Dancers of 'White Swan, Black Swan' Drown in a Lake of Cliches


The world of classical ballet--a world that is both rarefied and prosaic--is difficult to render realistically in literature or film, and easy to exaggerate, caricature or simply get wrong. Many attempts to re-create the world of dance call to mind Susan Sontag's definition of "camp" as "seriousness that fails." Alas, to a genre littered with such failures, Adrienne Sharp's debut collection of stories, "White Swan, Black Swan," proves no exception. Sharp, a Los Angeles writer and former ballet student, fills her tales with iconic figures such as George Balanchine and Rudolf Nureyev, but she can neither illuminate the "real" world of ballet nor create fictional characters that are believable or interesting.

Many of Sharp's stories focus on dissolving romantic relationships. In the title story (which alludes to "Swan Lake"), a tempestuous married couple tediously fights, splits, reunites, fights, splits. In "Wili," a young dancer cheats on her boyfriend, whom she may or may not leave, while she spends the night with her recently widowed sister. In "Prince of Desire," a brother and sister--both dancers--hang out in San Diego, while he tries to absorb the fact that his marriage is over. ("'So what does being divorced feel like?' James asked.... 'It feels bad,' Joanna said, after a pause.")

There is nothing to distinguish these banal tales from those found in any women's magazine; there is nothing they tell us about contemporary romance that we do not already know. But the deeper problem is that, although Sharp's protagonists are dancers, dancing has no organic relationship with the stories themselves; for Sharp, the ballet world functions as a sort of exotic locale, an irritatingly romanticized backdrop rather than a determinant of character. The bickering, often disappointed men and women in this collection could as easily be computer programmers or doctors or factory workers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the best story in this collection takes place outside the dance world. "In the Kingdom of the Shades" is narrated by Sandra Ellis, a depressed young dancer who finds herself on "an unmagnificent leave of absence from the company" after overdosing on Valium. She's recuperating with her father, who is himself attempting to recover from his wife's abandonment. Sandra loathes her father's blowsy new beautician girlfriend and is puzzled, if not largely annoyed, by the attentions of his lumbering graduate assistant. But in a moving denouement, she comes to realize that these two not particularly likable people are, in a sense, her father's offerings of love, his attempt to give her what he believes she needs: "I know what he has written on that tablet. That he is determined to save me.... That he'll do anything to keep me, turn my mattress upside down, procure me a boyfriend, find me a new mother."

And the most egregious stories are those in which historic ballet figures are central. "Don Quixote," which retells the story of Balanchine's unrequited passion for Suzanne Farrell, reduces one of the 20th century's greatest artists to a lovelorn cliche. "The Immortals: Margot + Rudolf 4 Ever" focuses on the partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev;; what we learn is that Fonteyn's playboy husband treated her badly and that Nureyev enjoyed anonymous homosexual encounters. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a ludicrously stylized faux-memoir by the British Romantic choreographer Frederick Ashton. In "A Short Season," Russian dancer Alexander Godunov lurches between Russia, New York and California in an alcoholic haze.

It is perhaps not surprising that one of the "sources" Sharp cites is People magazine; she also, confusingly, tells us that "some of the characters' remarks have been taken from interviews, though most are fictitious." In any case, these supposedly fact-based stories are infuriatingly lazy. Sharp seems to think that our pre-existing interest in the geniuses of dance absolves her of the responsibility to reimagine their lives with creative intelligence; instead, she strips them of meaning, depth and specificity and turns them into the literary equivalent of brand names. These stories are also filled with inadvertently hilarious lines: Sharp has Balanchine--who was by all accounts a master of decorum--describing Farrell as his "pussycatfish," while Ashton melodramatically bemoans the ravages of old age and wonders, "Where are my teeth?" Failed seriousness indeed.

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