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First Position: A Century of Ballet Artists

Book by Toba Singer

review by Rosella Simonari

Review Published November 2008

“I do believe (…) in the importance of dance scholarship. Writing on dance can illuminate the past in a way that archival or dance film alone cannot”. With these words Bruce Marks, in the Foreword to Toba Singer’s book, First Position, highlights the value of researching and writing on dance, a practice that allows us to think of dance and dance questions in a different manner. That is a posteriori, after the event has taken place, whether just after a performance or ten years after the development of a movement, a work, a dancer. The dance community too often neglects this potential treasure. Singer’s book is a precious work in this sense. It groups together the lives, and personalities of fifteen great ballet dancers: Erick Bruhn, Alicia Alonso, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Anna Pavlova, Lin Cunxin, Gelsey Kirkland, Lázaro Carreño, Natalia Makarova, Maya Plisetskaya, Carlos Acosta, Muriel Maffre, Arthur Mitchell and Carla Fracci.

She explains in the Preface that she asked friends and colleagues to help her to choose the figures upon whom to focus. “To make the process as democratic, objective, and authoritative as possible, I polled a cross section of choreographers, teachers, administrators, and ballet students, active and retired dancers, balletomanes, dance historians, and writers. They served as my nominating committee”. She then  proceeded to consult archives and libraries as well as do interviews with some of these stars who are fortunately still alive, like Alicia Alonso and Carla Fracci. The result is a beautiful ballet history book that crosses countries, customs and ballet techniques and has an absolute devotion to dance.

We find out what it must have been like to be a ballet dancer in Denmark when we follow Erick Bruhn’s achievements, his passion for music, seen as “his confessor”, and his problematic relationship with women. We travel to Cuba where a small girl called Alicia Alonso decided to be a ballet dancer as soon as she went on pointe. At 19 she was told she should not dance any longer, because of her recurrent eye problems, but she never listened to that advice and her incredible “willingness to work hard” allowed her to become a star. Two other Cuban dancers are included in Singer’s book, Lázaro Carreño and Carlos Acosta. In a way, they represent the two generations following Alonso’s career. Carreño studied at the Vaganova Institute in Russia and became a distinguished dancer and teacher; Acosta had a splendid career that took him to the Royal Ballet and other independent enterprises such as the creation of a semi-autobiographical dance called Tocororo. In fact, Acosta’s flying image graces the book cover, the same stunning photograph that Jason Bell took for the Royal Opera House and that many London based people probably remember seeing around the city a few years ago.

Singer’s book also brings us to other countries rich in formidable dancers, such as Russia where we find out about Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Maya Plisetskaya. In particular, we understand Nureyev’s difficult childhood, his will to do, his courage in leaving his country, and  we feel the sexual energy emanating from his performances. We get to know Mikhail Baryshnikov, Misha, through his hyperactivity, his incredible energy on and off stage and his constant need to experiment with new ways of moving. Other countries include the United States with Gelsey Kikland and Arthur Mitchell, France with Muriel Maffre, China with Li Cunxin, England with Margot Fonteyn and Italy with Carla Fracci. First Position is an exciting journey through time and space, done with the lightness of a ballon and the scope of a grand jeté, showing us these great dancers, their lives, their sacrifices, their achievements.

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