Book Review: Raising the Barre

Here is THE one and only reason why practically every ballet company in the US puts on a version of ‘The Nutcracker’:

  1. It makes money.

Always. It’s the bread-and-butter that fuels the rest of the season for most companies. So we are stuck with it. Here are a few reasons why The Nutcracker is always bank for ballet companies:

  1. The music! Everyone knows it. Everyone has a love/hate relationship with it (No, just me?)
  2. Children’s cast- every child cast will mean parents and aunts and uncles and siblings in the seats. Two casts of children? That’s twice as many family, friend networks BUYING tickets and merchandise.
  3. It’s Christmassy! It is sometimes considered a ‘holiday event’ in the same way other people go look at lights or the ice skaters falling by the Rockefeller Tree (Again, just me?) Non- dance lovers cn sometimes be dragged to ‘The Nutcracker’ in the spirit of the holidays
  4. The camp factor- frothy, light-hearted plot without any need for intellectual consideration. And that’s fun sometimes
  5. Personalization -A lot of companies put a local twist on the show. St. Louis Ballet did a version based on the World’s Fair a few years ago, while Louisville Ballet has little derby jockeys (again, children’s cast) emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirts. When I was at Butler, I think they put a basketball jersey on the toy Nutcracker in an attempt to connect our significantly-smaller dance program to the huge phenomenon that was our basketball team. Look at us ballerinas trying to be relatable to what the majority of people care about- sports.

*Side note- it is a wonderful opportunity for children to be able to perform with companies and can strengthen communities. This practice of inclusion should never be held in any less esteem simply because of financial gains.

Even as artists, we do certain things to keep our practices afloat. Whether that’s getting up at six to go to yoga, or avoiding brownie binges, or for the larger organization, attempting strategies that will sell tickets, draw new audiences, donors, or publicity. Just imagine if a published author and immersion journalist showed up stating a desire to dance in the production AND had a book contract to detail- aka publicize- the experience.

Author Lauren Kessler’s newest nonfiction, ‘Setting the Barre; Big Dreams, False Starts, & My MIdlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker’ is all about going through the motions of ballet while giving herself a literary pat on the back.

Kessler’s book sets the stage for her journey into The Nutcracker with personal back story of her childhood experiences dancing and a cross-country tour to see variations of the production from US-based companies :Joffrey, ABT, NYCB, San Fransisco, and her hometown company of Eugene Ballet Company in Oregon.

This is not a book about ballet. WHile Kessler does include some historical bits about the foundation of ballet, and some critiques of the performances she sees in the early chapters of the book, this floats somewhere between the genres of self-help and humor memoir. Page after page contains self-deprecating stories of trying on leotards, lists of what she learned, and a truly gross story about peeing on her own tights. I’ve been dancing for 27 years, and I’ve never done that once. She repeats over and over how badly the dancers smell. In fact, it’s mentioned in one of the two quotes chosen to preface the book. The other quote is one of inspiration from Agnes DeMille.

This book sets up the contrast of a woman facing middle age against the American obsessions of youth and beauty associated with ballet. It uses the stereotype of attempting the impossible perfection of ballet as a seemingly insurmountable challenge to make the pay-off of achieving the goal that much more triumphant. Kessler’s sincere love for ballet comes across an authentic but she gets a lot wrong. It’s called ‘on pointe’, not ‘on toe’ for instance. She makes a lot of factually incorrect, insensitive, and sometimes downright offensive statements such as ‘boys come to dancing later than girls’. Tell that to the 3 year-old boys that I teach.

The decisive shift in tone from self-deprecation to self-congratulation comes somewhere mid-book. While it is rather annoying to read every compliment in quotes from the conductor about her on-stage presence, or what the costumer said about her fitting in the dress for the maiden aunt role, it is nice to see the build in confidence. This is a good reminder of the positive affirmations that come from sticking to a challenge and goal-setting, especially as it pertains to dance. However, any sense of rooting for the author goes out the window on page 214 when she states that the performance is her ‘f*ck you’ to her teacher, who she names with his own fragmented chapter-closing sentence, and whose children have taken over his ballet school.

I would recommend this book to:

  • Other middle-aged women who are grappling with the past, being present, body image, and don’t really know about but are interested in the ballet world.

I would not recommend this book to:

  • Anyone knowledgeable about the dance world.

The part where she flat-out tells the Artistic Director of the Eugene Ballet that she is NOT allowed to come in and watch rehearsal for the ‘Grandfather Dance’ in the party scene will make the head of anyone with working ballet-world knowledge explode.

  • Anyone with body dysmorphia or eating disorder issues.

I am a long-time recovered but hearing pretty much every female character the author comes across as ‘a waif’ ‘slender’ ‘perfectly formed’ ‘0 percent body fat!’ page after page was particularly triggering for me. Proceed with caution.

  • Anyone who is bothered by fragmented sentences, tangents, clich├ęd phrases, a narrative that reads like a thirteen year old girls phone conversation with her BFF, and long paragraphs containing only questions.

More book reviews for dancers:

I did like that the closing scene ends with her congratulating herself with a drink at a bar. Get it, barre?

I think some of these Good Reads reviews sum up the demographic for this one






One thought on “Book Review: Raising the Barre

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Tango Lessons- A Memoir by Meghan Flaherty | BODIES NEVER LIE

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