There's a sweet spot toward the end of August—after summer intensives have wrapped up and before it's time to head back to school or work—where the days are long, lazy and begging to be spent neck-deep in a pile of good books. Whether you're looking for inspiration for the upcoming season or trying to brush up on your dance history, you can never go wrong with an excellent book on ballet. We've gathered eight titles (all available at common booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble) guaranteed to give you a deeper understanding of the art form, to add to your end-of-summer reading list.
You know you've really made it when a children's book has been made about your life. While San Francisco Ballet principal Sasha De Sola has long inspired audiences young and old onstage, she is now the subject of On Tiptoes/De Puntitas, a bilingual book by Catalina V. Monterrubio with gorgeously illustrations by Gabriela García. Told in English and Spanish, On Tiptoes/De Puntitas ($24.90, available at Book Bank USA) is actually two stories that start at either end and meet in the middle. One follows De Sola, whose mother puts her in ballet to help her overcome her shyness; she later battles an injury and joins SFB through her hard work and dedication. The other story follows a fictional boy who falls in love with De Sola after seeing her perform. Inspired, he decides to become a dancer himself and overcomes bullying from his peers. The two stories converge when the dancers meet and perform a pas de deux.
De Sola, who was born in Florida of Venezuelan parents, grew up speaking Spanish. She played a central role in the book's creation, offering its creators guidance on both ballet life and its aesthetics. "I'd love to see a world where we collaborate more as artists," she said in an interview with Pointe last month. Below, she talks about how the process unfolded and what she hopes the book achieves.
Courtesy Book Bank USA
Looking for a last-minute gift for your ballet bookworm? Here's a sampling of recently published dance books for bunheads of all kinds, whether they're a health nut, a ballet history buff or just learning to point their toes.
Several years ago, Sarah Beth Marr, then a dancer with Mejia Ballet International in Arlington, Texas, went to see a famous ballerina give an interview at a nearby theater. She was eager to hear the dancer's insights on navigating a ballet career. "I was hoping for some kind of secret sauce in order to keep going," she says. When it came time for a question and answer period, several in the audience asked the ballerina about what got her through challenging times. "Her answer was that she worked really hard and pushed herself and tried to be the best," says Marr, "and there's a lot of truth in that." But she was left with a heavy feeling inside. "Is it all about working really hard and striving and carving my own path, or is there something deeper?"
As dancers, we know why we love ballet—but for a new audience member, our beautiful, silent art form may seem like a mystery. Enter Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet. Written by celebrated dance critic Laura Jacobs, this new book (available May 8 from Basic Books) offers insights on how burgeoning ballet fans can better understand and appreciate the choreographic language they're watching onstage. But it's also a compelling read for dancers and experienced dance lovers.
When Sara Havener was asked to learn a variation from Giselle without following an instructor or DVD, she was taken aback. Nina Danilova, Havener's teacher at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, wanted her to learn it from written text and pictures.
"At first I didn't know what to expect," says Havener, who recently danced with Atlanta Ballet. "I'd never gone into this detailed approach with every step written down." Despite her initial trepidation, Havener soon came to love learning variations this way.
A former Kirov Ballet dancer, Danilova developed her innovative five-step method, which eliminates mimicking teachers, other dancers or DVDs, in 2008. After observing students robotically memorize steps in her own variations class, she was determined to develop a better way to teach them—one that helped dancers discover their artistry. Because they use their mind to connect to the variation from the beginning, much like how an actor discovers a role from a script, they can give depth to and develop their personal interpretation of a role, and feel confident in what they create.
"A dancer's brain is as important as her legs," says Danilova. "A mechanical step is only physical. Ballet is art and needs your heart, emotion, imagination and vision."
Danilova's methodology is gaining adherents from dance teachers in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia, and she recently released a book, Eight Female Classical Ballet Variations, that outlines her method. How does her system work? We break down its five steps below with five professional dancers who studied under Danilova.
Holiday shopping is fun (and a good way to boost your mood), but when you're in the middle of a Nutcracker run, it can be hard to get anything else done. If you're still scrambling to find something for everyone on your list, we have a few ballet-inspired ideas.
For the bookworms and dance history buffs in your life...
