by Lincoln Kirstein and Muriel Stuart
This book is a classic. Although first copyrighted in 1952, it certainly isn't dated, considering that its subjects are the technique and terminology of ballet, which themselves have remained unchanged since ballet began, in 17th century France. What's new is this paperback printing. It's not that Back Stage West suggests you carry a copy of this book with you to auditions—although now that we think about it, why not stash a copy in a dance bag? It's the price of this product that now makes it so tempting.
The book begins with a brief history of ballet. It then offers rules of basic anatomic positioning, called "placement," and then it heads for the classroom. The exercises are set out in the order they are given in nearly every ballet school around the world. They start with exercises at the barre—called "bar" here, perhaps to indicate the book's lack of pretension. They then progress to exercises away from the barre, known as "center work." Explained succinctly in words, shown clearly in line drawings—and who wouldn't like to have the pristine technique of these figures?—the science of ballet is set forth as best as possible without a teacher standing over you with a cane.
The Russians say upper-body movement, known as port de bras, cannot be explained and must be demonstrated to be taught. This book begs to differ, clearly showing the gateway positions essential to clean dancing. The style is indeed clean and classic—no ultra-high extensions of today's ballerinas marring hiplines, no hyperextension of knees and feet.
Will this book teach a non-dancer to become a ballet dancer? Absolutely not.
But, as a how-to treatise for actors, a basic textbook for dancers, and a refresher for teachers, this book is a valuable manual for an art that needs all the codification, unification, and precision it can get to keep it alive for another three centuries.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, $22.95.
by Jennifer Fisher
What is it about ballet's Christmastime chestnut? It sends ballet teachers into frenzied multitasking, stage mothers into whirlwinds of hand-stitching, fathers into paroxysms of gleeful pride, youngsters into dreams of professional careers in toe shoes—and general audiences into the firm belief that this is the one and only great ballet in the world.
Jennifer Fisher's book evolved from her Ph.D. thesis on "The Nutcracker as a Ritual." She writes that she thought of calling the book Everything I Know About Life I Learned From "The Nutcracker." Despite the decision to jettison the title, she certainly kept large portions of that philosophy in the book's lessons. The parallels to theatre, film, and TV can be drawn easily. In acting, as in the metaphor that is the tradition of this ballet, those who make art find themselves struggling to grow into "better" roles, advancing up a hierarchy of perceived levels of competence, convincing audiences that there is no "low culture" and "high culture" but only poorly crafted and well-crafted work.
The Nutcracker began life in Russia in 1892, not as a Yuletide presentation but as a ballet story to be told year-round. Then, she writes, it immigrated to America in a time of mass immigration. And when it reached iconic status, it began undergoing makeovers. Like Pride and Prejudice's transmogrification into Bridget Jones's Diary, like Taming of the Shrew's maceration into Kiss Me, Kate, this ballet has been given treatments ranging from Harlem Nutcracker to The San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band's Dance-Along Nutcracker. It's a process America loves.
The book is a delectable study of our cultural identities, of the way art can evolve, of the sociology of stage productions. But, for those of us who love the ballet—from the inside-out and the outside-in—it's another way to plunge ourselves into its inexplicable magic.
Yale University Press, 2004, $16.