Bright, Burning Stars, by A.K. Small
Algonquin Young Readers
There are a lot of us who danced while young, and loved doing it. Many continued as adults to dance in some form or other, either as practice or recreationally, or maybe in community theater. I did all the choreography for the musicals when I taught drama in middle school and high school, even when I stopped dancing myself due to advancing arthritis.
Among those of us who love dance but for whatever reason did not choose it as a career there are many who get vicarious thrills out of reading books on dance, both non-fiction and fictional.
I certainly do. So when the opportunity came up to review this debut ballet novel for young readers, and I saw that the author had classical ballet training in her background, I pounced.
In my own mind, ballet or dance books fall into two categories: those that focus on the euphoria of performance, especially when aware that one is dancing their best, and then there are those that look at the darker side of dance.
And there is a darker side. My first exposure was my last year in high school, when many of my dance cohort were going for auditions to try to make the leap to professional dance. The very best dancer in one class—by far the best; when she danced, everyone stopped to watch—could not get an audition once they laid eyes on her. She was a superlative dancer, but she was about five feet tall, with a pear-shaped body, with heavy hips. These were the years when Balanchine introduced the Cult of the Thin, which brought on waves of five-pack-a-day smoking (to kill the appetite), frenetic drug use, and the idea that skeletal women were the ideal.
Apparently not a lot has changed, and this book illustrates that, as well as giving an unflinching look at the mental, emotional, and physical fallout from the drive to develop the perfect ballet body.
Take a glance at the cover. Pretty, isn’t it?
But look at that dancer’s eyes. It’s a very suitable cover for this book, centered around a pair of dancers at the prestigious Paris Opera House ballet school in Paris. These two girls swear eternal friendship—while competing strenuously, along with the rest of their class of “rats,” to be the single dancer chosen to get the Prize, a chance to join the pros dancing at the Opera House.
A dancer I once knew some thirty years ago told me about a recurring dream she had: she walked out onto the stage to perform barefoot. The stage was covered with what appeared to be glittering snow, but as she took her first leap, she looked down to discover it was really glass shards. And somehow she had to keep herself dancing in the air, for if she landed, she knew the glass would cut her feet to ribbons.
Reading Bright Burning Stars brought back that dream told me so long ago. The details of ballet are impeccable in this novel. The plot gains tremendous velocity as our two dancers, Kate and Marine, compete with their class, and with each other, not only for the Prize, but for the attention of the charismatic boy who leads the male dancers, whose self-absorbed drive would give any girl outside of that high-octane atmosphere serious pause. But in the extreme world of dance, competition, and self-absorption, is a component of the very oxygen one breathes.
Who will excel enough to win? By the time I found out, ending the book with somewhat the same emotional exhaustion of a day-long rehearsal, I felt that the throughline of the story was less about dance than the price of that competition, which runs the gamut of mental illness, suicide, emotional dysfunction, abortion, drug abuse, and of course the extremes of self-abuse in order to achieve that admired skeletal profile.
It’s compellingly written, but all in all, it’s more a cautionary tale than a celebration of the sheer exhilaration of dance.