There are tons of great ballet books out there—stunning dance photography books, like NYC Dance Project's newly-released The Art of Movement, memoirs by the likes of Gelsey Kirkland and Michaela DePrince, and rich histories of ballet and its artists. Here are some of our favorites.
For your most stylish studio friend...
Who understands what dancers want in clothing better than dancers themselves? These days, many pros are making and designing their own lines of leotards, skirts, warmups and more. Just this month, for instance, Misty Copeland launched her new dancewear line, Égal Dance. Check out our 2016 holiday gift guide for more dancer-made products—like colorful legwarmers made by Boston Ballet's Ashley Ellis, or fun printed leotards by former Houston Ballet dancer Jordan Reed.
A piece from Misty Copeland's new collection, photo via @egaldance on Instagram
For the friend who's always too busy to hang out...
Carve out some time for the two of you to do something together. Bonus: Research has shown that gifting an experience instead of a tangible item can make the recipient feel more connected to you. Grab tickets to a dance performance in your area, or plan a post-rehearsal dinner at their favorite restaurant.
For the friend who dreams of saving the world...
Make a donation in your friend's name, to a cause they care about. A little goes a long way, and making even a small contribution will lift both of your spirits.
And for every bunhead out there...
If you’re strapped for last-minute gift ideas for the bunhead book-nerd in your life, or if you are one yourself (guilty!), take a look at some of the new ballet books published this year.
For the Photography Lover:
- Misty Copeland: Power and Grace, by Richard Corman and Cindy Bradley. Copeland jumps off the glossy pages in striking black and white photography. The book includes her own quotes championing hope and strength in the face of adversity.
- Ballet: Photographs of the New York City Ballet, by Henry Leutwyler and Peter Martins. The Swiss photographer’s photos go beyond capturing gorgeous poses. Rendered in rich color, the power of a leg, the swirl of a skirt—the lushness of NYCB dancers’ movement is on display.
- Matthew Brookes: Les Danseurs, by Matthew Brookes and Marie-Agnès Gillot. Matthew Brookes’ photos show the stunning strength and grace of the Paris Opéra Ballet—displayed through intimate close ups and remarkably captured movement.
- Roberto Bolle: Voyage Into Beauty, by Roberto Bolle, Luciano Romano and Fabrizio Ferri. The eminent Roberto Bolle appears as a powerful athlete and a vulnerable artist, framed by the splendid backdrop of Italy, his home.
- Carlos Acosta at The Royal Ballet, by The Royal Ballet. Set for release in the U.S. in spring 2016, this book chronicles the virtuosic star’s career at The Royal in honor of his farewell season. (You can pre-order on Amazon!)
- Balancing Acts, by Lucy Gray. Told through intimate photos and inspiring personal accounts, this book follows three former San Francisco Ballet principals as they juggle the roles of ballerina and motherhood.
For the History Buff:
- The Ballet Lover’s Companion, by Zoë Anderson. Beginning with the Romantic period and ending with works of modern day masters like Wheeldon and McGregor, Anderson catalogues 140 ballets, offering insightful information about their choreographers, premieres, seminal performances and more.
- Dance to the Piper, by Agnes de Mille with a new introduction by Joan Acocella. Agnes de Mille—choreographer of quintessentially American ballets like Rodeo and Fall River Legend—originally published her memoir in 1951. The book gives a fascinating account of her work and life during the boom of Broadway and ballet. With a new introduction by Joan Acocella, it’s worth a revisit.
- When Ballet Became French, by Ilyana Karthas. In the mid-19th century, ballet’s epicenter moved from Paris to St. Petersburg. In this fascinating book, Karthas explores how France reclaimed ballet in the early 20th century—the turbulent pre-/post-war years between 1909 and 1939—using the period’s own ballet writing and comprehensive analyses of French culture and national identity.
For Health and Wellness:
- TuTu Thin: A Guide to Dancing Without an Eating Disorder, by Dawn Smith-Theodore. Written by an eating disorder expert and former dancer, this book is a must-read for any young ballerina, whether she’s grappling with body-image issues or not. Smith-Theodore addresses eating disorders and how to prevent them with solid, sound expertise.
For the Story Lover:
- Unlovely, by Celeste Conway. In this novel’s romantic seaside setting, a young dancer begins preparing for the role of Giselle, but the glow of summer love between her and the boy she falls for slowly gives way to darkness and unknown horrors.
- Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, and My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker, by Lauren Kessler. This is the true tale of one woman’s love for dance as it’s lost and found: Kessler’s account of how her childhood dream was crushed and how she reclaims it through a quest to perform The Nutcracker once more.
For the Russophile:
- Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, by Janice Ross. What would Balanchine’s life have been like if he had stayed in his home country? Through the historical account of his contemporary, Leonid Yakobson, we may glean some idea. The Soviet choreographer is little known in the West, but his works endure; Boston Ballet will perform his Pas de Quatre in March 2016.
- Alla Osipenko, by Joel Lobenthal. Soviet ballerina Alla Osipenko challenged the notion that dancers should be seen, not heard, by speaking out against her government’s oppressive status quo. However, this biography reveals that those who rebelled in Soviet Russia, even revered ballerinas, paid a price.
- Olga Pavlova: A Ballerina For Our Time, by Karen McDonough. This biography goes inside the prestigious—and highly competitive—Bolshoi Ballet Academy, following Pavlova’s rise from school to stardom.
For the Deep Thinker:
- The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life, by Sarah L. Kaufman. Written by the dance critic of the Washington Post, this meditation on grace will get you thinking. Through dancers and other performers, Kaufman explores the concept of grace, onstage and off.
But why pigeonhole ourselves? History buff, Russophile…in 2016, I’ll be working my way through them all.
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Misty Copeland's eagerly anticipated memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), comes out this March. In these excerpts, the American Ballet Theatre soloist describes her struggles with her body, learning how to ask for what she wants and her triumphant debut in Alexei Ratmansky's The Firebird.
When my second year in American Ballet Theatre's corps began, I was more than ready to return to the stage. But my body had completely changed. It was a woman's body, and it felt unfamiliar. I soon realized that ABT, too, was searching for the little girl that I had been.
Finally, the ABT staff called me in to tell me that I needed to lose weight, though those were not the words they used. Instead, the more polite word, ubiquitous in ballet, was lengthening.
“You need to lengthen, Misty," a staffer said. “Just a little, so that you don't lose your classical line."
I was five feet two and just over a hundred pounds. They suggested a nutritionist, but the company would not pay for it. I was trying to survive on a corps member's salary—$679 a week—in New York, the most expensive of cities.
Who do they think they're talking to? I would mumble to myself after a long, stressful day. I have so much talent. Why do I have to be stick thin?
But deep down, I knew that my body just wasn't where it needed to be to perform the classical roles I so loved, or to be in a company as prestigious as ABT. That realization ached.
Gradually, I began to find my balance. It was far from instantaneous. In fact, I think it took me roughly five years truly to understand my body. I learned that my diet was probably 60 to 70 percent of what was causing me to gain more weight than I wanted. So I set about changing my eating habits.
I learned to take care of my body, my instrument, to accept it while ensuring that it's in the best shape for me to give my all in every performance. And ABT, seeing how hard I had worked, how well I was performing, eventually stopped asking me to lengthen. They came to see that my curves are part of who I am as a dancer, not something I need to lose to become one.
By 2007, I had been in ABT's corps for six years. Despite my kinship with the black dancers who occasionally passed through ABT, and some wonderful mentors, I continued to feel frustrated and mostly alone.
The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn't being fully accepted because I was black, that artistic director Kevin McKenzie and other leaders of the company just didn't see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow.
I began to contemplate leaving.
It was Olu, my first boyfriend, who helped me realize that I did not need to run away from ABT. He truly believed that I had the talent to attain what I wanted, to become a soloist and principal right where I was. But I had to learn to ask for it.
I was very nervous about speaking up for myself. I didn't want to displease others, to be rejected or misunderstood.
But Olu told me that I had to approach things in a different way, that I couldn't just feel sorry for myself: I had to fight. There's an old adage in the black community that we have to be 10 times better just to get as much. I took that to heart. I had to be undeniably excellent. But I also had to let ABT know what I was after.
Slowly, the fog that dampened my confidence began to lift. I made an appointment to talk to Kevin.
“I know contemporary dance is a strength of mine because a lot of ballerinas don't move like I do," I told him. “But I was trained as a classical dancer, and that's what I really want to do."
