Deborah Bull was formerly a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, and her aim in this book is to give an idea about what a typical day (if one exists) in the life of a professional dancer in a large company. The day runs from the first class of the day to going home after the performance finishes, and takes in rehearsals of all sorts, together with preparations for the next ballet.
Bull writes in a readable, conversational style, being realistic about the hard work required, but also giving interesting insights into the life of a professional ballet dancer. It’s rather eye-opening to read about a life ruled by notice-boards, being prepared to hang around at the theatre until just before curtain-up in case one of the soloists is injured, and one’s career almost entirely dependent on the whims of others (I read recently that Adam Cooper, for example, left the Royal Ballet because of the lack of control he had over the roles he danced).
While talking about a dancer’s day, Bull also gives snippets of ballet’s history – mentioning Pierre Beauchamps, Louis XIV’s ballet master, and Arthur Saint-Leon in a discussion about notation, for instance – and since she danced in a company with a relatively long history, she writes about previous dancers who have inhabited the roles in the past, and previous productions.
To an outsider, the first rehearsals of a ballet would probably appear to be rather slow and inconsequential, fractured movement phrases interrupted by some head scratching and sections repeated over and over again as we struggle to claw back the physical sensation of choreography that has not been danced – or even thought about – for months, if not years. It’s hard – even for the dancers involved – to see the connection between these early studio calls and the polished performance of the first night.
p55 (Faber paperback edition)
Bull doesn’t use a lot of unfamiliar terminology, and when she does, takes care to explain it. This book could be read by anyone who knows almost nothing of ballet, but is simply interested. It’s one of the best books about ballet I’ve read, which gives a really good idea of what life in a ballet company is actually like, the good and bad parts alike.
I also read recently another book by Bull about ballet, written in conjunction with the critic Luke Jennings, The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet. This is a fantastic guide, being both a brief history of ballet from its earliest beginnings to the present day, and a summary of ballets (their plots, summaries and often a “dancer’s view” of the ballet from Bull) performed by various companies which Bull and Jennings considered ‘classics’.
From the reader’s point of view, there’s not nearly enough of Bull’s personal views about what it’s like to dance in some of these ballets – interestingly, she has much more to say about William Forsythe’s Steptext and in the middle, somewhat elevated than she does about classics such as Coppélia. And of course, Bull is limited in her remarks to the ballets in which she herself appeared (thus swathes of Ballet Theatre and early Ashton repertoire lack her insight). She’s amusing about the ‘bad girl’ roles she tended to dance – Lescaut’s mistress in Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon, for example, or Gamzatti in Petipa’s La Bayadère. Jennings also isn’t an impartial guide: his remarks about Macmillan’s The Judas Tree, for example, are trenchant:
My personal feelings are that whatever MacMillan’s allegorical and religious intentions, the absurdity of the onstage scenario makes it difficult to take them seriously.
p195 (Faber paperback edition)
Published by: Faber (2011 – The Everyday Dancer; 2004 The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet)