Book Review: The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Book Review: The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Reading a book about ballet dancers is a bit like studying anthropology or reading fiction set in an exotic land. Ballet is a world and a culture unto itself, with its own customs, morals, standards, language, costumes, and rituals. Those at the peak of the profession form an insular little society, truly an alien species in the eyes of the non-ballet world — and even more so, the “normal” world, to the ballet elite, is foreign, slightly unpleasant, and unrelentingly ordinary.

So it would seem, in any case, from reading The Cranes Dance, an excellent but disturbing peek into the world of a top New York City ballet company, as told by main character Kate Crane — whose perspective may not be all that reliable. Kate is in her late-ish 20s, and has been with the Company since she was a rising teen ballet student. Kate is a lovely and talented dancer, but her younger sister Gwen is a star. Gwen joins the Company a year after Kate, but is made a principal (a prima ballerina, if you will) at the same time that Kate, with more years of experience, is raised from the corps to soloist (a featured dancer, performing good roles, but definitely not the star of the show). But it’s all okay, because Kate is devoted to Gwen, and from day one sees her as someone to be nurtured and cherished, whose gift must be protected and encouraged above all else.

As The Cranes Dance opens, Kate is on her own in New York for the first time in a decade, after having called her parents in Michigan to report that Gwen has had a nervous breakdown. Gwen has been scooped up and taken away by the parents, and Kate is left to deal with her grief, her guilt, and deep down, her relief at being free for once in her life. Unfortunately, Kate has perfected the skill of not dealing. She’s made a career of keeping everyone at arm’s length, never admitting that she has needs or wants, and finds herself adrift.

Unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend (she never let him be there for her, apparently), Kate moves into Gwen’s now empty apartment, and more or less into Gwen’s life. She lives amongst Gwen’s things, she wears Gwen’s clothes and uses Gwen’s hair products, and before long, she’s dancing roles meant for Gwen as well. Friends and colleagues tell Kate that she’s never danced better, and the company director comments that it’s been hard “to watch you diminish yourself” — implying, perhaps, that Kate’s devotion to Gwen has kept her from letting herself shine on her own.

But has Kate also taken over Gwen’s mental deterioration? Warning signs abound. After a neck injury, Kate turns to Vicodin to numb the pain — and soon, to numb everything else. Like Gwen, Kate is unable to sleep and loses weight due to lack of appetite. Kate narrates her life for the audience she imagines constantly watching her, as if being on stage is a shield against the dangers and disappointments of actual living. Inhabiting Gwen’s home, all alone, Kate is left to stare at the mysterious and disturbing tape marks and secret notes and symbols that Gwen used as talismans against fear, her secret obsessive-compulsive safety nets. Can Kate be strong where Gwen could not? Can Kate numb the pain indefinitely, or will her world come crashing down as well?

I enjoyed The Cranes Dance a great deal. According to her website, “Meg Howrey is a classically trained dancer who has performed with the Joffrey, Los Angeles Opera, and City Ballet of Los Angeles.” Clearly, this is a writer who knows the world she so keenly describes. The first-person narration gives us a front-row view of the workings of Kate’s mind, and she can be hilariously funny at times, despite the physical and emotional pain that accompany her throughout her days.

Crisp, delicious writing abounds, such as this passage in which Kate must suffer through drinks with a smile:

“Oh, but I love The Nutcracker,” began the [woman], and then launched into the familiar non-dancer girl talking to dancer girl conversation. “Do your toes bleed?” “I had a friend/cousin/neighbor who danced who was really serious about her dancing until she got too tall/hurt her knee/went to college.” “You must not be able to eat anything.” “It must take a lot of discipline, I can’t even imagine doing what you do.” “All the men are gay, right?”

The book opens with Kate describing the plot of Swan Lake, which is the headlining production in the company’s performance season. It’s much too much to quote in full, but this little snippet gives a good sense of the tone as well as Kate’s unique perspective on dance and life in general:

Act I opens in the village green of an unspecified, vaguely German realm. We’re a little hazy on the time period too. It’s Days of Yore, I guess, in the yore when everyone in pseudo Germany wandered around their village green in nearly identical outfits… Anyway A Village Green Scene is standard issue for classical ballet, and if you’ve seen one circlet of peasant-dancing hoo-ha, you’ve seen them all. There’s a garland dance and a Maypole and a lot of people standing around fake clapping or pointing out to each other that other people are dancing in the middle of the stage… So everyone just wanders around greeting each other with head nods if you’re a girl and shoulder thumping if you’re a guy, and then one person will indicate Center Stage like “Hey, did you see? There are people dancing! Isn’t that neat!” And the other person will make a gesture like “Yes! Dancing. It is happening there!”

And so on. It’s fun, it’s funny, it often terribly sad, and it’s frequently disturbing. At the same time, Kate’s voice is engaging — even when she’s being obnoxious — and you can’t help but want to shake her a bit and get her to just, you know, snap out of it! You’re a ballerina! Enjoy yourself!

Go ahead, hum a few bars. Pirouettes are allowed too.

The glimpse into the backstage life of a ballet company is deliciously exotic. The endless classes and rehearsals, the jockeying for positions and good partners, the little slips that can spell disaster, the triumphs of a perfect gesture — all these are brought to life so vividly that you can hear the toe shoes landing after a jump. I dare you to read this book and not spend the next few days humming Swan Lake as you  move, oh so gracefully, down the busy streets, perhaps with visions of tutus dancing in your head.

Whether you read The Cranes Dance as a story of sisters, a narrative of mental illness, a profile of a person shut off from the world, or just for the joy of the behind-the-scenes glamour and excitement, I do believe you’ll be as entranced by the book as I was. You don’t have to be a ballet fan to enjoy The Cranes Dance — but you’ll probably want to dig out those old The Turning Point or White Nights videos by the time you’re done.