{Dd} Response: Sophie Flack's debut novel, 'Bunheads'

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Bunheads by Sophie FlackIt’s been sitting on my bookshelf since last January, eyeing me temptingly and saying, “you know you want to read me” — it being a glossy hardback copy of Sophie Flack’s debut novel, Bunheads. Yet, I didn’t read it. I didn’t even crack it open to read the insert. I was caught up in the frenzy that is New York City and then, unexpectedly, I was planning a cross-country move to Denver. I packed the book in a box with the rest of my eclectic library and told myself I would get to it when I had time, something I never seemed to have in surplus…until now.

After being injured back in October, I turned to my writing and reading to maintain my sanity and occupy my time. So there Bunheads sat, once again beckoning me to indulge. I would steal away to my bedroom, slightly embarrassed by my overwhelming curiosity to read a young adult novel with the  kitschy title Bunheads, and dive into Hannah Ward’s life at the Manhattan Ballet. I read the book in three days — go ahead and judge if you must.

The story dives into the dazzling, yet dark world of an elite New York City-based ballet troupe, the Manhattan Ballet. Its central characters are members of the corps de ballet: ambitious, young, sometimes misguided, and all yearning to catch the attention of Artistic Director Otto Klein. We enter this world through the eyes of Hannah Ward, a nineteen-year-old with a lot of potential and an affinity for literature. As the story unfolds, we meet her circle of neurotic, caffeine-hyped, driven friends: the diet-crazy Daisy, the reliable and quiet Beatrice “Bea” Hall, and the wealthy, entitled Zoe Mortimer.

About a year ago, I interviewed Flack for Dance Informa. She claimed that while there were elements of herself in Hannah, the novel was not an exact autobiographical recount of her time spent at the New York City Ballet. Yet, I can’t help notice the many similarities —I don’t know Flack personally, so I only have superficial evidence to go on. Hannah appears to encapsulate many of the physical qualities and interests that Flack has. Hannah is tall, blonde, with subtle curves to her figure, much like Flack. She loves to write and read and she has an interest in life outside of the studio, much like Flack.

From an analytical aspect, I wanted Flack to incorporate elements of a dancer’s life more subtly into the story, rather than taking the reader on frequent tangents to explain terminology, behavioral patterns, and routine occurrences specific to ballet. But my intentions are not to critique Flack. Overall, she displays an aptitude for the written word and for story telling — I have no doubt she will enjoy many successes beyond her ballet career. Her focus within the novel doesn’t appear to be entirely centered on the drama and glamour of the ballet world, but rather, the journey of Hannah. She’s a character with core contradictions: imperfect, selfish, yet empathic and confused. Of all of the corps de ballet dancers we meet in her book, Hannah feels the most real. You root for her and care about what happens to her.

“Your job is not to live. Your job is to dance,” says Manhattan Ballet’s ballet mistress, Annabelle Hayes. It’s an all-consuming profession in which, to be successful, a dancer has to give everything he or she has plus more. Yet, Hannah isn’t so sure she wants to continue to sacrifice her body and mind. This is a very real issue in the ballet world, one that struck a personal chord. Maybe it’s because I’m injured at the moment and have too much time to think. Or maybe, in some unexpected way, the novel connected some dots for me, shedding light on something that is at the very core of my own ballet career.

I never went to prom — or any high school dance for that matter — I spent my evenings and weekends in a dance studio and my summers away at ballet intensives. During my senior year, I moved away from my hometown of Atlanta to study at Houston Ballet Academy. When I returned to walk with my graduating class, many of my classmates weren’t sure who I was or where I came from.

Perhaps I’m bold for addressing this issue. But I’m not doing so to ruffle feathers. I’m simply confused because I always felt different than many of my dance colleagues, like something was wrong with me. Finding balance between my relationship with dance and a relationship with other things in life is a continuous uphill struggle. The sacrifices, hours and money spent on cross training, passing on social engagements to stay home and rest, watching my diet…I always choose ballet, but it’s never enough. My devotion has been continuously questioned by many throughout my career. Why? Because I like to write? Because I like to bake? Because I want to finish my college degree? Does that really make me less committed?

Musicians, painters, poets, writers, actors, other artists use life to inspire and inform their art. But, in dance, we are asked to solely use dance as our artistic compass. How can a dancer ever portray Juliet if she has never been in love?

