‘Three hundred thousand students train at the professional level every year, undeterred by the fact that just two percent will make it into a company.’ Alice Robb – Don’t Think, Dear
It matters what is taught at professional ballet schools. Alice Robb uses her own history and that of her peers in elite ballet training in the USA, to reconsider the conventions that are assumed from within it. Part memoir, part biography, in each chapter Robb writes between a dancer from her cohort, a peer and a dancer from history, often very famous. This is a book that moves between people and between contradictions.
“When I first thought about writing a book about ballet, I imagined writing a more academic type of book,” Robb says. “I actually started working on a group biography of famous dancers in history. I then, just naturally, started thinking and writing more about myself and my own experiences. The final piece that clicked into place, and maybe the most important, was that I wanted to include the stories of my classmates. I always like memoirs that are outward-looking as well as inward-looking — that are about more than just the author’s own experience.”
With this structure, she weaves together personal, historical and reported stories about ballet training and professional life. Robb investigates George Balanchine and Peter Martins’ legacies in the recent reconfiguring of understanding created by #metoo. In the book, Robb takes pointed aim at the gender contradictions in classical ballet. For example, despite girls and women making up the majority of students and dancers, from 2018-2020, men choreographed 80 percent of the work performed by America’s 50 largest companies. Robb enquires into the lives of Misty Copeland and Margot Fonteyn, with the lens of feminism — how the psychological requirements of professional ballet socialised them and affected their relationships and social experiences outside of ballet. Robb acknowledges that her book does not shy away from difficult subjects.
“I’ve been gratified to find that most people who read and review my book understand that I’m critiquing from the point of view of someone who cares about ballet and its future,” Robb says. “I think people have been more willing to hear my critiques because it’s not just a takedown.”
Robb reports on traditional and monocultural practices of ballet noting how it is changing – with, for example, dancers of different ethnicities, and dancewear companies selling shoes and tights in different shades. Robb says that the challenges to this monoculture she can imagine being dismantled into the future including the economic barrier to participation in ballet.
“Ballet training is very expensive – from the cost of tuition, pointe shoes, costumes, summer intensives and cross-training like Pilates,” Robb notes. “And then, historically, there have been narrow-minded directors who want to see a corps of dancers who all look the same. The canon also includes a lot of outdated stereotypes. I think today’s directors face the challenge of ‘how can we preserve the choreography people love without perpetuating offensive and exclusionary tropes?’”
Robb notes that there have been some heartening practical responses to her book. “I’ve done a lot of interviews to promote the book. One of my favourite moments was when I was being interviewed for a dance podcast, and one of the hosts said that after he read in my book about a study suggesting that dance students felt more positively about their bodies after taking class in a room without mirrors (versus in a traditional, mirror-lined studio), he decided to lead a rehearsal facing away from the mirrors. It felt very meaningful to see a direct change as a result of my book.”
Much of what she discusses illuminate difficulties within the dance world, but Robb says there are a variety of reasons people enjoy the book. “I think people — particularly women with a background in ballet — are finding comfort in seeing their own experiences represented, often for the first time. I’ve received a lot of emotional messages from women who say that reading my book felt like therapy, or that they felt ‘seen.’ I am very grateful for these messages.”
By Tamara Searle of Dance Informa.