A year at the school of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—the distinguished modern dance company—both well framed and fully alive.
Who are these kids, journalist Fishman (Behind the One-Way Mirror, not reviewed) wonders, “whose skill and enthusiasm began to gather steam just before adolescence, until at some point shortly after they made a more mature—though still early—decision to invest their whole selves in one domain”: to dance. Her venue was the Ailey School—“It is professional, it is highly visual, it is tough and demanding but not without compassion, and it is just a tad quaint”—to seek answers to questions regarding nature and nurture, the physical and emotional and intellectual demands placed on the students; temperament and bodily development; talent and motivation; kinesthetic and musical intelligence. The Ailey School is particularly apt for Fishman, for her writing reflects many of the school’s qualities: focused, no wasted words, strong, knows her stuff or absorbs it like a sponge, conscious of the art at hand. As she tracks the progress of a selection of young dancers at the school, the author draws empathetic portraits that reveal the “spiritual connection and community membership” as well as the role of competition, “the elephant in the living room, a great gray looming thing that’s part of daily life but about which it is not polite to talk.” She’s comfortable, and comfortably conveys, elements of the psychology involved in an adolescent dancer’s life, drawing on the work of Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—“that talent is a social construction that includes an individual’s traits, the cultural domain in which he works, and the social field of experts who evaluate performance”—and highlighting the risks: the constant rejection, the preoccupation with looks, the neglect of the tasks of adolescence.
“You realize you’re very talented,” noted an instructor, and “it’s absolutely terrifying to own that talent.” For the dancers, likely; for the reader, it is a wonder to behold. (Photographs throughout)