February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m pretty sure that I wrote this novel when I was in high school. Then I threw it out because I realized it was too much like Center Stage. And then Sophie Flack dug through my trash, changed some names and rewrote a couple scenes, and handed this over to a publisher.

Side note: Seriously, the problem with Center Stage is that it used four of the five available ballet-related plots and thus ruined ballet story-telling for anybody else, lest they want to look like they’re ripping it off. And who wants to be caught ripping off Center Stage, of all the things? The Five Ballet Plots, for the record, are as follows:

  1. Girl tries to make it in the competitive world of ballet, but does she have what it takes? Often involves eating disorders or other health problems to up the ante.
  2. Unconventional ballet dancer (too mouthy, too overweight, whatever) chafes against the harsh restrictions of the ballet world. Often resolved by having her turn to modern dance or ending up at a less traditional ballet company.
  3. Ballet dancer is torn between the all-consuming world of dance and her other interests (usually these “other interests” involve “having sex with people who aren’t ballet dancers”) . Always resolved by her leaving the dance world.
  4. One or more “nice girl” dancers compete against the resident bitch (who is almost always a better dancer than they are). If this is a story aimed at children or young adults, the resident bitch usually turns out to be not so bitchy after all.

Number five is “ballet dancer goes mad due to the pressures of the competitive ballet world,” which obviously The Red Shoes and Black Swan have cornered the market on, so if you’re not ripping off Center Stage then you’re ripping off one of those. There are also the stock characters that turn up again and again: the charismatic but emotionally distant (or manipulative) head of the company, the strict former dancer and current instructor, the naive blonde ingenue. I’ve been writing a story set at the San Francisco Ballet for, oh, about six years now . . . Every three months I realize what I’ve written sounds way too much like Center Stage and am forced to start from scratch. It might be time to just give up entirely.

Back to Bunheads: It also uses the same four plots as Center Stage and most of its stock characters, albeit in a more condensed form, as it follows Hannah, a young corps dancer at a New York ballet company. Hannah is torn between staying with the demanding dance world or giving it up to go to college, and has a love triangle to match (college student versus balletomane). The ending is never really in doubt; the story is more about how Hannah will get to that conclusion. Sophie Flack’s main draw is ostensibly that, as a former professional ballet dancer, she’s in the position to give us some inside knowledge. Unfortunately that insider’s knowledge largely consists of “Ballet dancers are always on a diet and they hate dancing the snowflake piece in The Nutcracker“–the latter of which can be discerned from basically any dancer’s autobiography and the former of which is obvious to anyone with eyes.

Ms. Flack herself was famously fired after several years dancing for the NYCB, and a handful of interviews make it clear just how autobiographical Bunheads is. But Sophie’s Hannah isn’t fired; she chooses her destiny on her own terms. You can sense that this book worked as a kind of therapy for Flack, allowing her to write herself a happier ending, allowing herself more power than she actually had. Nothing wrong with writing a book as therapy, except that they generally do more for the authors than for the readers, and that’s certainly true here. Maybe I’m being a touch harsh–this book probably worked just fine as a guilty pleasure for the young adult audience it’s aimed at. I would have loved it at 15. (Then again, I had a raging eating disorder at 15, so of course I would love this.) As for the adult me, I guess it’s back to watching Center Stage.

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