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Book Review

Dear, Just Do the Steps
A Review of Stephen Manes' 'Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet'

reviewed by Dean Speer

For those who secretly wish for carte blanche access to shadow and observe all of the inner and outer workings of a major ballet company, then Stephen Manes’ new volume, “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet” is for you. Author Manes was allowed full access for one year (2007-08) to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s inner circle, including board meetings, Company and School classes, rehearsals, staff meetings and performances. He also took a couple of excursions to other founts of ballet – Carlisle, Pennsylvania [Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet] and Monte Carlo [the current home of former PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico].

I believe that his premise is to give the general reader knowledge of how ballet works in order to demystify it and render it more accessible and meaningful to audiences.

Reading all 800-plus pages was for me like being given a special gift – to be a fly on the wall of a company and a cadre of people I’ve come to know and greatly admire over its entire history. First as a dancer, then as a teacher, as a subscriber, and now also as a writer. I feel that I know this company fairly intimately, so to be able to read in detail of its day-to-day operations is more than a little fun, and truly interesting.

Like a great Russian novel, you have to pay attention to the cast of characters, which is large and diverse.

Martha Graham liked to refer to dancers as “The acrobats of God.” It will come, though, as no surprise that this amazing pool of very hard-working and dedicated talent also has its human foibles. You’ll learn about ego but also compassion, humor, camaraderie, failures, frustrations, and triumphs. Also about different working styles and how nuanced and fragile communication can be. How artistic decisions can ultimately be very budget-driven.

You’ll enjoy reading about the pushes and pulls that come with a large organization that employs about 200 people, all of whom must get behind the enterprise to produce an artistic product. This product includes performances, the costumes, lighting, sets and music to go with them; the scheduling nightmares as stagers and choreographers generate multiple and often conflicting demands for space, personnel and resources; budgets, fundraising and marketing. How precious time is.

Peopled with extraordinary characters, we learn more about some than others. PNB School faculty member Bruce Wells is accorded his own chapter...number 51. Wells is someone to listen to; he knows his stuff and speaks well. Yet for all that, he has experienced bitter prejudice from mind-sets which he feels have prevented him from being the head of a major ballet company himself – although he has nearly been there a couple of times.

I have one suggestion and one concern. When dancers do let loose an excited utterance, typically out of frustration, sometimes to vent or to le toff some steam, is to not report these verbatim as he did here, but to use symbols instead. There is a fine line between knowing that someone swore -- and reading about it and taking it good-naturedly -- and having it flung at us. It also feeds the prejudice among the general population that artists are crude, vulgar people. This is a stereotype that Robert Joffrey fought for years. That’s the suggestion – to cut and paste where these bon mots occur in order to diminish their shock value.

The concern is that the book may simply be too long. I fear that the length may be daunting for the general reader, who, unless they know or come to know and care about the characters, may lose interest or run out of steam. I also feel Manes could better summarize what the year was like for him. What did he learn? What were the joys? What were the surprises? How does he feel differently now about dancers, ballet, and artists than he did before? He diligently reports in clear detail meetings or rehearsals but there isn’t a lot of emotional traction for us to cling to. In other words, sometimes his writing style comes across more like a book report than telling us a story...and it’s the story that’s compelling.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, this work is a unique contribution to the dance world -- one that Manes himself put a lot of thought and hard work into, committing himself to a year of ballet recording and reporting that shows that ballet and the arts are only achieved through very hard work and artistic triumphs are and can be truly one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. And with maybe one or two #*&%! along the journey.

“Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet” is not to be missed and will appeal to the general reader and certainly to those in tights and their supporting casts.

Stephen Manes has had a long career making arcane worlds accessible to the uninitiated. He was one of the creators and co-hosts of the weekly public television series Digital Duo. He co-wrote the bestselling and much-acclaimed biography Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry—and Made Himself the Richest Man in America. He wrote long-running columns on personal technology for The New York Times, Forbes, PC World, PC Magazine, and many other publications.

Manes is also the author of more than thirty books for children and young adults. His Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! won kid-voted awards in five states and is a curriculum staple in American and French schools. The sequel, Make Four Million Dollars by Next Thursday!, quickly became a Publishers Weekly bestseller. His books have been adapted for stage and television productions.

Manes has a degree in cinema from the University of Southern California. His writing credits for the screen include programs for ABC Television and KCET/Los Angeles, as well as the 70s classic 20th Century-Fox movie Mother, Jugs & Speed.

Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet by Stephen Manes
Performing Arts/Dance/Classical & Ballet • October 2011
Jacketed hardcover • 6" x 9" • 912 pages • monochrome photos throughout
U.S. $35.00/Canada $40.00
ISBN: 978-0-9835628-0-1 • Also available as an electronic book
Cadwallader & Stern
206 722-2525


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