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Bunheads by Sophie FlackIt’s been sitting on my bookshelf since last January, eyeing me temptingly and saying, “you know you want to read me” — it being a glossy hardback copy of Sophie Flack’s debut novel, Bunheads. Yet, I didn’t read it. I didn’t even crack it open to read the insert. I was caught up in the frenzy that is New York City and then, unexpectedly, I was planning a cross-country move to Denver. I packed the book in a box with the rest of my eclectic library and told myself I would get to it when I had time, something I never seemed to have in surplus…until now.

After being injured back in October, I turned to my writing and reading to maintain my sanity and occupy my time. So there Bunheads sat, once again beckoning me to indulge. I would steal away to my bedroom, slightly embarrassed by my overwhelming curiosity to read a young adult novel with the  kitschy title Bunheads, and dive into Hannah Ward’s life at the Manhattan Ballet. I read the book in three days — go ahead and judge if you must.

The story dives into the dazzling, yet dark world of an elite New York City-based ballet troupe, the Manhattan Ballet. Its central characters are members of the corps de ballet: ambitious, young, sometimes misguided, and all yearning to catch the attention of Artistic Director Otto Klein. We enter this world through the eyes of Hannah Ward, a nineteen-year-old with a lot of potential and an affinity for literature. As the story unfolds, we meet her circle of neurotic, caffeine-hyped, driven friends: the diet-crazy Daisy, the reliable and quiet Beatrice “Bea” Hall, and the wealthy, entitled Zoe Mortimer.

About a year ago, I interviewed Flack for Dance Informa. She claimed that while there were elements of herself in Hannah, the novel was not an exact autobiographical recount of her time spent at the New York City Ballet. Yet, I can’t help notice the many similarities —I don’t know Flack personally, so I only have superficial evidence to go on. Hannah appears to encapsulate many of the physical qualities and interests that Flack has. Hannah is tall, blonde, with subtle curves to her figure, much like Flack. She loves to write and read and she has an interest in life outside of the studio, much like Flack.

From an analytical aspect, I wanted Flack to incorporate elements of a dancer’s life more subtly into the story, rather than taking the reader on frequent tangents to explain terminology, behavioral patterns, and routine occurrences specific to ballet. But my intentions are not to critique Flack. Overall, she displays an aptitude for the written word and for story telling — I have no doubt she will enjoy many successes beyond her ballet career. Her focus within the novel doesn’t appear to be entirely centered on the drama and glamour of the ballet world, but rather, the journey of Hannah. She’s a character with core contradictions: imperfect, selfish, yet empathic and confused. Of all of the corps de ballet dancers we meet in her book, Hannah feels the most real. You root for her and care about what happens to her.

“Your job is not to live. Your job is to dance,” says Manhattan Ballet’s ballet mistress, Annabelle Hayes. It’s an all-consuming profession in which, to be successful, a dancer has to give everything he or she has plus more. Yet, Hannah isn’t so sure she wants to continue to sacrifice her body and mind. This is a very real issue in the ballet world, one that struck a personal chord. Maybe it’s because I’m injured at the moment and have too much time to think. Or maybe, in some unexpected way, the novel connected some dots for me, shedding light on something that is at the very core of my own ballet career.

I never went to prom — or any high school dance for that matter — I spent my evenings and weekends in a dance studio and my summers away at ballet intensives. During my senior year, I moved away from my hometown of Atlanta to study at Houston Ballet Academy. When I returned to walk with my graduating class, many of my classmates weren’t sure who I was or where I came from.

Perhaps I’m bold for addressing this issue. But I’m not doing so to ruffle feathers. I’m simply confused because I always felt different than many of my dance colleagues, like something was wrong with me. Finding balance between my relationship with dance and a relationship with other things in life is a continuous uphill struggle. The sacrifices, hours and money spent on cross training, passing on social engagements to stay home and rest, watching my diet…I always choose ballet, but it’s never enough. My devotion has been continuously questioned by many throughout my career. Why? Because I like to write? Because I like to bake? Because I want to finish my college degree? Does that really make me less committed?

Musicians, painters, poets, writers, actors, other artists use life to inspire and inform their art. But, in dance, we are asked to solely use dance as our artistic compass. How can a dancer ever portray Juliet if she has never been in love?

At {Dd}, we like to believe we can have our cake and eat it too, so to speak. What I’m trying to say is that I want to be able to explore other interests, dive into the non-dancer world, and not have my devotion and love for ballet questioned—I want to have it both ways. But I am no longer sure I can. I am perplexed about where this mentality originates and how it manages to still permeate the ballet world.

I’m coming to a crossroads in which I think I have to make the hardest decision of my life; I think I have to choose between dance and my other interests. So, for those of you reading this, I pose that very question. Can we have it both ways as dancers? Can we pursue other interests in life and still be completely committed to the art form we love? And if we can’t, why does it have to be so? As dance evolves in so many interesting ways, shouldn’t the mentality associated with the profession progress as well?

Also check out Matthew’s recount of meeting Flack during a special event at Chelsea Market.

Written by Stephanie Wolf

Stephanie Wolf

An Atlanta native, Stephanie Wolf has performed professionally with the Minnesota Ballet, James Sewell Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, and Wonderbound (formerly Ballet Nouveau Colorado). She has a BA in Liberal Studies from St. Mary’s College of California. Her writing has been published in national and regional media outlets, including Dance Informa, Indianapolis Star, and the Twin Cities Daily Planet. Currently, Stephanie lives in Denver, where she is a public radio producer and reporter. She loves bluegrass, cooking, Netflix, and owls.