Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #1

Spring Book Corner

Selection #1
Ballet Class: An American History
by Melissa R. Klapper
published by Oxford University Press
available March 2020

Ask any school-aged child about their current extra-curricular classes or the camps they attend over summer vacation - the sheer volume and variety is certain to astound. Ceramics, coding, debate, organic gardening, disc golf, cello. The seemingly endless list of possibilities grows every day. And yet, some of the traditional favorites always seem to remain popular amongst the group. Like soccer, piano and ballet. It is to this last option, the recreational pursuit of classical dance, that Melissa R. Klapper looks in her new book, Ballet Class: An American History, available this month from Oxford University Press.

Ballet Class is a thoroughly delightful and informative read - a well-rounded study that looks at ballet class through several different lenses. For dance history buffs, significant attention is paid to the early days of ballet class and the events that drove its rise and popularity. From the establishment of the big schools like Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and the School of American Ballet to the historic touring artists who introduced ballet to a wide audience in the States to the different ballet traditions and forms that were brought into regional and local studios from other parts of the globe. I particularly enjoyed Klapper’s comment on page sixty-five that, “No given technique was necessarily superior.” I wholeheartedly agree, but wonder if today’s teachers (and those from decades past) would concede or insist that their syllabus is the best!

Twelve impeccably researched chapters (plus extras), Klapper’s investigation does not shy away from the tough issues and heavy realities of ballet class. She tackles its lack of racial diversity, gender stereotypes and imbalances, implications of visibility, sexuality, the socio-economic realities of participation and the tension between it and modern dance. She delves into individual personhood, suggesting the different internal truths that might linger in the psyche after time spent at the barre. Both positive and negative. Certainly it is a space that can spur concentration and discipline, encourage artistic expression and nurture joy of movement but sadly, at the same time, can simultaneously give rise to body dysmorphia and condone infantilizing interactions.

Ballet Class is an academic book to be sure, but has a very approachable style. The prose isn’t full of seven-syllable words, something commonly found in similar studies. And Klapper’s writing is very conversational – throughout Ballet Class, you feel like you are having an in person dialog with her. The only thing missing for me was a bit more attention to the general structure as well as thorough descriptions of the exercises that make up a typical ballet class. Yes, there is an early chapter (entitled Ballet Class 101) that has some of this information, but seeing as how the entire book is dedicated to ballet class, a more detailed illustration seems like it would be an appropriate, and helpful, addition.