Ballerina by Edward Stewart
originally published 1978
Dell, 2nd printing, 1989
Synopsis & Review: Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery meet during their auditions for the New York Ballet School, the toughest and most prestigious school of dance in the country. Both girls seek scholarships, Stephanie because she cannot afford tuition and Christine to prove to her wealthy parents that she can accomplish something on her own. Miraculously, both girls are accepted with scholarships, but Christine’s parents continue to refuse to let her dance. Despite her misgivings about Chris’ slight resemblance to her own daughter, and their equal but different talents, Anna has a soft spot for an aspiring dancer and, shocked at the Avery’s ignorance of their daughter’s talent and accomplishment, Steph’s mother Anna steps in, persuading Mrs Avery to let Chris attend the school. When Mrs Avery explains her concerns about Chris’ health—she suffers from a rare neurological condition—Anna promises to watch over her, swiftly calculating the difference in income she’d get for boarding the wealthy teenager.
The two fifteen year olds quickly become inseparable (is it realistic for dancers to drop out of high school? Because there is no further mention of any schooling for either girl.), giving each other feedback and tips as they study under Lvovna, even promising to refuse any job offers unless the other makes it, too. That chicken comes home to roost, however, after Chris’ disastrous recital and Steph’s promising one. Unbeknownst to both girls, the director of the National Ballet Theater has his eye on Steph, seeing in her the perfect dancer for a long-lost choreography to Sleeping Beauty. He and Lvovna secretly teach Steph the dance, and after her recital, Volmar offers Steph a job. Fiercely protective of her daughter, and ambitious beyond all reason, Anna—a former dancer for Volmar—forces Steph to decline Volmar’s offer, instead taking a job with the Empire State Ballet company. Volmar’s machinations are hardly over, though, as he offers the position to Chris, setting rivalry in motion.
The two get an apartment, living together and working separately at two very different companies. Both begin getting soloist work, but Chris is an outcast at NBT, while Steph is very happy at ESB, even finding love in the arms of a dancer-choreographer. When she gets critical notice, Anna steps in again, forcing Steph onto the path of her choosing. Once Steph is safely ensconced at NBT, Volmar begins working on her, breaking her down using Chris, in order to build her into the dancer he envisions. Meanwhile, Chris teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown, perpetually convinced of her own incompetence. When a handsome (straight!) Soviet defector joins the NBT, the two young women find their friendship struggling against the rivalry—both professionally, and in love.
This is the ne plus ultra of trashy ballet world novels, and I re-read it a half dozen times in my junior and senior years of high school. I had just moved to the Mainland, and before I really made any friends at my new school, I spent a lot of time in the school library, where I happened upon Ballerina, tucked onto one of those spinning racks for mass market paperbacks. I’m sure it was the shocking pink of the cover, along with the rather stark title that drew me. And by the time the girls auditioned, I was hooked.
Don’t get me wrong: this stuff is trash. But such trash! The prose is violently purple, the plot both ridiculous and predictable, and most characters oh-so-stereotypical (envious girls, bitchy queers, etc). But! Ballerina is filled to the brim with insider details (I love the nervous need to pee, which I suffered before performances, too) and bitchery that will enchant anyone who was ever fascinated by the ballet world. Stewart does not pretty it up: ballet is sweat and pain, contempt and disdain, plenty of failure and very little success. His world is smart and cynical, and even with the ridiculous treacly ending, it all mixes up into an immensely satisfying trashy novel.
Written in the late Seventies, there are numerous references to things like Soviet defectors and lounging pajamas (it was actually multiple references to the latter that made me look up the publication date), but it still manages a timeless feel; I would have guessed a much later date than that one. Reading it again for the first time in over a decade, I was tripped out by Chris, possibly the most neurotic and bizarre character I have ever encountered in fiction. She is so pathologically self-defeating that you just want to shake the shit out of her, which really acts to bring her vividly to life; readers suffer along with Steph as she tries to deal with the hopelessly mental naïf. Its the crazy that Chris brings that pushes the two girls out of the simplistic sweetheart roles and makes them compelling protagonists. Other characters do not fare quite so well, although the otherwise stereotyped Ellis becomes a curious kind of Sybil. Anna, Steph’s overbearing stagemother, has plenty of life, too; though her background as a failed dancer is a standard trope, she provides perspective as a catty insider watching all the goings on–and doing her best to engineer them. For verisimilitude, Stewart fills the narrative with dropped names and technical jargon, as well as tricks of the trade. There’s even a glossary in the back of the book!
Great timekiller as a beach read or plane fare, especially for anyone who was ever fascinated by ballet.
Cover: Black silhouette of a ballerina against the NYC skyline on a hot pink background. Exciting!
Wally propped her up for her développés, let her go long enough for a piqué turn, caught her before she fell–and she would have. He backed off, presenting her–Jesus, was that what she was doing, a curtsy? Now the male knelt in extended fourth. Very pretty, like a bookend for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Chris pas de bourée‘d over, if you could call it a pas de bourée, pulled alongside, backed up a little like a truck that had overshot the gas pump. She went up on pointe, no help this time–how come?–développé‘d into third arabesque and held the balance–
Wait a minute.
There was no balance. His left hand was on her waist and he’d raised his right arm so it looked like third position en haut.
“He’s holding her!” Anna hissed.
10 August – 12 August