When it came to reading, I used to be all fiction, all the time. I loved (and still do love) the escapism, the imagination and the different writing styles that are all part of the genre. But a couple years ago I picked up my first memoir, Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone, the first of her three memoirs chronicling her food-influenced childhood up through her years as the NYT Restaurant Critic, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. These days, I think what pulls me into memoirs is that there must be an aspect that I can relate to or am interested in, as opposed to someone working in an industry or experiencing something I know nothing about. A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back, by David Hallberg, fell firmly into the former category, and was a captivating read.
My connection here comes from the subject matter: Hallberg is a professional ballet dancer, having danced with famed companies like the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. I was a dancer growing up, from age 3 to age 17, competing during my teens in styles like jazz, tap, lyrical and contemporary, but I was never much of a ballerina. While I did take ballet classes over the years, it was never with any particular vigor or passion; it was merely a way to work on technique and prepare a routine for the end-of-year recital. When I heard about A Body of Work, I was curious to learn about David’s passion and drive, as well as get a peek behind the curtain at what the life of a professional ballet dancer looks like, and this book did both and more.
The story begins with his childhood, detailing his discovery of and growing passion for ballet, his senior year of high school at the Paris Opera Ballet, working his way up to Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre, becoming the first American to join the Russian Bolshoi Ballet and finishing with his potentially career-altering injury, painful recovery and eventual return to the stage. I was struck by the intense pressure David put on himself and elicited from coaches throughout his career, and his constant and never-ending desire to improve and continue to challenge himself. His courage to repeatedly put himself in uncomfortable situations that could have been crippling or defeating for a weaker soul spoke so much to his dedication to his craft and his drive and passion for his work, and was incredibly inspiring. Although the physical reality of his life is very different than the experience of most people, I think these themes—the drive to improve, to challenge oneself, to overcome adversity—are easily applicable to anyone’s life.
There were a couple sections that I particularly enjoyed. The book opens with a chapter on daily classes, stressing the importance of taking class and maintaining technique even at the highest level. If I missed classes while I was competing I was required to take an extra technique class to make them up. And while it was sometimes annoying at the time (I had so many other activities!), this chapter really brought those experiences full circle, especially the fact that every technique class, no matter the level, is structured exactly the same way:
Class always has the same structure: barre followed by center work, during which we execute combinations of steps, some in one place and some moving across the entire studio. As they increase in complexity, class becomes more like a performance, with dancers caught between two desires: to show off to colleagues and to dance for the sheer bliss of moving (10).
The section about his relationship with the women who handmade his costumes at the Bolshoi Theatre in Russia was so charming. The fact that, no matter how many years had passed, he still experienced the same butterflies before a performance was so relatable. His nonstop schedule during portions of his career made me exhausted just thinking about it:
My free days, which were meant to be spent relaxing and recharging my fatigued body, were passed flying thousands of miles from one continent to another. My idea of a day off was stepping onto a plane and having ten to twelve hours ahead of me with nothing to do but eat, sleep and attempt to mentally and physically recharge…I would dance one week in Moscow, three weeks with ABT, two and a half weeks in Australia. Rinse and repeat (291).
David’s writing style is simultaneously emotional and restrained, which is very similar to the balance he had to strike each time he stepped on stage—portraying the emotional depth of a character while executing difficult, meticulously choreographed steps. But he didn’t hold anything back, making the book incredibly personal.
So now I’ve finally reached the exciting part: last night I attended an event about the book at Politics and Prose at the Wharf, a conversation between David and Michael Kaiser, the former president of the Kennedy Center here in D.C. Here’s David deep in thought before answering a question.
The talk was so interesting; he was incredibly thoughtful and well spoken, which came across in the book but even more so in person. When they opened it up for questions, I asked one, about something I had noticed that he did repeatedly in the book. He would spend pages and pages on the lead up to a performance, the pressure put on him by himself and others, the hours in the studio working on partnering and steps, the hopes he had for the way the audience would react. And then the performance would basically just happen. He said that this is literally what it’s like in real life; all the fear, work and anticipation is in the lead up, then the performance is over in the blink of an eye, and there’s truly no way to describe it.
He also talked about how at this point in his career, about a year after returning to dancing after his brutal recovery process from injury, he’s being much more careful and thoughtful in choosing his roles. He only wants to dance ballets that are both challenging and fulfilling, making each one of them a gift that he wasn’t sure he would ever receive. I think this mindset and position is one to aspire to, to reach a point in your life and career where you are able to make choices based on these parameters. Ahh, someday!
If you like ballet, if you like art, if you like stories of perseverance and passion, read this book. It was wonderful, fascinating and inspiring, and I highly recommend it!
One thought on “What I’m Reading: A Body of Work”
This memoir sounds amazing! I’ve recently started getting into non-fiction too and this sounds like my type of read. I really liked the question you asked him. Though I have never been a performer, I think this type of pressure and build up resounds with a lot of people. Thanks for your great review!
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