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book review: the cambridge companion to ballet

By Terra Leigh Bell

Dance and music are notoriously difficult to write about. If someone REALLY wanted to know how I felt about Marco Goecke’s “Mopey,” I would send them to Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Books.” (Seriously: read about Mowgli’s departure from the jungle, and everything in “Mopey” will make sense.) But that isn’t exactly an article on ballet, or even dance in general. I can tell you, from working in PNB’s gift shop for over three years now that ballet fans are wild to talk about dance performances. They want to know more about the background of a piece and they will gladly go to discussions with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, or any of the dancers, choreographers, or repetiteurs. But a book about dance? Not so much. And I can understand it to some extent. Fullington alone is an absolute treasure trove of knowledge, and you get things from hearing a person speak—voice intonation, facial expression, hand gestures—that can’t be replaced in literary form, and that help to convey some of what it is we go to see in a dance performance.

But the truth is that one’s appreciation of an art form–be it dance, music, or visual art—can easily be increased tenfold by simply reading a good old-fashioned book. “The Cambridge Companion to Ballet” is part of Cambridge University Press’ “Cambridge Companions to Music.” It is a collection of articles, all by different authors, and edited by Marion Kant. The advantage to this form is, of course, if you don’t love one author’s style of writing, you can happily skip along to the next one and see if it’s more to your taste.

There are several articles in here that I would personally recommend as required reading for Seattle dance audiences. All of Part III, the title of which is “Romantic ballet: ballet is a woman,” is absolutely fantastic. There are seven articles in this section alone, dealing with everything from Danish classical ballet, to French ballet criticism, to pointe shoes and what they represent. You may not agree with the stance that all of the authors take—I certainly didn’t—but the historical information given here is invaluable in terms of understanding why we keep watching ballets like “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” And in Part IV, there are two articles on George Balanchine. Whether you absolutely adore Balanchine, or you would rather do without him, his work is here to stay, and his influence even more so.

The first section was also helpful in giving some historical background on ballet’s beginnings. This is a subject I think not many dance fans know much about, and I for one had no idea about certain details; for example, how rooted in Italian culture early dance performance was, or how closely linked to opera. And depending on your interests, there is a great deal more about the history of ballet, from court display of power and wealth, to professional entertainment, and on to the twentieth-century experiments in movement.

I’ll be honest: some of the writers are terribly “academic,” as the saying goes. Here’s one example: “Again, one can note the contemporary resonance of baroque dance, not just because it suggests pastiche or the post-modern recycling of historical styles, but also because it pre-dates psychological motivation in the performance of unconventional sexualities and transgression, thus bypassing bourgeois morality while remaining fundamentally anti-modernist.” Uh-huh. First off, the sentence is just ridiculous. Unclear, dry, and “transgression” is an overused word in theory these days. Actually, theory is overused these days. Secondly, pre-dates psychological motivation? Has this guy READ Jane Austen? Or try some Dante. And thirdly, it’s not just a question of whether or not you understand what the hell he’s talking about; it’s also a question of whether or not you even want to understand what he’s talking about. Then again, if you’re the sort of nutcase who gets off on reading Derrida’s non-writing, you’ll love the articles that fall along these lines.

Thankfully, most of them don’t fall along these lines. And while putting any art form in some sort of historical context is important, it’s surprisingly difficult to find ballet history books that aren’t written (and priced) like academic textbooks. Also, this book is happily one whole dollar cheaper from our very own Elliott Bay Books than it is on Amazon. They don’t keep it generally in stock, but they’re more than happy to order it for you if you’re interested!