Whenever the dance world is portrayed onscreen, things get real dramatic, super-quick. Think about Black Swan — Natalie Portman’s character was bonkers. Or the short-lived TV show Smash, where dancers were so competitive they tried to off each other with poisoned smoothies. And this fall we get the new Starz show Flesh and Bone , a show about the dark side of ballet. You know: drugs, bitter rivalries, eating disorders, mania.
The show is about Claire, a seemingly fragile newcomer to the fictional Manhattan ballet company ABC. She’s got a very sketchy past, but she’s übertalented, so of course all the other dancers despise her at first sight. Claire has to endure a lot in the first two episodes: jealousy, sexual exploitation, a very creepy brother. She also has an odd habit of sleeping with all of her beloved books (The Velveteen Rabbit, Matilda, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) perched on top of her like a comforter. Maybe they protect her from the harsh, cruel world outside. Or maybe she’s just a broke dancer in Manhattan and the radiator is busted and she needs the extra padding. Whatever the reason, Claire obviously loves her books.
The show promises to have plenty of melodrama, and if you're into stories about dancers pushing themselves to the brink (The Turning Point, Center Stage, Black Swan) you’ll probably love it. How can you not adore lines like, “Ballet is the ultimate optical illusion; we make gravity our bitch.”
So to prep for the show this fall, here’s a look at 12 books about the darker side of dance.
Dancing On My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland
Talk about a dramatic title. Kirkland was a legendary New York City Ballet dancer and partner to none other than Baryshnikov (aka that jerk Aleksandr Petrovsky in Sex and the City). She struggled with anorexia and drug addiction, and ended up checking herself into a psychiatric hospital, and her book is an honest account of what it’s like to flirt with death in the struggle to attain perfection. It’s one of the great dance autobiographies.
Fosse by Sam Wasson
Choreographer, dancer, actor, and film director Bob Fosse is one of the few people to have an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy. He directed and choreographed some of the best-loved musicals of all time: Pippin, Chicago, Cabaret, Sweet Charity. He even directed his own autobiography (sort of) with All That Jazz, about a wildly successful choreographer struggling with addiction and a death wish. Wasson’s biography is the best book out there about the man, and it’s a must-read for anyone who loves him or his work.
Holding On To The Air by Suzanne Farrell
Farrell is another New York City Ballet star who also happened to be one of famed choreographer George Balanchine’s muses. The book is about her life as a young dancer in Ohio, her move to NYC, and her rise to become one of the world’s most famous ballerinas. This one isn’t really about addiction and mania, but it does touch on the struggles to make it in the ultra-competitive world of dance.
Winter Season by Toni Bentley
Bentley was another Balanchine protégée, and she kept a journal during her time dancing for NYCB. The book is about her creative crisis and her struggle to keep up with the demands of professional ballet, and it gives you a glimpse into what it’s like to do hundreds of pirouettes, all day, every day, until you want to collapse. According to The New York Times Book Review, it’s “One of the most intelligent and introspective glimpses ever offered into one of the most competitive and excruciatingly nervous existences in the arts.”
Life in Motion by Misty Copeland
Finally, a ballet dancer who isn’t starving herself and popping pills until she reaches her breaking point! American Ballet Theater’s Copeland is becoming the face, body, and voice for a new kind of ballerina: strong, confident, and the first African-American principal ballerina at ABT. Her book is a good one if you want a more feel-good ballet book.
Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince
DePrince’s story is amazing. She was orphaned in Sierra Leone as a child, adopted by an American family at the age of four, went on to study ballet in New York, and became the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The book is about passion, creativity, and drive. MGM is turning the book into a movie.
Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet by Jennifer Ringer
Ringer’s memoir is a coming-of-age story about her struggles with body-image issues and her drive to succeed in ballet. It’s relatable whether you love ballet or not. It’s kind of a faith-based book, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Bunheads by Sophie Flack
Why did ABC cancel Bunheads? It’s one of the mysteries of the ages. If you watched all the episodes, you can go back and read the novel it’s based on. It’s definitely more upbeat than most ballet memoirs.
Once a Dancer by Allegra Kent
What is it with Balanchine muses writing autobiographies? Like Farrell and Bentley, Kent was a favorite of the legendary choreographer. Kent had a reputation for being reclusive and difficult, and her book gives you a peek into her offbeat world. Her dancing was once described as so good it was “demonic.” How cool is that?
The title of this one pretty much says it all. Kelly worked as a dance critic for years before writing this book about the very dark underbelly of the ballet world. She talks about poor working conditions, low pay, prostitution, anorexia, and drugs — which sounds a little like an episode of Flesh and Bone.
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
If you’re all about gorgeous photos and fascinating ballet facts, this is your book. It’s the first comprehensive cultural history of ballet ever written, from the Renaissance to the present. Former New Republic dance critic Homans delves into the history of the art form, and laments the fact that “ballet is dying.” Quel dommage!
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Like Bunheads, this is a fun, fictional story about the life of a ballerina. Joan gave up her chance at stardom to move to the suburbs and start a family, but she pines for the stage. Her son turns out to be a ballet prodigy, and she’s thrust back into the (sometimes dark) world of dance. If you’ve seen the classic ballet movie The Turning Point with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, it’s a little like that.
If you want to get sucked into the seedy side of ballet before Flesh and Bone premieres in November, these 12 books will be a pretty good primer.