Saturday, May 10, 2014

Review: Ballerina by Edward Stewart

My first thought after reading the description of Ballerina by Edward Stewart is that it was a modern version of The Turning Point with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine. I was wrong.

The story is about Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery, aspiring ballerinas in New York City in the 1970s, which is the time that The Turning Point was filmed, and also mentioned in the last half of the book. Where Bancroft and MacLaine faced off after about 20 years of guarded friendship and rivalry, Steph and Chris are beginning their journey through the ranks of young girls struggling to learn from the best and brightest, gaining positions in New York ballet companies, and braving the rough waters of career, dance, and men, and not always successfully.

Chris is the daughter of a very wealthy family from Chicago. Her parents are resigned to allowing Chris to pursue ballet and have agreed to Steph's mother's compromise of letting Chris live with them while training and working. Chris's parents never show up for any of the big moments in Chris's life: premieres, opening nights, etc. and she remains in many ways a  scared and immature child even to the point of being horribly backward.

Steph is the product of genetics (both parents were ballet dancers in the 1950s) and her mother's failed ballet career. Anna Barlow Lang was going somewhere until Marius Volmar fired her and her husband. Neither could get a break after that and Anna poured all of her time and attention into Steph's career, starting at the age of 3 or 4. Anna pushes and manipulates Steph so Steph can have the career Anna always wanted and works to recreate her past in her daughter, regardless of what Steph wants.

There are men in the mix as well, from Marius Volmar, the director of National Ballet Theater, to the young men who want to be part of Steph and Chris's lives and either fail to understand what it means to be a dancer or get caught up mixing the business, pleasure, and passion of ballet. It is a heady -- and often destructive -- life fraught with friendship walking the tightrope of dance and emotion. Add in blackmail and a defector from the Kirov in Communist Russia and you have the quintessential late 20th century ballet novel.

Michael Stewart first published Ballerina in 1978, which is why the novel seemed to be more a product of the 1970s instead of merely depicting the times. The novel is full of ballet references in French, of course, and is not a quick read. One must pay attention and be familiar with the terminology, or willing to stop and look all the words up. What Stewart does very well is portray the world behind the scenes in all its glorious shades of light and dark, and there is a lot of dark to go around.

Stewart's characters may be true to life for the times, but I doubt that little has changed in ballet. Chris and Steph exist on coffee, cigarettes, bee pollen, and honey for that quick burst of energy. Anna Barlow Lang is as determined and manipulative a ballet mother as one could hope for (or fear) and Marius Volmar is intent on one thing -- his vision of ballet as art -- and just as manipulative and vicious as Anna.

Steph and Chris are supportive and kind, but Chris's constant fears of inadequacy wear dangerously thin and tend toward whining while Steph, although at times anxious and struggling, is more assertive and willing to let go and fly as she struggles to break free of her mother's machinations.

Predictably, there are gay chorus boys carping and venomous in their relationship with soloists who attempt to play both sides of the sexual game and excess and eccentricities to satisfy ballet lovers and voyeurs. Ballerina has something for everyone in its sometimes glacial pace and the ending is pure fairy tale with a surprising maturity and grace. Ballerina is still as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 1970s and often just as much fun -- and sad and complex and perplexing and -- ballet.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Through the Grapevine

The past week has been full of surprises, thrills, and chills -- as is most every week lately. Through the grapevine, I heard that my oldest son, David Scott, was assaulted and in the hospital having abdominal surgery. Evidently, he was carjacked, beaten with a baseball bat, and waited 24 hours to go to the hospital. I asked him why he waited and he said he thought he could just suck it up. He's sucked up a lot over the years when he had stabbed himself with a knife to add veracity to his stories (yes, there were multiple episodes) that he had been accosted, assaulted, stabbed, and whatever he came back without (usually my possessions or someone else's) were stolen, but he fought hard to get them back. Of course, the money and/or things (my car radio, tools, etc.) were never retrieved, but the stab wounds (usually in his thigh) were bloody and his pants ripped, but then who doesn't have ripped pants in their closet or drawer since that is considered high fashion. Blood is just fodder for the story that inevitably follows.

Okay, so David Scott is in the hospital on a ventilator and has undergone major abdominal surgery for a bucket handle tear of his intestines, which the doctors had to go in and rearranged, closing the tear, and his belly is still open with a wound VAC attached. He has been in surgery 3x since then and I haven't yet heard about the results of the surgery yesterday because they hadn't taken him in yet when I called right before starting work. It was too late to call after work and there have been no messages. They took David off the ventilator on Sunday and I have spoken to him twice since then when he was actually lucid and his voice didn't sound like it had been dragged backward over rough grit sandpaper while gargling sharp-edged kidney stones.

Now that he is able to talk the waterworks have been several appearances and some of the carjacking story had surfaced as well. First came the "I'm sorrys" punctuated by sounds of muffled tears and the anguish I have come to know so well after these episodes. The car wasn't his; it belonged to a friend, which is why he fought so hard with the carjackers armed with only a baseball bat. The story goes that he was stopped because the engine stopped and he was looking under the hood with the driver's side door open when he heard someone get into the car. He looked up, saw the thieves were trying to steal the car -- the same car where the engine had already died at an inopportune moment -- and he got into a tussle with them. He was overwhelmed and was beaten with the baseball bat they carried with them and eventually dragged several feet as they thieves took off in the car (evidently without putting down the hood of the car first) with him hanging on for dear life. "I fought so hard because the car didn't belong to me," he said through hitching sobs and a waterfall of tears bravely held back.

I cannot say I have ever heard of carjackers using a baseball bat or, if they did use a bat, why the only place on his body they hit repeatedly was his abdomen. Carjackers want to incapacitate and immobilize their victims, so the knees and head would be the quickest and most efficacious target, not the belly.

David assured me he had road rash on his back from being dragged behind the car (maybe beside it -- he hasn't actually worked out his story sufficiently) and that he fought so hard. The car is gone. David is in the hospital still -- under a fake name and birth date, which I didn't discover until the second time I called and talked to a nurse. Yes, he told the hospital staff his name was Michael and he was born in October 1978 instead of November 11, 1973. After clearing that little mistake in his hospital record (and clearing it up again twice more with the doctors), I was able to get more information. The doctor and anesthesiologist called me for permissions before he went into surgery on Sunday and I have spoken to the ICU doctor once, who was still of the opinion that David Scott's name was Michael, about David's surgery and prognosis, most of which information the doctor didn't have since he was the ICU doctor and not one of the surgeons. It is taxing listening to a doctor go on about bucket-handle mesenteric tears and rearranging bowel, washing out fecal matter from the abdomen, and exactly what a wound VAC is when I've already explained several times I've been doing medical transcription for acute care hospitals for about 30 years. I don't know how lay people sit through all this stuff without screaming.

At any rate, the story continues to change. David doesn't remember his estranged wife, Julie, has been to see him. He hasn't received a phone call from his father and stepmother in spite of his stepmother, Brenda, demanding I give them the number so they can call by way of the familial grapevine where I have given updates, and I am heartily sick of the whole shooting match. I am David's mother and I do care about him, but I have to say that this is just one more upside down pyramid of lies in a world wide web of lies that I have heard over the nearly 40 years of my son's life. He lies even when the truth sounds better. For an intelligent and talented man, my son wastes his talents on carving a wide swath of destruction everywhere he goes, littering the views with mounds of battered, broken hearted, and much poorer bodies, most of which have been women. It is exhausting.

As my friend Jeff says at the end of his updates, so tell me about your week.