'Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear': Backstage look at ballet steps on a few toes
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Ballet is about as transparent as the federal government, which means that a very small percentage of its backstage business makes it into the public eye. Author Stephen Manes is about to change all of that with his new book, "Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet."
The Pittsburgh native doesn't have the traditional experience to write about this topic, but he asserts he has had "a long career making arcane worlds accessible to the uninitiated." He wrote long-running columns on personal technology for The New York Times, Forbes PC World and PC Magazine, among others, and most notably authored the best-selling biography "Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry -- and Made Himself the Richest Man in America."
He also wrote more than 30 books for children and young adults, including "Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days!" and "Make Four Million Dollars by Next Thursday!" When his wife introduced him to the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, he found his next uninitiated audience ... and a new passion.
Ballet companies are notoriously closed-mouthed about things like politics, budgets, salaries and injuries because ballet's history demands that everything look effortless. After all, ballet is rooted in fairy tales that still provide the core of the repertoire.
At first, Mr. Manes doesn't dwell in the land of Sleeping Beauty; he does a quick slide into the Country of Baseball. It's a clever start to the book, drawing similarities between the first recorded organized baseball match in Hoboken, N.J., (1846) and the first major ballet en pointe, "La Sylphide" (1832). Then he moves to the early 20th century, when baseball formed the American League and Sergei Diaghilev created Ballets Russes in Paris, both a few years apart.
That's the fun stuff, but Mr. Manes is a professional journalist by trade and so he butts reality up against the fantasy of ballet performance. This tome, weighing in at more than 900 pages (Mr. Gates only got 560), is more like four books woven into one as he relates a year in the life of PNB, generally regarded as one of America's top ballet companies.
Basics of ballet are scattered throughout the book for the relative beginner, with definitions and explanations that can be both historical and colorfully entertaining. The art of the dance is related through individual company members and the people who support them -- lighting technicians, stagehands, musicians and students. Those segments are full of facts and tidbits about their lives. There is also plenty of information about budgets and finances and salaries, something professionals might take an interest in.
Mr. Manes sat in on many rehearsals as ballets were reconstructed by repetiteurs or stagers. His notes are as meticulous as theirs and I am sure that people will discover insights into such ballets as Jerome Robbins' "The Concert," Christopher Wheeldon works like "Variations Sérieuses" and Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette."
The latter was the primary source of numerous Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre references, for PBT brought the ballet here the following year. That is also no surprise. The ballet community, even at the national level, is remarkably intimate and news can fly across the country in five minutes.
Former dancers such as James Moore, who was selected to play Maillot's Romeo, and Rachel Foster, who was cast in a number of ballets, play prominent roles in the book. Both were promoted to soloist the next year at PNB.
Other former PBT members who are mentioned include resident choreographer Bruce Wells, principal dancer Stanko Milov, student Kiyon Gaines, plus a good plug for Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle and a brief mention of artistic director Terrence Orr. International dance names pop up as well, icon Twyla Tharp and Broadway star Susan Stroman among them.
More than once, though, I raised my eyebrows at casting issues and, yes, that swearing incident on page 295 at a dress rehearsal of the "Nutcracker." PNB artistic director Peter Boal was brave to allow Mr. Manes virtually free rein during his third season.
Dancers talked freely about the transition from former founders and artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, who "hammered" the dancers and often would "nag, nag, nag." Mr. Boal may not be afraid to give compliments, which the dancers appreciated, but he also acknowledged that the PNB founders were building a company and he reaped the results. He, too, is admittedly sometimes "hated" -- it goes with the job.
Surely there is something for everyone to learn in a book that covers so much territory. "Snowflakes" should appeal to both ballet fans and professionals who have the same level of passion Mr. Manes exhibits.
First Published October 2, 2011 12:00 am