Inside the Land of Ballet : Where snowflakes dance and swear

September 26, 2011

Ballet, Reviews

Where snowflakes dance and swear – inside the Land of Ballet

Yes, you read that correctly : ‘the Land of Ballet.’ Well, I have news. Professional ballet does not take place on some distant planet; ballet is an integrated part of our culture worldwide, so the title is misleading. The sleeve note says that the author “has had a long career making arcane worlds accessible to the uninitiated.” Arcane? Ballet? Did someone not do their research ?  Not only that, but to give someone with no ballet experience access to a professional ballet company for a year is asking for a book in need of a very sharp edit. To top it off, the cover photograph is unflattering to the dancers who are rendered unrecognisable. Note too, the odd swear word is scattered within the dense text.

If you want to make an interesting film/write an engaging book about ballet then ideally you’ll start from a position of having an insider who can steer you away from the everyday grinding routine that is the reality of a dancer’s day, and towards the spots where something noteworthy is about to happen.  You can’t do this if you have no knowledge of the subject because 12 hour days in the rehearsal studio don’t equate to 12 hours of riveting footage, even to a really, really interested reader. You’re more likely to end up dehydrated than excited.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

Writer Stephen Manes spent a year with Pacific Northwest Ballet during their 2007/08 season, and if you are a fan of that company then this book will be catnip to you. But here is where the book falls over again : it’s been a four-year project and that means that while the author is willing you to pick up the sense of drama he’s writing about, as a regular follower of the company or even ballet in general, you already know how the plot unfolds. That makes it nigh on impossible for any sense of intrigue, suspense or even curiosity to prevail as you make you way through it’s 879 pages – 63 chapters, an epilogue, a couple of appendices, acknowledgements, notes and selected bibliography.  Beware, it’s a weighty tome!

Manes sits in on everything – class, every rehearsal for every cast including the small children cast in The Nutcracker, board meetings, Talking Tuesday, casting, physio, planning, finance, TWIGS (To Work in Gaining Skills), Second Stage, costume, media relations, choreography, shoe fittings (from Freed of London). He notes when a phone rings during a talk or meeting and not only that – you’ll be told the ringtone too. Notes from the house manager’s report about a lady who turned up for the wrong show, demanded to be seated in her seats (though they were of course full) and who eventually left, and a “human spill, centre orchestra” that was swiftly dealt with by TFM (Technical Facilities Maintenance) are also revealed in full. You’ll discover that Twyla Tharp was one of the first to use video tape and consequently has a good store of her work.

The Royal Ballet

Much of the day is routine ballet company business, though there are insights. When Artistic Director Peter Boal is forward planning the rep, we discover he’s having problems obtaining Dances at a Gathering from the Robbins Trust. Boal explains that Robbins stager Susie Hendl “unfortunately just came back from setting it on The Royal Ballet and didn’t have a great experience, and she’s very nervous about dancers being able to get the style of the ballet.”

Manes describes Christopher Wheeldon backstage, there to set his ballet Variations Sérieuses, as “a cross between the Geico gecko, Benny Hill and Gordon Ramsay in sheer animation and accent.”

Ballet Dancer’s pay

If you want to know what the dancers at every level of the company (and the apprentices) earned during the 2007/08 season, it’s all here, including how they compare with New York City Ballet’s dancers. Even the pay of NYCB’s highest paid dancer, Damian Woetzel, in his retirement season and that of Julie Kent, the highest paid dancer at American Ballet Theatre during those particular two years, is here. Though PNB salaries are competitive in America, corps de ballet dancers at NYCB can earn ten per cent less than at PNB, whereas at Soloist and Principal level earnings at NYCB can be forty percent higher than PNB for the former and twenty percent higher for the latter (as a minimum).

On the artistic staff for the same 2007/08 season, Manes says that the highest paid person in ballet in America was almost certainly Peter Martins, Artistic Director at New York City Ballet (some of his earnings will have related to royalties from his choreography).

The union agreements cover everything from the temperature of the backstage area to how long the dancers can work without a break, and Manes explains when the daily schedule has to be posted – the time exactly – and the other considerations when it comes to scheduling around the union rules.

The Nutcracker

There are the pressures on the company dancers of performing 40-odd Nutcrackers every Christmas, something that the company has led the field in as far as advance marketing goes but which, for the dancers, elicits a more pragmatic approach. “It pays the bills.” “It’s our bread and butter.”

There are tips about fundraising; because donation are so key to the ballet company they have developed a very keen strategy to develop relationships with donors and keep that relationship on track.

PNB summer school and dancer interviews

Some of the PNB dancers have given lengthy interviews to Manes, and you can learn more about their background and route into ballet. Karel Cruz wishes the famously polite Seattle audience “would be more spontaneous.” Student Erza Thomson’s breakfast one day is described as “cereal, eggs, sausage, and hash browns.  Lunch was a turkey sandwich and a granola bar.” He’s taking summer classes at PNB. Erza says that “when you do what we do, you’ll fall over and you’ll die if you don’t eat.” He also says that ABT are known for their principals but they are not known for their corps, whereas at PNB it’s “just a good company.” He’s hoping for a place in the company!

Manes also visited Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the School of American Ballet, and there are detailed accounts of his experiences there.

There is a scattering of black and white photographs by Rosalie O’Connor and Angela Sterling.  Sterling is mentioned as having access to rehearsals, especially new works, specifically with the intention of seeing how it runs from a photographic standpoint, which is quite a luxury.  

Basically, nothing is off-limits.  In a way, that the company has nothing to hide is a great thing, but Manes has an annoying habit of referencing the title regularly, further emphasising his distorted view that ballet is separate from everything else, and with equal measure the subject of America’s great love of baseball crops up. Does that make for a riveting read? I wish it did, but sadly, no.

Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet (Hardcover)


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One Response to “Inside the Land of Ballet : Where snowflakes dance and swear”

  1. May Says:

    I guess I’m not finding it terribly groundbreaking because similar “expose” stories are out there – the movie The Turning Point from the 70’s, Toni Bentley’s Winter Season, the book about American Ballet Theatre from the nineties, detailing the making of the movie “Dancers”, auditions, the work of admin staff like Charles France and not just dancers, etc etc.

    I’m also objecting because I’ve heard Christopher Wheeldon speaking since he was a fresh graduate from the Royal Ballet School (and very successful prizewinner at Prix de Lausanne, no less) till now as a very sought after and respected dance maker, and he has never spoken in any way resembling Benny Hill and certainly not Gordon Ramsay!! (one might need a bit more research before making pronouncements about unfamiliar accents!!!)

    Still it seems like the author worked hard and has put lots of details in. Caveat emptor I guess!