Jacobs makes no assumptions about the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of ballet, but rather starts at the very beginning, much as dancers do each day, with its basic foundations. She provides a study of the five foot positions, narrated alongside a history dating back to the French court in the 1500s and tracing ballet’s centuries-long evolution, without lingering so long on any one era that she loses the reader in academic prose. It’s the perfect balance of historical context and cultural relevance.
Importantly, from the book’s first pages she captures the spirit of ballet as felt by its artists themselves: “Classical dance is grueling to master, and aspiring dancers often feel they are at war with their bodies. But the end result of daily training by endless rote, of technique pushed and perfected year after year, is the appearance of effortlessness, the banishment of strain — energy coherently and peacefully channeled. It is often said, ‘Ballet never becomes easy; it becomes possible.’” Written like a true dancer.
It’s from this insider’s perspective that Jacobs is able to offer an all-encompassing guided tour behind the curtain, then circling back to the auditorium where the balletomane, the occasional fan and the newcomer sit side by side as they interpret the performance according to their individual experiences and beliefs. “It is often one moment, one pattern or one step that opens meaning in a ballet,” she explains. “Go to any single ballet again and again and what you see will change, depending on how your own frame of reference expands through travel, film, books, music, art and life.”
There’s no denying that, when it comes to classical ballet, there is a lot to cover. How does a writer decide what and whom to include without leaving history — or the reader — behind? Jacobs stunningly figures it out, enhancing her many fascinating jewels of insight with those of dancers like Gillian Murphy, Deborah Wingert and Veronika Part, as well as complementary, clarifying illustrations throughout.
In a chapter deservedly devoted to pointe shoes, Jacobs enlightens us as to their subtle allure: “In all the performing arts, there is no memento like the satin pointe shoe, no other artifact so uniquely fitted to the stress of a living hour onstage and at the same time unfit to last much longer than that hour — or two or three hours.”
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