At {Dd}, we like to believe we can have our cake and eat it too, so to speak. What I’m trying to say is that I want to be able to explore other interests, dive into the non-dancer world, and not have my devotion and love for ballet questioned—I want to have it both ways. But I am no longer sure I can. I am perplexed about where this mentality originates and how it manages to still permeate the ballet world.

I’m coming to a crossroads in which I think I have to make the hardest decision of my life; I think I have to choose between dance and my other interests. So, for those of you reading this, I pose that very question. Can we have it both ways as dancers? Can we pursue other interests in life and still be completely committed to the art form we love? And if we can’t, why does it have to be so? As dance evolves in so many interesting ways, shouldn’t the mentality associated with the profession progress as well?

Also check out Matthew’s recount of meeting Flack during a special event at Chelsea Market.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Heather

    Beautiful post Stephanie and I have often posed the same question, always feeling like a rebellious ballerina because I wanted to be able to do so many other things too. I had to completely cut myself off from ballet for a while and honestly, I was completely happy – totally fine in fact, when (for my entire life) I had feared doing just that. But I missed dance and had to go back to it, it felt like I was ignoring a huge side of myself if I didn’t. But by that point I was a completely different person, with college degree, husband, and years of life experience working “normal” jobs.

    I have so much to say on the subject, this comment could go on for ages…Having left ballet and gone back, then left it again and sort of went back, finding the right balance of dance to life has continued to be an ongoing struggle for me. I think there are ways to do it, but it’s definitely harder than it really should be; and I’m not quite sure why either.

  • stephanie

    I think it takes a lot of courage to walk away from the ballet world after being immersed in it for most of one’s life. It makes me a little queasy just thinking about it, but I also always knew the time would come some day. We, as dancers, don’t like to talk about it too often. But maybe that is part of the problem. I don’t know. I just can’t help but dwell on the subject these days.

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for such a heartfelt response. From my own experience of trying to combine dance with my outside interests (slowly but surely getting a college degree, reading, art, baking, having a social life…), I feel like we must have lives outside of just dance. As dancers we reveal so many layers of being human– and for this we must experience what it is to be a full person, not “just” a dancer. (Like you say, how can we portray Juliet without knowing what it is to be in love?) I have found that my dancing is more meaningful, more sincere and less myopic when I allow myself to pursue other interests and to feel like I have a place in the outside world. But then why do I often feel so guilty that I am not entirely devoted to being the best dancer I can be? I seem to have a continuous stream of guilt running through my mind when I am spending an afternoon getting coffee with a friend when I could be taking an extra class, writing a paper instead of cross-training at the gym, enjoying a homemade brownie instead of a more slimming smoothie, or even out on an evening date when I could be at home stretching and getting to bed early. I admit that I usually feel almost entirely fulfilled when my mind and schedule is 100% consumed with dance– but when I step out of this frame I realize what I was missing (and shockingly seem to have teachers tell me that my dancing is looking better…). But why this constant sense of guilt, even shame, when ballet is not everything in my life?? So I realize I have no answers. But your review absolutely brings up really essential questions that I imagine most dancers deal with. I feel like we must have lives outside of dance if we are to truly bring all that we can of ourselves and our experience in the world to our art. Yet how do we not feel so guilty about it?

    p.s. I hope you are healing well and enjoying the outside world while you’re at it! 🙂

  • candice

    I also find resonance in your points Steph, though I was lucky enough to get a full high school experience, silly dances and all. It seems to me there are a few things at work:

    1. Dance teachers should encourage young dancers to use their life experiences as fuel for their art. This can send the message that life outside of dance is important and worth while. For the most part, I think directors know this and most are not actively guilting dancers into being one dimensional.

    2. Dance (especially at the professional level) attracts type A personalities that tend to lean into extremes and often feel guilty when not actively achieving in any art form or profession. Often, I think these feelings originate in our own skewed perceptions of what we “should” be doing. Acknowledging that can be freeing–maybe no one is judging you for not devoting more time to dance…

    3. To dance, or write or make any art, at a high level just requires a huge amount of dedicated time. We can’t blame the art form for the fact that being in shape is very consuming. There is no way of getting around that fact. At a certain point, we all do have to choose how we want to spend our time and decide if the time trade off is worth it.

    And last but not least, there is so much talk in the world right now about “having it all”–from working mothers to fathers, and yes, dancers. Continuing to perpetuate the idea of “having it all” seems to be the very source of unhappiness. Ultimately, we should all just be looking to lead more balanced lives in whatever way we can, getting to books or whatever else is on our list when we have the time. It seems to me you are doing just that and should be proud of yourself.

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