Perfectionism and Aestheticism: The All-Consuming Ballet (Paris, NY, Toronto, Chicago, CA, 1973 – 2002): The deeper meaning of the title and pink ballet ribbon wrapping Maggie Shipstead’s compact second novel unwrap, in layers, through many characters, in many places, over time, astonishing until the final act. Like a ballet balance beam, the author balances the gracefulness and harshness of balletomania, “meant to look effortless, not be effortless.” Shipstead delivers a virtuoso performance by making an enmeshed story of two families, over two generations, over some thirty years, across continents, involving Russian defectors look easy!
She accomplishes all this in just 253 pages, in part, by structuring her novel in concise chapters that move back and forth through time and place, creating distinct and real characters because they take us inside the grueling physical demands and the emotional/psychological consequences of living in a world always striving for perfection, and yet – no matter how much practice and pain the balletomane endures – will likely “spend a lifetime of feeling inadequate.” Perfection this precise, this astonishing is elusive.
While there are many important characters, it’s Joan, a ballerina since before age five, whose influence touches them all. And so, Astonish Me opens with Joan in New York City in 1977, at a time when even “civilization seems fragile.” Then Joan was in the corps de ballet of a New York City ballet company choreographed by Mr. K., one of the Russian defectors, who may be the “most famous choreographer of the twentieth century.” (Could he be inspired by Balanchine?)
From the onset, we learn key details about Joan that set the stage for unwrapping the story:
The first is she’s pregnant, which means she must forgo her life’s passion since “tininess” is all you can ever be. Joan reconciles this as not being good enough anyway – certainly not good enough to be a soloist. (She “wished for more talent, for better feet, longer arms.”) Perhaps motherhood and marriage to the brilliant, handsome, and witty Jacob who has loved her forever will be enough to make her happy. Wishful thinking when the ballet has been her life and she still looks and moves like a ballerina. Her ballet company roommate, Elaine, suffers from the same lack of confidence (“never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes”), tempered by her devotion to Mr. K, the “only person who loves ballet as much as she does.” Joan may never be a famous ballet dancer but she was chosen by a very famous one, Arslan Rusakov, a star at the Kirov, to help him defect from Russia. They spent a year together at the Paris Opera House, where Sergei Diaghilev transformed the art form. Of all the Russian dancers extraordinaire, the most potent force affecting the characters in the novel is Arslan. For Joan, she is haunted by not knowing “why he chose her?” No spoilers, except to say that at the finale you’ll have the answer.
At the center of Joan and Jacob’s twenty-plus year marriage is their son Harry, who becomes obsessed with ballet and Arslan. They live in southern California, where Harry grows up with his neighbor, Chloe, who also takes up the ballet. They both see the world as “dancers and non-dancers,” idolizing dancers to “not just people.” Their passions, developing bodies, sexuality, attitudes, struggles, and gifts communicate that ballet is about “intentions, power, and unfinished things.”
The author’s handling of homosexuality stereotypes is rendered with the same balance, sensitivity, and insightfulness as elsewhere. This theme plays out in the characters of Mr. K., who both adores the “idea of women … their capacity as vessels, their aesthetics, their otherness,” and keeps his male attractions “walled off, invisible, underground, nocturnal, private;” and in Harry, whose mother does not care if he is gay, his father concerned he might be. Appreciatively, this writing is not gratuitous, instead restrained and thoughtful.
Chloe’s parents, Sandy and Gary Wheelock, show us what the non-dancers of the world think of the dancers. Sandy, who just so happens to be overweight, is awfully jealous and mistrustful of Joan. She believes that “someone so thin can’t help but be pretty,” and that “mothers who keep their figures have sacrificed less than mothers who have widened and softened.” Her husband stares at Joan. There is “something about dancers’ bodies, the obviousness of their manufactured perfection,” the author writes, “that makes people brazen about looking and commenting.”
I especially enjoyed the ballet prose, carefully placed throughout not to overwhelm. You don’t have to know what the ballet moves mean to sense the artistry, risk-taking, and discipline to perform them: the pas de deux, demi-pointe, ronds de jambe, plies, tendus, dégagés, fondus, frappés, développés, grand allegro, brisé volés, coupés, jetés en tournant, piqué, arabesque, chasse, sissonne ouverte, camber, adagio, battements en cloche.
Leave it to Joan’s young Harry to be the one to gain the self-assurance he’ll surely need if he is to someday, maybe, become that exalted dancer:
The ballet is the result of endless repetitions: uncounted rehearsals of acts, of scenes, of combinations, of steps. The steps themselves are only the most recent repetitions of movements he has done thousands, probably millions, of times in different rooms, on different stages, with different partners.
Astonish Me mirrors the same techniques. It takes us to different stages, with different partners, at different times. And it does so in chapters that feel like acts and scenes (although not experienced chronologically). But make no mistake about it. Others have crafted ballet novels, but none quite like this one. Lorraine