Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bunheads by Sophie Flack

* * * 1/2

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As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet company, nineteen year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances, and complicated backstage relationships.  But when she meets a spontaneous and irresistibly cute musician named Jacob, her universe begins to change.

Until now Hannah has followed the company’s unofficial mantra, “Don’t think, just dance.” But has her relationship with Jacob intensifies, so do the pressures within the company.  With her eyes newly opened to the world beyond the theater, Hannah must decide whether to compete against other “bunheads” for a star soloist spot or to strike out on her own.

I’ll begin by saying that I honestly have no interest in ballet whatsoever. I mean, I admire and appreciate that it’s a very demanding and disciplined art form and that the performers aside from their obvious talent must put in hours and hours of training to become worthy of the stage. Reading Bunheads therefore, was simply a curiosity about a world so foreign to me. Sophie Flack brings her own experience as a ballerina that’s both engaging and eye opening showing that in the end, the creation of a masterpiece is wrought out of literal blood, sweat and tears.

Hannah Ward has wanted to be a ballerina all her life and has dedicated herself body and soul to that endeavor.  Flack has described in amazing detail the intense training and grueling schedule that goes on in this very competitive world. It seems that being still is not an option – when they’re not rehearsing or in class, they’re working out their bodies to the brink of total exhaustion to maintain their slender figures. Hannah and her close friends embrace this with open arms and push themselves to the limit daily.

The shift in focus comes when Hannah meets Jacob on a rare night away from the ballet company. In meeting him, he sparks a curiosity within her to see life from the “pedestrian” perspective i.e. a non-ballet person. At this point opportunities come knocking and Hannah must decide what her priority is – to dance or to have a life.

It’s tough reading about the sacrifices Hannah makes in order to get what she thinks she wants. With how many times she has blown him off in favor of getting ahead in her career it’s surprising how patient Jacob is about wanting to be with her.
But what’s most eye opening is how the strict expectations mess with the dancers’ psyche.

Aside from maintaining her stamina and strength, she must also maintain a certain weight and somehow stop her body from going through puberty. As an outsider reading this it’s distressing. Body issues are inevitable but in the ballet arena, an ounce of weight gain or growing breasts are seen as hindrances.  I felt for Hannah here as she struggled with this. I think anyone who is competitive and driven will recognize the steadfast determination and choices faced by all the characters in this book.

Despite the ugly side of this life, it’s beautiful to read about the euphoria Hannah feels when she’s on stage. Even all the physical pain she endures every day can’t take away from her the love of performing. Keeping all of this in perspective, she ultimately has to examine what exactly she wants out of her life and how far she’s willing to go to make it happen.

~ Bel

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