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book review

An image from Deirdre Kelly's book “Ballerina”

I'm deducing that the publishers commissioned this book around the time of the Natalie Portman movie, as a Black Swan-White Swan narrative, hissing with gossip. There would be black swans of scandal, and white swans of suffering, with plenty of sex for both shades of feather.

The black would be predators, from Marie-Madeleine Guimard of the pre-revolutionary French court theatre, running multiple lovers simultaneously while also being chief entrepreneur of high-class porno shows, to Mathilde Kschessinska, of the pre-revolutionary Russian court theatre, also running multiple lovers etc., but relieved, by their jewelled gifts, of undertaking other enterprises. The white would be victims, the exemplar being that pathetic rat Marie van Goethem, who posed plaintively as the "little dancer" for Edgar Degas to sculpt, en route from a starveling childhood to an obscure end.

Deirdre Kelly, long-time dance critic for The Globe and Mail, certainly delivered what the publishers wanted in the line of brief lives en pointe. Her best read like those superior program essayettes that keep theatregoers in their seats reading through the interval, despite the lure of the bar. Her entry on the most tragic, and gifted, Emma Livry, is almost a ballet libretto.

Emma's mamma had been a Paris Opera trollop, popular in the foyer de la danse, where privileged men could leer at the girls at work. Not that mamma worked that hard; she was a liability as anything other than a pretty face. Emma, though, born in 1843 from a liaison, couldn't have been more talented, a pure nun of the devout order of Romantic ballerinas. She was unfashionably thin, and plain, but she laboured as had her heroine, and later mentor, the primest of prima ballerinas, Marie Taglioni.

Taglioni had, in her youth in the 1830s, sweated to create, then perfect, the then-new toe dancing. Taglioni coached Emma in the definitive aery piece, La Sylphide, and then encouraged her into another wafty scenario, Le Papillon, where she floated as Farfalla, the butterfly. With many a foredoomed future tense, Kelly describes the denouement, a horribly commonplace industrial accident, as Emma's gauze skirts, left unfireproofed to keep them pristine, flared up in one of the unguarded gas jets that dramatically lit Romantic ballets. It took a while for the duty fireman to smother the flames in a blanket, and 40 per cent of Emma's skin was burned. She died, slowly and painfully, at 20.

After which, the woes of 20th-century ballerinas are only cygnet class, despite the baleful sorcerer's influence of George Balanchine, the – I quote from the index – "tyrannical dance master" of the New York City Ballet, imposing on his sequential wives and other dancers an extreme bodily aesthetic: a thin line that often demanded anorexia and even surgery, plus artistic dedication that precluded adulthood, and masochistic submission. Kelly accuses Balanchine, and those directors and choreographers who operated in his style, of abusing dancers: bullying and rejecting them, enforcing physical agony, then terminating their careers on whim. The average age at which dancers, who are now in oversupply, leave the stage is under 30.

It's at this low ebb that Kelly picks up cheer, and a book the publishers probably didn't want emerges, with stroppy, sassy, 21st-century ballerinas, often Canadian or Australian, who query their work-life balance, and the idea that they should damage or destroy their bodies, especially their feet, in pursuit of perfection. They use employment legislation to challenge ageism, racism and low pay. Also, they treat their physiques with the nourishing care of athletes and, like sportswomen, plan for a life that must extend beyond ballet. Kelly has a fine interview with Gelsey Kirkland, tormented and self-tormenting in her career, now running an academy almost without mirrors where dancers are encouraged to feel, rather than look at, how they move. She lunches on an oniony homemade sandwich, and honks instructions powerfully – a tough goose girl, no more a swan.

Veronica Horwell is an arts and cultural journalist in London.