FIRST POSITION: A CENTURY OF BALLET ARTISTS
Book by Toba Singer
“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 which 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 life, and personality 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 out choosing the figures to focus on. “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”. And then she proceeded consulting archives and libraries as well as doing 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 which crosses countries and customs, ballet techniques and an absolute devotion to dance.
We find out what it must have been like to be a ballet dancer in Denmark following 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 which took him to the Royal Ballet and other independent enterprises such as the creation of a semi-autobiographical dance called Tocororo. Furthermore, it is his flying image which is represented in 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 see Nureyev’s difficult childhood, his will to do, his courage in leaving his country and also 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 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 and it is 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.
Hardcover: Praeger, Westport, 2007, pp. 264, illus., $ 49.95. ISBN 978-0-275-98391-8.