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Friday, May 11, 2012

'Bunheads' by Sophie Flack

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

In a crowd of beautiful and talented dancers, how can one girl stand out? An irresistible debut novel about life at one of the world's best ballet companies.

On-stage beauty. Backstage drama.

As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet Company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances and complicated backstage relationships.

Up until now, Hannah has happily devoted her entire life to ballet. But when she meets a handsome musician named Jacob, Hannah's universe begins to change and she must decide if she wants to compete against the other 'bunheads' in the company for a star soloist spot or strike out on her own in the real world.

Does she dare give up the gilded confines of the ballet for the freedoms of everyday life?


When she was eight-years-old, Hannah’s dance instructor told her young students to “Dance each step as if it were your last.” Hannah didn’t know what she meant then, but now that she is nineteen-years-old and apart of the corps de ballet of the Manhattan Ballet Company, she is starting to understand the truth behind those words.

The corps de ballet dancers are not ‘real’ ballerinas – they are the dancers behind the true stars, the real prima ballerinas who dance solos and are the rock-stars of the company. Hannah, along with her friends, all dance in the background in the hopes of being promoted to soloists. And the person to impress at the Manhattan Ballet Company, to rise in the ranks and stand out from the corps, is Otto Klein – retired dancer, now choreographer extraordinaire.

A dancer’s life is a short one. Injury looms, as does cut-throat backstage backstabbing – not to mention old age and human frailties. Hannah knew she wanted to be a ballet dancer when she was ten. She has been studying and dancing in Manhattan since she was fourteen. Now she is nineteen and desperate for all her hard-working dreams to pay off. But her time is running out, her dreams have an expiry date and she doesn’t know if it will ever be her time to shine. . .

So, when Hannah meets Jacob, a struggling musician and perpetual college student, she doesn’t know if he’s a beautiful distraction or potential disaster. He’s beautiful and kind, funny and sincere, and the first boy Hannah has ever fallen for . . .

But pretty soon, all signs point to disaster.

Otto takes an interest in Hannah, and there are whispers in the company that she might just get her first solo. That means dedicating hours to yoga for muscle strengthening, and bikram yoga for weight loss. She has to practice as much as she can, and that means less and less time for beautiful boy Jacob.

Now Hannah has a decision to make – between the life she always thought she wanted and the one she has tasted, with Jacob.

‘Bunheads’ is the debut young adult novel from Sophie Flack.

Ms Flack began dancing at the age of seven, and when she was fourteen was awarded a full scholarship to attend the School of American Ballet. She danced with the New York City Ballet from 2000 until 2009. None of this surprises me – because ‘Bunheads’ is an exquisitely detailed journey into the life of a dancer – the ups and downs, highs and lows, sacrifices and devastation's that make up a life dedicated to one of the most grueling art forms.

Hannah shares a dressing room with her close friends – Bea, Daisy, Leni and Zoe. Leni is the oldest of them, and knows she will never be more than corps. But for the rest of her friends, the epitome of success is becoming a soloist. Hannah’s biggest competition for promotion is Zoe; a New York socialite of willowy form and many admirers. Zoe and Hannah are well-matched in their techniques, and are forever being played off one another and made to compete for parts. But when Otto Klein casts them both as understudies in his new dance, they know that the tides are turning for one of them . . . Never mind that Hannah and Zoe are also best friends – when it comes to the Company, they both know that only one of them can come out on top.

Flack has written a fantastically complex rivalry between Hannah and Zoe – ‘frenemy’ is an understatement. Zoe uses psychological warfare without remorse; she throws temper tantrums and spits verbal barbs, yet all of her ‘friends’ take it on the chin. They know that ballet can bring out the worst in dancers – and that when it comes to getting ahead in the Company, there is no such thing as playing nice. As a reader, we can understand that Hannah’s friendship with Zoe is very close to a toxic one – but she simply accepts Zoe’s dubious role in her life as friend, bordering on rival. It’s just one of the many ways that Hannah’s dancing life is distorted from the real world – where lines blur between friend and enemy, and she can’t really trust anyone to be completely sincere or without malice.

One of Hannah’s far and few ‘true’ friends at the Company is gruff stagehand, Harry, and his daughter Mattie who dreams of being a ballerina like Hannah. In Mattie, Hannah remembers what it was to think of dancing and ballet in a dreamy way; before the backstabbing, long hours and poor castings;
I look down at this smiling little girl in her pigtails and dirty tutu. Her face shines with delight. The theatre must seem like a magical world to her – I know it did to me. When I first became an apprentice, I wanted to sleep on the stage, under the rows of lights that glittered like far-off planets. Sometimes when no one was around, I'd sit on the edge with my legs dangling into the orchestra pit and look out in awe at the vast, empty house with its carved, gilded ceiling and crystal chandeliers.