“I'm glad to hear that," Kevin said. “You have the talent to do both."
That was it.
Soon after, there was a new beginning. Kevin decided, at last, to make me a soloist.
I would be the first black soloist with ABT in 20 years. It was an historic breakthrough. I recognized then and now that Kevin had been behind me from the start, pushing me to grow, to mature, to excel. I had waited six long years, and now I was ready, not just to show the world that I was a gifted dancer but that I was a true artist as well.
Kevin told me himself that I'd be learning the lead in Alexei Ratmansky's new production of The Firebird. I assumed I would be an understudy, but I was still thrilled to be studying Alexei's new choreography.
I dove into rehearsals, determined that if ever I needed to fill in for the lead, I would be ready. One day after a busy morning of choreographing and improvising, we finally got a five-minute break, and I plopped down on the floor, exhausted, and picked up my phone. I started browsing idly through Twitter as I stretched out my tired legs.
And that's how I found out.
There was a link to an ABT press release about the official casting for The Firebird. Natalia Osipova, ABT's guest principal dancer, would be in the first cast.
And I—Misty Copeland—would be the Firebird in the second.
The day of our New York debut of The Firebird, the company had a dress rehearsal. Afterward, I walked out the front doors of the Metropolitan Opera House.
I turned around, and looked up.
It was me, in full blazing color. There was my face, head thrown back in joy, and my body, gleefully leaping into the air on a 24-foot advertisement, waving from the front of the Metropolitan Opera. Misty Copeland. The Firebird. My eyes filled with tears. In all my years of living in New York City, I had never seen a black woman on the façade of the Met.
Copyright © 2014 by Misty Copeland. From the forthcoming book LIFE IN MOTION: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
For everyone getting ready to head off to summer intensives, here's another thing to add to your packing list: some good books! Reading can be a great way to give your exhausted body a much-needed rest. Books in print, e-reader editions, books online, whatever floats your boat, check out some of the great works out there about dance.
The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together by Twyla Tharp
Throughout Tharp's extensive career, she's worked with some of the most prominent dancers, companies, musicians and designers in the world, and it's from these experiences that she draws the material for her book about collaboration. Designed as a companion to her earlier book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (a must-read about the process of creating dance), The Collaborative Habit covers the ins and outs of working together, from the characteristics of good collaborations, to warning signs that a collaboration may be dysfunctional, to different types of collaborations (between friends, with an institution, virtual, to name a few). Though most of the anecdotes in the book are dance-related, Tharp stresses the importance of collaboration in all walks of life.
Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans
Be warned: This book is long. Don't be deterred by it's length, though, because on its pages is a wonderfully rich history of all things ballet. Covering dance from the age of Catherine de Medici and Henri II in 1533 to the innovations of Balanchine in mid 20th-century New York, plus everything in between, no aspect of ballet history is left untouched. Homans offers spectacular insights into the nature of ballet, and what it means to be a dancer.
Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant
Originally written in 1967, there have been numerous updated editions published, most recently in 2009. This book covers nearly every ballet step there is, with special attention paid to what each movement is called in the French, Cecchetti and Vaganova methods. Another plus? It includes a pronunciation guide for some of those tough to sound out terms. A lightweight paperback, this guide is the perfect size to throw in your bag as a quick reference for any questions you may have throughout the day.
Murder in the Fifth Position by Edgar Box
Originally written and published in the 1950s by Edgar Box, this whodunnit ballet mystery was re-released this year under the name of the true author— critically-acclaimed Gore Vidal. The story follows a PR man turned detective trying to solve the murder mystery of a prominent New York City ballerina who fell to her death onstage—landing in a perfect fifth position. A good one for down time before bed or between rehearsals!
Titles to look for in the next few months...
Dance Medicine: Head to Toe: A Dancer's Guide to Health by Judith R. Peterson, MD
This book offers a complete look at the common injuries and illnesses that affect dancers, written by the former attending physician of the Pennsylvania Ballet. Scheduled for release in late June.
Bunheads by Sophie Flack
A novel about a dancer's search for identity and fulfillment in a prestigious NYC ballet company, written by former NYCB dancer Sophie Flack. Scheduled for release in October.