For an allegedly silent art, ballet has inspired many good words. Essays by poet Edwin Denby and critic Arlene Croce are worthy writing workshop handouts. Choreographer Agnes de Mille’s books are histories of dance and America. Jacques d’Amboise’s memoir I Was A Dancer is not only candid; the charming, legendary dancer wrote it as if he was telling his story over coffee.
Dramatized ballet has not been so fortunate. Despite Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking cinematography, an original ballet featuring three pioneering dancers, and its undisputed place making ballet popular, The Red Shoes is perhaps the most maudlin of Michael Powell’s films. The passion and determination that drive characters in his (and collaborator Emeric Pressburger) work suffocates once the pointe shoes are laced up. And Black Swan completely missed the point of Swan Lake’s rite of passage for dancers and audiences alike. With luck, a ballerina starts in the flock and rises to Swan Queen Odette and her evil double Odile. The potential freak-out factor derives from the technical and acting demands placed on the prima ballerina—and regardless of how many times they have seen the ballet—the crowd out front’s very high expectations.
Swan Lake is where Kate Crane starts her story in Meg Howrey’s addictively wild The Cranes Dance. A soloist in a fictitious New York company (modeled on American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey), she has just finished performing prominent roles in the second and third acts. She not only tells herself that this is “SERIOUS BALLET: please be perfect,” but that the clichés accompanying this popular classic give it a “slightly Renaissance Fair vibe.” That night Kate also injures her neck and is reluctant to seek treatment (a side story that grows in importance).
Finally, ballet fiction that satisfies fans and general readers minus pretense or dumbing-down.
A former dancer, Howrey provides insight on the daily grind of class, rehearsal, and performance. Viewers of shows like Dance Moms or Bunheads unfamiliar with the particular environment of a company-affiliated school will get a pretty good idea of one when Kate reminisces about being “in a class of me, times fourteen.” Howrey even has great fun at the expense of Black Swan’s dancing double revelation controversy. Kate participated in a “recent dance movie” starring an actress with such “lobster-claw hands and biscuit-shaped feet” that “no one could mistake her for the real thing. Except for the millions of people who loved the movie, of course.”
Two ballerinas originally shared the dual role of Odette and Odile. Had this practice continued, Kate would be the sexy Odile and her sister Gwen the virtuous Odette. From Vaslav and Bronislava Nijinsky to Megan and Robert Fairchild, there is a long tradition of siblings in the same company. Gwen is a principal dancer favored by fans, critics, and her parents. Yet Kate is no slouch. She is regularly cast in new ballets and specializes in the dance-dramas of Antony Tudor. One work she describes rehearsing and performing is his Leaves are Fading, a beautiful ballet without a bad part. I hope Kate’s fictional afterlife includes Tudor’s Undertow and Dark Elegies.
While she “didn’t understand” why, Kate always felt Gwen was “better than [her] . . . the best.” Gwen’s technical prowess and “easy” grace isn’t enough. Throughout Cranes, Gwen is on leave after a mental and physical collapse. The strength of Howrey’s first-person narrative is in how Kate gradually comes to terms with their relationship; family and colleagues believe the sisters “look after each other.” Though close, theirs is a complicated bond in a profession where the physical complications are the priority.
Kate’s coping mechanism is sarcasm—something workers in any profession turn to. The humor won’t be lost on non-balletomanes who will immediately understand her apt summarization of Giselle being from the “Douchebag Prince/Betrayed Maiden archive.” One of the book’s funniest passages describes former New York City Ballet ballerinas turned coaches who worked with choreographer George Balanchine:
None of them have ever recovered from being in the presence of the Master, and they have this weird mystical sexual love of dance that utterly confounds me. I would envy it if it looked less fucked up . . . like they weren’t all still hoping Mr. B. will stop and pat them on the head, that their entire lives weren’t an offering to a dead man, that they all didn’t get up every morning, draw on black liquid eyeliner, brush out the dry ends of their waist-length hair like it was 1969 and they’re still wondering why you can’t get Tab anymore.
Instead of becoming bitter, this makes Kate a better, more valuable dancer. In company class she might feel “like a trained pet” when asked to demonstrate a step which nonetheless makes her lift her left leg a “good two inches higher than I would go if no one were watching.” For years she coached Gwen and is called upon to do so regarding on-stage dynamics and Shakespeare for the company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not everyone, particularly ballet mistress Nina, values her input. Kate knows that jealous retired dancers are not the only ones who cannot hide their hatred:
You can always tell when people don’t like you because their voices will sound like they’re acting, when they talk to you. That’s how you know that they spend a certain amount of time rehearsing in private the biting and cutting things they wish they could say to you in person.
Her well-hidden pride is known to a select few. Chapters featuring Kate’s friendships with company member Maya, ballet student Bryce, and arts patron Wendy are emotionally satisfying. These three ladies are her sisters. The book has an open, though promising, ending.
Cranes are the Japanese symbol of eternal youth. Ballet dancers do not have long careers and the most enduring repertory staple is not called Crane Lake. Meg Howrey has created an on-stage, backstage, and off-stage world that will entertain both those who unfailingly renew their ballet subscriptions and those who enjoy a really good read.