But the sheen is wearing off for Hannah. She is nineteen now, has been dancing in the corps de ballet for a few years, but is desperate to be more. I thought Flack’s insight into the nuts and bolts of ballet life was phenomenal. Flack does a fantastic job of bringing this ethereal profession down into reality – she writes about the injuries and long hours, and the unglamorous behind-the-scenes of beloved productions. For instance, Hannah and most in the corps hate dancing The Nutcracker (even though it’s the annual production that sells out every night). One of the many reasons for their hatred is dancing the back-up roles of ‘snow’, especially when the fake snow that falls from the ceiling is recycled every night, and along with the fake white flakes falls dust and debris collected from the stage. But that’s nothing compared to the grueling schedule;
And it’s always like this. For the corps de ballet, dancing The Nutcracker becomes like a tag team as dancers get injured: The uninjured girls have to double up their parts until they, too, become injured, and then those girls are replaced by others who have to double up, until everyone is doing two or three times the number of parts they were meant to do. If you’re not injured, you’re exhausted, sick, or plain burned out. Jonathan and Luke call it The Nutfucker, which I think is totally appropriate.

It’s little wonder then, that when Jacob catches Hannah’s eye she is more than a little tempted. In trying to properly woo Hannah, Jacob keeps hitting roadblocks with her busy schedule and training regime – and for the first time in her life, Hannah realizes that ballet is her life. She has nothing else. She devotes everything to a profession that seems determined to overlook her hard work;
“I love being onstage. But it’s so painful feeling invisible,” I tell her.
“I see you, Ballettӓnzerin,” she says softly. “You are not invisible.”
But I must be – how else can I explain the way I was overlooked?

I will say that the romance between Hanna and Jacob wasn’t as interesting as Flack’s behind-the-scenes of ballet life. To be fair, Hannah struggling to find time for Jacob is crucial to her story – but I did wish for more romance between them, at least to justify Jacob’s incredible persistence in wooing a girl who hardly gives him the time of day.

Comparisons to movies like ‘Centre Stage’ and ‘Black Swan’ are inevitable. But I feel like those films are about the exception, and Flack is writing the rule. In ‘Centre Stage’ and ‘Black Swan’, audiences come in at the high-point in the dancer’s life – when they’re plucked from the class to dance in the rogue choreographer’s new, contemporary production, or the shy girl is given a chance to be the star of a classic production (if she can tap into her own sexuality). ‘Bunheads’ feels like the far truer story – about the struggling dancer, forever in the shadows. Hannah has dedicated her life to dance – she moved out of home at fourteen to board at dance school in New York. She hasn’t had the high school experience of other kids her age – Jacob is the first boy she has ever liked, for crying out loud! She is not your typical nineteen-year-old, thanks to ballet. ‘Centre Stage’ and ‘Black Swan’ are about that trigger moment when a dancer goes from corps to ballerina – but ‘Bunheads’ is far more interesting for following a dancer who is toiling in the background, trying to claw her way into the spotlight, but also wondering if it’s all worth it?

‘Bunheads’ is a fantastic read. To ‘pedestrian’ outsiders, ballet is such an otherworldly profession – the dancers are the finest of physical specimens, forever graceful and beautiful. Flack ‘lifts the tutu’, if you will, on the world of ballet. Through Hannah she explores how dancing sometimes isn’t enough – some sacrifices are too great, and a life-time dedication shouldn’t feel like a life-sentence. Flack’s prose is also beautiful – Hannah’s voice is so strong and her articulation of what dancing means to her, of the dreams she had, just gorgeous (“the rows of lights that glittered like far-off planets”). Part of the strength of ‘Bunheads’ is that Flack knows this world – she is revealing something about it to the reader, the unknown nitty-gritty and behind-the-scenes truth . . .  that being said, Flack’s writing is so good and captivating, beyond just the subject matter. I’m eager to read whatever she writes next, ballet or no, because I think her voice is one to listen out for in the young adult genre.

4.5/5

2 comments:

  1. Fabulous review, Danielle! You really write some of the best reviews. I have this on my TBR and I'm so glad that it spoke true and hit all the right points. I really like reading about and watching dancey stuff, so I was excited about this release. Probably considering the protagonist is 19 you'd be expecting a bit more in the way of romance? That's fine with me, I don't always need a steamy, all-consuming romance. ;) Also, you chose great quotes!

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    1. Aw, thank you Cass!
      I am really into 'dancey stuff' at the moment (thanks to 'Dance Academy'!). I was hoping for more romance when I started reading the book... but, honestly, Flack does such a good job of illustrating why this isn't your typical 19-year-old girl, and why she doesn't know how to respond to her first real crush, that I didn't think the book lacked because of the unromantic focus. Bump it up the TBR :)

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