: 
4.0 Stars - Very Good

My first thought after reading the description of Ballerina by Edward Stewart is that it was a modern version of The Turning Point with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. I was wrong.

The story is about Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery, aspiring ballerinas in New York City in the 1970s, which is the time that The Turning Point was filmed, and also mentioned in the last half of the book. Where Bancroft and MacLaine faced off after about 20 years of guarded friendship and rivalry, Steph and Chris are beginning their journey through the ranks of young girls struggling to learn from the best and brightest, gaining positions in New York ballet companies, and braving the rough waters of career, dance, and men, and not always successfully.

Chris is the daughter of a very wealthy family from Chicago. Her parents are resigned to allowing Chris to pursue ballet and have agreed to Steph's mother's compromise of letting Chris live with them while training and working. Chris's parents never show up for any of the big moments in Chris's life: premieres, opening nights, etc. and she remains in many ways a scared and immature child, even to the point of being horribly backward.

Steph is the product of genetics (both parents were ballet dancers in the 1950s) and her mother's failed ballet career. Anna Barlow Lang was going somewhere until Marius Volmar fired her and her husband.

Neither could get a break after that and Anna poured all of her time and attention into Steph's career, starting at the age of 3 or 4. Anna pushes and manipulates Steph so Steph can have the career Anna always wanted and works to recreate her past in her daughter, regardless of what Steph wants.

There are men in the mix as well, from Marius Volmar, the director of National Ballet Theater, to the young men who want to be part of Steph and Chris's lives and either fail to understand what it means to be a dancer or get caught up mixing the business, pleasure, and passion of ballet. It is a heady -- and often destructive -- life fraught with friendship walking the tightrope of dance and emotion. Add in blackmail and a defector from the Kirov in Communist Russia and you have the quintessential late 20th century ballet novel.

Michael Stewart first published Ballerina in 1978, which is why the novel seemed to be more a product of the 1970s instead of merely depicting the times. The novel is full of ballet references in French, of course, and is not a quick read. One must pay attention and be familiar with the terminology, or willing to stop and look all the words up. What Stewart does very well is portray the world behind the scenes in all its glorious shades of light and dark, and there is a lot of dark to go around.

Stewart's characters may be true to life for the times, but I doubt that little has changed in ballet. Chris and Steph exist on coffee, cigarettes, bee pollen, and honey for that quick burst of energy. Anna Barlow Lang is as determined and manipulative a ballet mother as one could hope for (or fear) and Marius Volmar is intent on one thing -- his vision of ballet as art -- and just as manipulative and vicious as Anna.

Steph and Chris are supportive and kind, but Chris's constant fears of inadequacy wear dangerously thin and tend toward whining while Steph, although at times anxious and struggling, is more assertive and willing to let go and fly as she struggles to break free of her mother's machinations.

Predictably, there are gay chorus boys carping and venomous in their relationship with soloists who attempt to play both sides of the sexual game and excess and eccentricities to satisfy ballet lovers and voyeurs. Ballerina has something for everyone in its sometimes glacial pace and the ending is pure fairy tale with a surprising maturity and grace.

Ballerina is still as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 1970s and often just as much fun -- and sad and complex and perplexing and -- ballet.

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