Friday, March 5, 2021

Book Reviews: The Brutal and Hopeless Beauty of Ballet

 Bright Burning Stars, by A.K. Small (Algonquin Young Readers)

Ballet, for all its ethereal beauty, is brutal physically and even more devastating emotionally as young dancers distort their bodies and vie with one another for the precious few openings that lead to stardom. Nowhere is this pressure-cooker atmosphere more evident than in the boarding schools that feed dancers into prestigious companies. Bright Burning Stars examines the price of such success and asks whether a friendship can survive it.

The story centers on two young women in their final year at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Kate and Marine have been inseparable, best friends, declaring that if they cannot both receive the coveted Prize, neither will have it. As the year progresses, however, pressures mount. Marine, still unable to come to terms with the death of her twin brother who was her inspiration in ballet, descends into anorexia. Kate throws herself into an infatuation with the charismatic senior male dancer, with the result of an unintended pregnancy. Instead of drawing Kate and Marine closer for support, each turn for the worse only seems to widen the gulf between them.

The strengths of the story include strong, flowing prose; engaging characters that change and grow; a vivid depiction of a world that few outside the profession of ballet ever experience; a passionate portrayal of the sensual glory of ballet as an art form; and keen insight into the psychological and physical stresses on dancers. These are significant strengths, indeed, enough to captivate the reader. The narrative kept me turning the pages and caring about the fate of Kate and Marine.

On the down side, watching the two main characters slide into mental illness (for example, eating disorder, severe codependence, obsession, suicidal ideation) was unrelentingly grim. The absence of adult supervision and care was exemplified by the scene, late in the book, where Kate goes to the director with concerns about Marine’s life-threatening symptoms and is essentially blown off and accused of trying to eliminate a rival.

Either these young women are particularly dysfunctional or else the entire realm of ballet is remarkably deficient in healthy relationships. That much I could buy, however, and even the way the school encourages toxic competition at the expense of the health of its students. What was less believable was the ease with which Kate and Marine turned their lives around. Both suffer from serious disorders, neither receives competent psychotherapy – or any counseling at all – and yet a simple “realization” seems sufficient to resolve their problems.

         Personal soapbox rant: Eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses. A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reported that 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease and 18-20% of anorexics will be dead after 20 years. Relapse rates over 18 months run between 35 and 41 %.

Issues like eating disorders and obsessive reliance on the attention of others to bolster poor self esteem do not magically disappear because of a few compliments from a peer; they require skillful management over a period of time. Most of all, the person herself must recognize that something is wrong, that she wants to get better, and that she needs help to do so. This is not to say that relationships play no part in recovery, only that with conditions this severe – as evidenced by a suicide attempt – they are not sufficient in themselves. In many ways, these girls are still children; they need adult intervention.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for recovery, and as an author I see every story as an opportunity to share hope, understanding, and compassion. Quick fixes offer none of these. Bright Burning Stars is not necessarily about how mental and physical health can be regained, but I cannot help contrasting it to the all-too-few books that show a realistic path forward. (Two stellar examples are a character with social anxiety disorder in The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, and one with PTSD in Lia Silver’s Laura’s Wolf.)

 A sympathetic character takes the reader on a journey, an adventure seen through that character’s eyes. This identification makes for a vivid reading experience but also imposes a degree of ethical responsibility on the author. Actions – such as aborting a pregnancy with untested and hazardous herbs, as Kate does – have consequences. This is not to say that characters cannot make bad choices or that the author must then lecture the reader about why those choices are bad. The problem here is that Kate doesn’t learn anything from her risky choice. She isn’t any more responsible about sexual activity than before, and she doesn’t gain any insight into her own proclivity for all-devouring infatuation that masks her deeper problems. Likewise, Marine never faces her eating disorder or its cost. The message to the young reader is that no emotional work is required for a happy ending, and also – more dangerously – that there is no help from adults. It’s typical in YA literature for adults to be absent, supposedly to give the young people agency. But Marine’s anorexia, as portrayed, is severe enough to require hospitalization, or at least to have that conversation.

I was also disappointed to not find any references to support resources, either within the story itself or in an appendix. So I’ve put together a few here. 

To the readers and their families: If you, or anyone you know, has an eating disorder, a serious emotional dependence upon others, or has thought about or attempted suicide, please take it seriously. Know that you are not alone, and that there is help. Here are a few places to start:

 National Eating Disorders Association:

National Alliance on Mental Illness:

Co-Dependents Anonymous:

Teen suicide prevention resources:

Addendum: After I wrote this review, I read Abi Stanford’s from September 2020 blog in Dance Magazine. As a professional dancer who has struggled with mental illness, she makes a passionate statement for a more human, supportive ballet culture. 

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have. 


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