Friday, July 27, 2012

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

I threw my neck out in the middle of Swan Lake last night.
So begins the tale of Kate Crane, a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company. Kate is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world, a world she can’t help satirizing even as she balances injury and self-doubt to maintain her place within it. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home to Michigan.

Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she played in her sister’s collapse. As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangles of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.

“I felt something stir in me. That feeling dancing well can give you. I was almost scared to take in that drug. It’s so easy to get hooked.” - Kate

I love that quote, and I absolutely understand that feeling. Here’s a little background info for you about me: I was a dancer for 14 years, and took every class my studio offered: ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, hip hop, and contemporary.  I considered dancing professionally, but ultimately decided college was a safer route; however after eating, breathing, and sleeping dance for 14 years of my life, I can relate to a lot of this book. I actually thought I would finish it a lot faster than I did, because it revolved around the life of a ballet dancer. I jump at the opportunity to read any dance-related book, especially if it’s written by someone who has experienced the dance world firsthand. I thought the first half was a bit sluggish in parts, but the second half read much faster.

Kate Crane is a soloist with a prestigious ballet company in New York City, along with her younger sister, Gwen, who is a principal dancer. Kate watched her sister’s career surpass her own, while at the same time coming to the realization that her sister was going through some serious psychological problems. She developed an obsession with numbers, taped X’s to the walls with duct tape, and sometimes intentionally hurt herself. Finally, Kate calls their parents and Gwen is taken back to Michigan to get help; in the meantime, Kate has managed to throw her neck out during a performance of Swan Lake and starts popping Vicodin like they’re mints because she refuses to sit out due to injury.

The first 15 or so pages are used to explain the meaning behind Swan Lake, but she actually describes it in a funny, almost sarcastic way. I contemplated skipping ahead since I already knew the meaning behind it, but I’m really glad I didn’t. It’s pretty comical. Kate in general is actually pretty funny, even if she is hooked on Vicodin and constantly dealing with the aftermath of her sister leaving New York. Throughout the book, it seems almost as though Kate isn’t a ballerina because she loves to dance; she’s a ballerina simply because she wants to be great at something, and she just happens to be great at dancing.

There were so many moments throughout the book where I got a pretty nostalgic, because I knew exactly what Meg Howrey was talking about; here are just a couple of my favorite examples:

“ Always left hand on the barre first, then turn around and repeat with the right hand on the barre. Hand on the barre lightly, please. It’s not a crutch.”

“Pliés, tendus, dégagés, fondus, rondes de jambe, rondes de jambe en l’air, frappes, développés, grande battements. You do all this from your first ballet class and it’s part of you.”

“Technique. There’s one right way to do everything. Every other way is wrong.” (I would be a rich lady if I had a quarter for every time I heard one of my dance teachers preach this!)

This, however, is my favorite quote from the book:

“Is there a better sound than when the house lights are brought down and a lowering murmur takes hold of the audience?” (While you’re a dancer waiting in the wings doing your final stretches before taking the stage, I can tell you that there absolutely is not. I get chills just thinking about it.)

This is a pretty good book with a lot of inside knowledge to the world of ballet, and dance in general. The curtain gets pulled back and you see the grueling, competitive, exhausting rehearsals that lead up to the performances, the drama between fellow dancers, the injuries, and the constant need to keep your weight down. I don’t think you have to be a dancer to enjoy the book, although I don’t know how much I would have liked it if I didn’t have a lot of interest in dancing. The relationships, romance, etc. all take a backseat in this book; the main storyline is Kate’s journey through the ballet company, and it’s a pretty wild one.

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