When 18-year-old Stephanie Lang, promising young ballerina and heroine of "Ballerina," is offered a place with a leading ballet company, her mother forces her to turn to down for a less-lucrative slot with a not-so-prestigious troupe. "You'll be seen. You'll be reviewed," argues mom, knowing well her daughter's star will be more visible in a less-brilliant galaxy.
And so, Anna Barlow Lang continues the single-minded task she began almost as soon as Stephanie was old enough to do plies in her playpen -- ruthlessly building her daughter's career.
Anna, as you might have guessed, was one of those ballerinas cut down in her prime -- married a no-account man, lived through poerty, sold magazine subscriptions to pay for her little girl's dancing lessons. And now she's determined Stephanie will succeed where she failed.
You know the story. You've heard it a thousand times. And that's the problem with "Ballerian." It offers nothing new on the subjects of stage mothering, friendship, ambition or dance. Instead we have a hodgepodge of dance-world themes already hackneyed from over-exposure: competition between ballerinas, homosexuality among male dancers, hard-nosed ballet mistresses with even harder canes. There's even the requisite Russian male bravura dancer who defects and then proceeds to sleep with anyone in New York who has either money or a pair of pointe shoes.
"Ballerina" apparently has been written to cash in on today's almost unprecedented balletomania, which may itself have as much to do with public cravings for romantic idols as with any actual artistic interest in dance.
Balletomanes will find much more appetizing and substantial fare in VICKI Baum's "Theme for Ballet," written in 1958 and reissued now in paperback for much the same reason that "Ballerina" is being published.
"Theme" concerns an aging (46-year-old) ballerina, Katja Milenkaya, who is struggling to keep her place on stage and maintain her much-neglected 11-year marriage to a scientist who understands very little of his wife's life as a dancer. Eventually, Katja must choose between her marriage and her career. Throughout the story of Katja's present dilemma is woven the narrative of her past.
It is a rich past, beginning with a Vienna childhood when she was a student at the Opera. She has been associated with many of Europe's most exciting masters of technique and choreography, even basked in some of Diaghilevs' reflected light. All of it is a fabric worth examining, and Katja, at a crossroads in her life, spends a lot of time doing just that. Many of her old associates, now refugees from the upheavals of mid-20th century Europe, work with her in New York, providing daily reminders of what she and they once were. Only one, her perfect partner, Grisha, "the boy, the brother, the friend; Grigory Kuprin of the posters and bills -- 'The Greatest dancer since Nijinsky,'" is gone, victim of "the accident" which serves as a climax of Katja's remembered past.
The simple life and wife her husband craves seems to us modern creatures dated and downright chauvinistic, and when Katja succumbs -- realizes that "being a success in ballet is no excuse for being a flop in... most everything else" -- we can't help questioning her either/or logic. The fact of her middle-age takes any real edge off Katja's conflict between career and domesticity, so that "Theme's" happy ending is unsatisfying.
Even so, "Theme for Ballet" makes good reading. It's a solidly entertaining ballet novel with plenty of romance, a dash of schlock and best of all, some real complexity.