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Book Review: Stephen Manes’ "Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet"

Written by Rosie Gaynor

(Photo: Lucien Postlewaite and Noelani Pantastico in
Roméo et Juliette
, 2008. Photo by Angela Sterling)

There’s something for everyone in Stephen Manes’ 860-page book about Pacific Northwest Ballet. The only problem is searching through the thick layers to find it. One could, of course, use the handy 15-page index to help zero in on topics of interest. (Gossip? Dirt? Neither of those words is actually listed in the index, sorry to disappoint.)

But those who rely on the index-method of reading this book will miss one of the book’s main points: ballet is about many different things done by many different people over the course of many different days. On the good side for all readers, Manes’ comfortable writing voice, apt word choice, and sense of phrasing make the pages go by more quickly than might be expected.
To research this book, Manes logged a whopping 1,000+ hours of observation, mostly at PNB. He chose the fabulous 2007/2008 season—the one that gave Seattle PNB debuts of Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Dove’s Vespers, and Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, and more. That much glory doesn’t get created without some drama backstage, and Manes reports on a fair share of it.
PNB gave Manes seemingly free run of the place, and he responded with play-by-plays of rehearsals, budget meetings—even casting sessions. He did an excellent job getting to—and listening to—many of the folks involved at PNB. Some of those interviewed get their own interludes; Manes tucks their stories into various chapters like satisfying coffee breaks. He is not averse to quotes: readers get to hear a lot of individual voices. It’s exciting to hear the stagers and choreographers react to and reshape the dancers’ movements. It’s fun to hear the sometimes creative, sometimes catty chatter on the backstage headsets. And it’s good to hear the dancers’ voices—to see how they match or differ from the dancers’ onstage personas.
The quotes are often colorful and energetic, giving a good feel for what it’s like to be an observer in the studio. Some quotes would be improved through paraphrasing. Some quotes suffer without adequate contextualization. In the rehearsal scenes, more visual cues and specific descriptions of movement would help the stagers’ and dancers’ comments be more powerful and give the reader more insight into the ballet in question. Sometimes just the name of a step could help. For example, when Peter Boal explains to a class that “You want to feel your knees pulling toward each other and your arches pulling away from each other,” it would be good to know which steps this holds true for.
(Remember all the oranges? They’d make a nice palette
cleanser this season. Ordinary Festivalsseen in
PNB’s extraordinary 2008 Laugh-out-Loud Festival. 
Photo by Angela Sterling)

Manes generally records and reports in this book rather than synthesizes. He seems a very conscientious journalist, one who could have done a lot more synthesis without jeopardizing anyone’s integrity. It would cut down on the length of the book and make it less repetitive and more informative. It would also help situations where one person’s stated opinion stands for the truth. For example, when one dancer comments that the company is made up of “very anti-social dancers,” the comment just hangs out there without noting other company members’opinions.

Fans of PNB should be prepared for a few wounds to open up again when reading this book. Noelani Pantastico merits a large number of pages and it’s achingly clear all over again how much Seattle lost when she moved to Monte Carlo. The much-missed Louise Nadeau makes an appearance, as does the sprightly Jodie Thomas, whose power was just beginning to be put on view when she left. And Olivier Wevers…and Chalnessa Eames…and on and on. A review of the 2007/08 company list at the back of Manes’ book, shows that 23 out of 46 of the dancers from that stellar season are now gone.
There are a few moments that readers familiar with PNB will get a good chuckle out of. For example, at one point Peter Boal emphatically states that Jonathan Porretta does not need a rest.
There are some perspective-shifting moments for PNB-savvy readers. For example, initial casting conversations for Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette included Chalnessa Eames, Kari Brunson, and Lesley Rausch in the role of Juliette. It’s interesting to imagine what those dancers would have looked like in that role, given the chance—and how that role would have affected their careers. (How nice, though: Rausch is dancing Juliette in an excerpt on November 11, 2011. And Brunson and Eames? Brunson was seen cooking at Staple and Fancy two weekends ago; Eames was seen rehearsing a new, sexy piece by Wevers the week before.)
There are also references to salaries that may interest some readers.: PNB paid Patricia Barker $108,096 in 2005/2006—plus they put $14,730 into her pension plan. As Manes points out, though, this is still less than her counterparts at NYCB or ABT make. And it’s less than the folks who run PNB: Boal’s 2007/2008 salary was $259,000; D. David Brown’s came in at $220,000. (Peter Martins at NYCB? $678K + another $85K for being SAB’s faculty chairman!) Lower down on the salary scale: A PNB corps member’s base salary in 2007/2008 was $43,400 plus add-ons. (There are lots of add-ons; see page 223.)
This book could be useful and of interest to dancers who are considering going pro. Reading the book will entail a long slog through the finance and marketing passages, but it might be worth it—those passages offer a glimpse into the things outside the studio that can impact a dancer’s life. Naïve types will need to remind themselves to put up their personal filters. The full context is not known, and people do say one thing when frustrated and another when they’ve had time to gain perspective. Anyone interested in arts management will find passages that could be used to shed light or start conversations of interest as well.

Is the book perfect for people who know nothing or little of ballet? No. It’s too long, there are too many names, and there is too much going on. A series of short essays would serve such readers better. Luckily, Manes has both the material and the skills to write them.

The first chapter is written with an eye toward drama and description. Check it out at, the book’s website. Other chapters are posted there as well.
Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet
By Stephen Manes
Hardcover $35.00 U.S.
Kindle, Nook, and Adobe Digital Editions: $9.99 U.S.
ISBN: 978-0-9835628-0-1