2022 was a big year for ballet books: Here are 5 to check out
It's not often you find whole sections of bookstores or libraries devoted to books on dance. But this doesn't mean that there's a shortage of good books on the topic — especially this year.
2022 was particularly prosperous for books about ballet, with many notable memoirs, biographies, and works of fiction making their debuts. So, we're taking a moment to highlight some of those. Our selection of titles sheds light not only on some of the form's most iconic figures, but also provides a glimpse into the state of ballet culture today — and the direction it will be heading next year and for years to come.
The Wind at My Back
When all eyes were on Misty Copeland in advance of her promotion to principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre — which made her the first Black woman to achieve the highest rank in the iconic company — audiences saw an inspirational woman, a beautiful dancer, and a watershed event for the overwhelmingly white art form. What they didn't see, however, were Copeland's private struggles with imposter syndrome, internalized trauma, and the still present systemic racism in the ballet world.
In her latest book, Copeland (writing with with Susan Fales-Hill) candidly recounts these experiences with the same grace and strength that imbue her dancing, all while paying homage to her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, and the many other Black ballerinas that laid the foundation for Copeland to soar. Part memoir, part tribute to the late Wilkinson, who toured the country with the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, The Wind at My Back chronicles Copeland's relationship with her mentor, draws parallels between their paths in dance, and ends with a call to action. Through Wilkinson, Copeland taps into her deeper purpose of being a role model for other ballet dancers of color, and her words tell readers exactly what it will take to continue to move the form forward and ensure bright futures for these young artists.
They're Going to Love You
In this novel by Meg Howrey, Carlisle Martin — born to a ballerina mother and a balletomane father — dreams of dancing with the New York City Ballet. After her parent's separation, the NYC home her father shares with his partner, James, becomes a place of wonder — and someplace she wants to belong, but doesn't quite feel at home. After her above-average height dashes her hopes of ballet stardom, and a betrayal estranges her from her father and James, Carlisle charts her own path, moves to Los Angeles, and starts her career as a choreographer. When she receives the news that her father is dying, she is forced to reckon with her past, all while preparing for the biggest commission of her career.
They're Going to Love You oscillates between present-day reflections and flashbacks to Carlisle's life as an adolescent and young adult, ultimately emerging as a beautiful and relatable portrait of a woman, her regrets, and her successes. As Howrey unflinchingly and honestly dives into the intricacies of relationships and the inevitable growing pains that come with life, she also mines her history as a ballet dancer to deliver an honest portrayal of the dance world, the realities of working artists, and the obstacles facing female choreographers, revealing real-world truths through a fictional setting.
Most balletomanes are familiar with Vaslav Nijinsky, the famous 20th-century dancer and choreographer who was widely hailed for his virtuosity and who made waves with his original works. Fewer though, are intimately familiar with his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, despite the fact that, as author and dance historian Lynn Garafola asserts, her myriad contributions far outweighed Nijinsky's comparatively brief foray into the limelight.
La Nijinska is the first biography written about the female choreographer, who created nearly 80 original ballets and was a guiding force for the development of 20th-century modernism. The book mines interviews, archival reviews, reflections of the dancers who worked with Nijinska, and the choreographer's own letters and diaries to paint a picture of the prolific dancemaker. Nijinska is wholly deserving of the nearly 500-page opus, which, given today's movement to foster and support women choreographers, comes at just the right time.
Author Martha Anne Toll's first novel uses a post-WWII ballet world as the backdrop to weave an intimate portrait of romance and heartbreak. Three Muses follows prima ballerina Katya Symanova, who is immersed in an abusive yet creatively generative relationship with choreographer Boris Yanakov, as she meets and falls in love with John Curtin, a young psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.
Toll's novel is not only notable for its poignant prose, clever foreshadowing, and deeply moving ending, it also comments on many of the harsher truths present in the ballet world, acknowledging the reality without glamorizing it. The author, a freelance book critic who has written reviews for NPR, not only uses a true-to-life version of the 1950s dance world as her stage, she uses choreography as a key element of the plot, with the dances she creates for her characters perfectly echoing their inner lives.
In the ballet world, George Balanchine, the co-founder of the New York City Ballet, has almost been raised to superhuman status. His signature modern, plotless approach to dancemaking is still widely lauded, his choreography is performed by some of the most successful dancers and companies, and words like "legend," "icon" and "seminal" are often used to describe him. Hearing about Balanchine from someone who actually knew him and danced for him — like author Toni Bentley — is a breath of fresh air, revealing the human behind the history.
Bentley's Serenade is grounded by a minute-by-minute recollection of Balanchine's 1934 masterpiece of the same name, interspersed with the author's own memories of the choreographer, stories from his past, as well as forays into topics like the development of the pointe shoe, the life and work of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the choreography of Marius Petipa. Bentley's words not only illuminate Balanchine, they also unveil the lifelong devotion, love and unending fascination that come along with a career in ballet.
Sophie Bress is a dance writer and former dancer based in Utah. She holds a master's degree in arts journalism from the University of Southern California and writes for Dance Magazine, Fjord Review, Pointe and others.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.