OFF BALANCE: The Real World of Ballet by Suzanne Gordon

OFF BALANCE: The Real World of Ballet

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Through interviews and observation, journalist Gordon details the dark side of the ballet world--the competition, the ""tunnel vision,"" the bad working conditions, the distorted view of women; but most of this will come as news to only the most naive and ill-read balletomanes. (Joan Brady's superior The Unmaking of a Dancer and Toni Bentley's so-so Winter Season are only two recent examples of ballet-world exposÉ) Gordon starts out with a visit to the ballet schools, especially those attached to the New York City and San Francisco ballet companies; she notes the tension and competition, talks to a few students, and finds that ""they suffer from injuries, from a preoccupation with dieting, from social isolation, and from a complete inability to put their lives in perspective."" (Briefly, and more freshly, there are glimpses of more compassionate, whole-life approaches in Houston and Pennsylvania.) Next come interviews with ""ballet mothers""--ambitious, over-protective, but also motivated, in Gordon's somewhat feminist-toned view, by ""the simple desire for freedom."" And when Gordon shifts to the life of the working ballet dancer, the tendency toward generalizing rhetoric increases, with dancer-as-victim as the principal theme. ""Taught to obey orders rather than to think for themselves, and encouraged to avoid the outside world, which is either a temptation or a trap, dancers begin to live in a cocoon""--cultivating conformity, using painkillers, bowing to the whims of choreographers, ""emotionally trapped in an unending childhood."" Convincingly (if routinely), Gordon blames some of the problems--injuries, dehumanization--on excessive work loads and the star system. Less persuasively, she makes George Balanchine the prime villain--his ""misogynist aesthetic"" (the starved look), his ""absolute power,"" his dancers as ""prisoners."" (The weakness of Gordon's argument is highlighted, of course, by Balanchine's virtual disappearance from the NYCB scene.) And, finally, there are chapters on the problems of dancers-in-retirement, the prospects for better working conditions (the 1979 ABT union-struggle), and hopes for changed US-ballet attitudes in the future. Shocking stuff, perhaps, for those who still think of ballet as The Red Shoes; more savvy readers will find this a flatly written, sporadically provocative report--without the authority, erudition, or balance needed to make real waves.

Pub Date: May 16th, 1983
Publisher: Pantheon