Tag Archives: New York City Ballet

The Dancer’s Way – Linda H. Hamilton

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I borrowed a book from a dancer who lives in my house to use for research for an article I was writing and ended up reading the whole thing. The Dancer’s Way, subtitled The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition, is written by a former NYCB dancer, now a clinical psychologist who consults with the company and writes frequent wellness columns. It’s a serious wellness guide and something of a bible for local (NYC) dancers–the information covers everything from cross-training to stress management with tons of suggestions, worksheets, resources, detailed descriptions of muscles you can pull or tear, and even cooking advice. Want to set up your kitchen like Wendy Whelan? Read this book. (Just kidding. There is a kitchen guide in the book but I have no idea whose culinary habitat it is modeled on.)

You might or might not be hungry for information on patellar malalignment but you could get some useful tips about dealing with hamstring tightness. How about exactly which carbs to eat for what activity level? (You did know fruits and veggies are carbs, didn’t you?)  Here’s insider knowledge that will depress you. Skinny ballerinas who are working members of a company often put in so many hours of rigorous physical exercise that they have to work to keep weight on.  Very, very tough. So sad. But dancers deal with flab like anyone else and they have fewer ways to hide it so the weight management advice is very thorough and sensible. I write about nutrition for a client fairly frequently and Hamilton’s advice follows most of the accepted guidelines but has the advantage of being sport-specific.

You can learn all about the best stretching and strengthening programs–Pilates gets a high-five–dancers love the way it lengthens and strengthens without bulking up muscles. Somewhere in the distant past I studied Pilates with a dancer who was a superb coach and I can say that was the best shape I have ever been in–not an ounce of fat anywhere and strong as steel. Do Pilates. (Note  to self: resume Pilates.) Cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, muscle strength–it’s all in here. So are cognitive-behavioral therapy, sleep deprivation and meditation.

There are many mini-stories scattered throughout the text with examples of real NYCB members and their fitness dilemmas and coping strategies. This is no lightweight tutu tutorial–it is a very readable fitness guide for anyone interested in healthy exercise, injury prevention, a Zen attitude and sensible nutrition.

The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition   Linda H. Hamilton | St. Martin’s Griffin   2008

The Master’s Muse – Varley O’Connor

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Varley O’Connor has produced an odd paean to Tanaquil Le Clercq, George Balanchine’s fifth wife, who danced exquisitely and to international acclaim until she was stricken with polio at the age of 27 on the New York City Ballet’s European tour. She never walked again but she survived and rebuilt a life for herself, a life with Balanchine and her own indomitable spirit at its core. The slightly surreal sense you get reading the book is because there is a vibrant, first-person character telling the story who feels absolutely true. The fictionalized Tanny seems like someone it would be refreshing and delightful to know–sophisticated, observant, wry, funny, caring and brave. She isn’t a diva about the tragedy of her useless limbs and lost career, her celebrity, and the people who fawned over her as long as she lived. She is in love with Balanchine, crushed by his eventual public infatuation with Suzanne Farrell, reluctant to divorce him, resolute about getting on with her life.

The dialog is so good I wished it wasn’t invented–although O’Connor lists prodigious research that included many interviews and remembered conversations. The insights about Balanchine, the artist and the man, are so compelling that I hoped they were true. Jerome Robbins is a major character and a fascinating character study. It was a page-turner, not in the sense of constant crisis, although there was that, but as an interesting recollection of lives lived large and in service to great passions. In short, Tanaquil Le Clercq’s life makes a fabulous story and I wanted to be sure the impressions of her I got were the truth. I suppose some were and some weren’t.

But read this book, if you have any interest in the world of classical dance and the process of making performing art. And take away from it that people can survive their most vivid nightmares with grace and determination–and find large and small reasons for gratitude and good humor every day. The cat is a winner. The details of what it is like to deal with even the simplest daily tasks with a disability is instructive. The inspirations for making dance read like the real thing. Pretty good book about a woman who was poised to become one of the biggest and most enduring stars the world of ballet had ever seen–and then matched the demands of that world, and the towering Balanchine, with her energy when her body could no longer keep up with her spirit.

The Master’s Muse: A Novel   Varley O’Connor | Scribner   2012

Bunheads – Sophie Flack

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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