I just finished reading Bunheads by Sophie Flack, a book recommended by this article in the Guardian. A YA book, Bunheads is about a nineteen-year-old ballet dancer in the corps de ballet of a major New York ballet company. Picture the movie Center Stage (one of my fave movies from the early 2000s!) in book form.
The main character Hannah Ward is torn between wanting to be promoted beyond the corps to a soloist, and eventually a principal dancer in the Manhattan Ballet Company. She’s one of the most talented and determined members of the company, but over the course of the novel, she finds it difficult to remain dedicated to a craft that has robbed her of her adolescence and the beginning of a normal adulthood. At 19, she’s been living on her own for five years, and has never graduated a normal high school, let alone attended college, and has never dated.
When she meets a normal, albeit interesting, NYU student named Jacob, she begins to question both the politics and struggles of remaining in the corps of the company, often a thankless position, and the motivation to ballet that she once held so dear.
What I really liked about this book was the insight it gave into the world of professional ballet in New York. The author, Sophie Flack, is obviously a former ballet dancer, so this book almost doubles as a memoir. The dynamic between ballerinas is portrayed realistically, without a lot of the cliches that usually come packaged with a ballet story: though there are intense diets, injuries, stress, and in-fighting, it’s never overblown and sensationalized. It’s simply true.
I really enjoyed this look at the world of ballet, but this book had some major flaws.
The main character, Hannah Ward, is thinly sketched at best, and feels ambiguous in personality and like an allegory for the general struggles of a ballet dancer. It’s sentimental at times, and amateurly written.
The thing that bugged me the most was that Jacob, her suitor, got so impatient with Hannah’s crazy schedule; she constantly told him her career was more important to her than a relationship, and he would constantly make her feel guilty about it. If she weren’t already ambivalent about her commitment to ballet, this story would be, at its heart, a story about a young girl who gives up her extremely successful career to please her boyfriend. Um, no thank you!
Hannah was pretty independent, and her ultimate choice between ballet and life made a lot of sense, but it could have been achieved without the problematic role of Jacob. But, oh well!
Still—read this book if you’re interested in the world of ballet, as I am, because you’ll learn a lot. There’s a lot to learn about ballet beyond Black Swan (also one of my favorite movies!).