Bunheads is a coming of age story for balletomanes—or teen ballerinas, or anyone interested in the world en pointe. Sophie Flack writes her first-person life-of-a-company-dancer in a smart, straightforward voice. Heroine Hannah Ward, a member of the corps de ballet in a company meant to be the New York City Ballet, is both naïve and self-aware, half-starved, and an almost-standout in the troupe of dancers vying for solos and promotion to soloist.
The story is entertaining but not exactly engaging. Nothing actually happens. The dancer does question her choice of lifestyle and her own dedication to giving up everything for those exhilarating moments in the spotlight. She grapples with first boyfriends, the lure of the world beyond the stage and the rehearsal rooms, an ounce or two gained and the resultant hunger, exhaustion, sore feet and pulled muscles. She shares the triumphs and disappointments of the other girls in her dressing room as they swig Diet Coke, obsessively check casting posts and offset catty remarks with camaraderie.
It seems very real—even though it is endlessly irritating to read Avery Center as a stand-in for Lincoln Center. Avery Fisher Hall is the home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and I wished Flack had selected a fictional name that seemed less like a repeat mistake. But mostly I kept waiting for the story to begin. That’s probably unfair—Bunheads (the title is a common, slightly dismissive name for ballerinas who coil their long hair into a bun every day for rehearsals and performances) does recount life in the ballet. For its intended YA audience, that is likely enough. But it felt more like a recycled journal than a novel–and the jacket copy reveals Flack was a company dancer with NYCB before quitting to pursue a creative writing degree.
The details are believable and authentic. The characters are very lightly sketched and somewhat cliché—although people like them do exist in the dance world and the wealthy environs that support major companies. My roommate is a dancer so I could follow along and recognize the rituals of practice and preparation for going onstage. Someone who knows the French terms for ballet moves would get a more vivid picture of the scenes portrayed but it isn’t essential to know ballet to understand what is happening.
Flack’s book will take the reader on a backstage tour of a life most people see only from the glamorous side. Bunheads is a little like the double-decker Big Apple bus tour that Hannah and her non-dancer boyfriend manage on one of her rare days off. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a foreign culture, but only a glimpse. As a primer for pouring yourself into a monumental challenge and then knowing when to walk away, the book is instructive. As an encounter with the fierce, demanding absorption required to scale the heights or accept the limits of an extraordinary profession—not so much. For that, better to read a dancer’s memoir–both messier and more memorable than a young adult romance delivered through the medium of ballet.
Bunheads Sophie Flack | Little, Brown and Company 2011