reviewed by Heather Desaulniers
I am a sucker for a good dance book. And though I enjoy all types - academic, critique, fiction - those that follow a dancer's life and career are my absolute favorite. It comes from seeing performers onstage, wanting to understand their journey and marvel at their achievements. Because I love these personal histories so much, I am keenly aware of those that are particularly outstanding and those that are just not. Renée E. D'Aoust's "Body of a Dancer" (coming soon from Etruscan Press) definitely falls into the former category. D'Aoust chronicles her time in New York as a pre-professional modern dance student at the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance with humor, honesty and heart.
D'Aoust's writing style is witty and engaging, so much so that this reader couldn't and didn't want to put the book down. But, more importantly, "Body of a Dancer" fills a void in the dance literature that has existed for far too long. Most dance biographies (with a few exceptions) relay the life-story of principal dancers and choreographic 'stars'. With this new venture, D'Aoust has widened that focus group to include the masses of serious pre-professional students. These are the dancers who study everyday, win coveted spots at esteemed institutions, travel to the best summer intensives and audition for the great teachers. They have been completely under-represented and now, thanks to Renée E. D'Aoust, their story is being told. Any dancer who ever flirted with the idea of becoming a professional will see themselves in this book, remember similar experiences and find comfort in the notion of community.
"Body of a Dancer" is structured into fourteen short sections, which are aptly and cleverly referred to as the overture, twelve individual acts and the coda. Each chapter is its own event, yet at the same time relates to the overall story being told. This unique format allows the book to be both a collection of essays and a complete work of writing. Although Act Two (titled, "Attending a Wedding, NYC") did not focus on studio life, it was an incredible vignette. In it, D'Aoust relays her experience working for a catering company at a very well-to-do New York City wedding. This reality of random, odd jobs is all too familiar for any pre-professional student or dancer beginning their career. As D'Aoust filled the important role of bathroom attendant for this romantic production, she became much more throughout the day: janitor, concierge, guest and comfort.
D'Aoust eloquently describes the spectrum of feelings that a dancer experiences during the serious examination of Graham technique. She takes the reader through it all; from inherent contradiction to deep love to mystical force. Against the classroom backdrop - mastering the back spiral; achieving true contraction; maintaining pulled pleadings - D'Aoust speaks to the physical, emotional and mental challenge that is Graham technique. She shares how advanced study can feel like an elusive game of hide and seek, where the student longs to truly embody the movement and thus, diligently searches for the hidden key - sometimes it is found and sometimes it isn't.
As the end of the book draws near, the broader meaning within the title comes to light. The "Body of a Dancer" certainly refers to and encompasses the physical understanding, training and utilization of the mover's 'instrument'. However, as D'Aoust reveals in her wonderful memoir, the "Body of a Dancer" is also shaped by an entire life led both inside and outside the studio. It is these combined experiences that truly comprise the "Body of a Dancer".
"Body of a Dancer" is available now for pre-release purchase on the Etruscan Press website:
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