September 2014

Dancing Through It - Astonish Me reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | Scene4 Magazine - September 2014

Catherine Conway Honig

Writing about dance is difficult for anyone but it can be especially difficult for classically trained dancers. The more talented dancers are sequestered throughout their childhood and adolescence in realms where the two primary languages are movement and music. Academic skills are secondary.  If all goes well and she is trained in the true tradition, she will be pulled further and further away from distractions toward complete devotion to the stage.  Given this, it is surprising that so many books have been written by dancers.


Of those that make it into circulation, a favorite subject is George Balanchine and the company he founded, the New York City Ballet. Gelsey Kirkland's tirade, "Dancing of my Grave," details her rapid ascent and spectacular decline. She spares no one, not even Mr. B himself, whom she claimed gave her amphetamines; Mikhail Baryshnikov, with whom she had an affair and who later fired her from American Ballet Theatre; and his successor at ABT, Kevin McKenzie with whom she had an affair and did copious amounts of cocaine. Like many other dancers who write books, she had a collaborator (her future husband) and together they wrote a dance classic.


Four others that cover similar territory (sans the drugs and with far less sex) are "Holding onto the Air" by Suzanne Farrell with Toni Bentley; Ms. Bentley's own NYCB memoir, "Winter Season;" Jacques D'Amboise's poignantly entitled "I was a Dancer" and Allegra Kent's "Once a Dancer…".




I can wholeheartedly recommend each of these for their candid views of the dramatic, dysfunctional as well as mundane details of life within the New York City Ballet. And now into this exclusive shelf at the library arrives "Dancing Through It" by Jenifer Ringer. Ms. Ringer retired in 2014 after 24 years at New York City Ballet, ten of which were spent as a principal dancer.


(Ms. Bentley in "Winter Season" consoled herself for never being promoted out of the corps de ballet to soloist, let alone principal, by repeating the mythology that the rank of corps de ballet at NYCB is analogous to principal in any other company. If that is true, to what would a principal dancer be compared? A living goddess? Herein lies the problem with which Ms. Ringer struggled: being a mere mortal.)


Ms. Ringer shot like an arrow through the early years of training and performing. Her supportive, Southern Christian parents made every accommodation for their budding ballerina and her sister who eventually became a pianist. In her 16th year, Ms. Ringer ascended to the highly coveted position of apprentice at NYCB and shortly after was named to the corps de ballet. Unlike so many others, she simultaneously pursued academics and finished her high school studies that same year, immediately enrolling in a special undergraduate program designed for dancers at Fordham University.


Ms. Ringer's powers of description are at their best when she writes about the day-to-day life of a dancer at NYCB. As a lowly apprentice, she was required to stand in the back of the rehearsal studio watching and memorizing, without moving, as the pantheon of deities (also known as ballet masters, choreographers and principal dancers) practiced their magic. Mesmerized by the possibility of someday joining them, she jettisoned everything that might distract her from her goal including friends outside the ballet and the Christian practices that had been an important part of her upbringing. Submitting completely to the daily schedule of company class, hours of rehearsals, a brief rest, then two hours spent preparing her hair, make-up and rewarming his muscles for performance in the evening, slowly but relentlessly the pursuit of perfection began to exact a psychological toll.


Enter the dancer's nemesis: the eating disorder. 


With admirable candor Ms. Ringer describes the long and painful process of losing control over her eating and gaining over forty pounds. Except for a few cruelly-worded warnings from management, she was ignored by the teachers and dancers who had until then been her life. It was as if what she had might be contagious. After failing to heed one final warning, she was fired.


Her story becomes one of recovery involving the not-so-small triumphs over making a living, regaining her faith and building a spiritual community and, finally, with the help of a non-NYCB ballet teacher and a few former dance colleagues, recommitting to dance. Remarkably, she was not only taken back into the company with the rank of soloist, she was promoted to principal where she remained until her retirement earlier this year.




With the hard-earned perspective that comes from accepting one's vulnerability and the futility of a life devoted to godlike perfection, Ms. Ringer brings self-deprecating humor and a detached voice to this ethereal world. In a particularly charming section, she recalls how the dancers would casually gather after a performance to recreate the sublime and sometimes embarrassing moments of an evening's performance. But, she said, this is never truly possible. Once the lights go out it is only a memory.


Click Here to watch excerpts from Jenifer Ringer's farewell performance recorded earlier this year at NYCB.





Maggie Shipstead is a strong writer with absolutely no background in ballet who set her second novel, "Astonish Me" in a ballet company that closely resembles the very same New York City Ballet described by Jenifer Ringer. Except that in Ms. Shipstead's version, George Balanchine's character is still at the helm, he's not a womanizer but a closeted gay cruiser, and he's named Mr. K.


Though the story is not told in chronological order but instead jumps backward and forward in time, the plot revolves around the defection of a Baryshnikov-inspired character and the fledgling ballerina, Joan, whom he asks to drive the getaway car when he defects after a performance in Toronto.


Joan is neither a ballerina destined for greatness nor a likable character. Though introverted and plagued by doubt throughout most of the book, the entire plot unfolds from her aggressive sexual encounter with the Russian, Arslan Rusakov, when they are both dancing in Paris. They have a ho-hum affair (after his defection when they are both dancing for Mr. K), he moves on, she retires, marries her childhood buddy, they have a child, move to the suburbs, she becomes a ballet teacher, their son becomes a ballet star, and a big secret (which is so obvious I figured it out on page ten) is revealed at the end.


Ms. Shipstead's first novel, "Seating Arrangements" is much more character-driven and a better read. A satire of a father-of-the-bride who has a mid-life crisis for all to see throughout the weekend of his daughter's wedding, it reveals the author's strong narrative skills. "Astonish Me," is also well written but not as satisfying. Her ability to describe settings, especially the Paris Opéra Garnier and other scenes in Paris, is superior to her character development. All of the characters in "Astonish Me" are designed to serve the plot but unfortunately the plot isn't particularly believable.    


Photos - Courtesy of New York City Ballet, Paul Kolnik and Michelle Legro

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Scene4 Magazine - Catherine Conway Honig
Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area
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