These 10 must-read books about ballet and ballet dancers—ballerinas and ballerinos—bring the ballet dance world to life.
1. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
“For years Joan has been trying to forget her past, to find peace and satisfaction in her role as wife and mother. Few in her drowsy California suburb know her thrilling history: as a young American ballerina in Paris, she fell into a doomed, passionate romance with Soviet dance superstar Arslan Rusakov. After playing a leading role in his celebrated defection, Joan bowed out of the spotlight for good, heartbroken by Arslan and humbled by her own modest career. But when her son turns out to be a ballet prodigy, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—a world of dangerous secrets, of Arslan, and of longing for what will always be just out of reach.
“But when her son turns out to be a ballet prodigy, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—a world of dangerous secrets, of Arslan, and of longing for what will always be just out of reach.”
2. Dancing on my Grave by Gelsey Kirkland
“The shattering story of a dream which became a heartbreaking nightmare for one of America’s most famous ballerinas, Gelsey Kirkland, who chronicles her brilliant start as a dancer with George Balanchine, her legendary partnership with Mikhail Baryshnikov, her agonizing descent into drugs, and her struggles to rise again.”
3. The Ballet Lover by Barbara L. Baer
“The Ballet Lover exposes the beauty and cruelty of ballet, the performances, the back stage moments, and the personal dramas of the famous ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova as seen through the eyes of an American female journalist.
“Paris, 1970s: the orchestra plays the first ominous note of Swan Lake. In the audience sits Geneva, an American journalist and ballet lover, waiting for the heart-stopping beauty and seduction of the romantic duet to start, but instead she witnesses Rudolf Nureyev failing to catch his Russian partner Natalia Makarova, allowing her to fall with a crash upon the stage.
“Geneva interprets the fall as an act of cruelty, a man with all the fame and power in the world brutally letting fall his delicate, wraith-like artistic partner. When other critics defend Nureyev and accuse Makarova of causing her own tumble, Geneva vows revenge on the page, creating havoc in her own career and discovering surprising parallels between herself and the fallen ballerina.
“The Ballet Lover is a refined, mesmerizing, fictional account of two of the most celebrated dancers in the dance world, how one compromised the other, and how the drama on the stage often mirrors those played out in real life.”
4. Winter Season by Toni Bentley
“An irresistible inside look at one of the world’s great dance companies, Winter Season is also a sensitive, intimate, and almost painfully honest account of the emotional and intellectual development of a young woman dedicated to one of the most demanding of all the arts.
“Bentley’s association with the New York City Ballet began when she was accepted by the affiliated School of American Ballet at the age of eleven. Seven years later, she became a member of the company. In the fall of 1980, as the winter season opened, she found herself facing an emotional crisis: her dancing was not going well. At 22 she felt that her life had lost direction. To try to make something of her experience, on paper if not on stage, she began to keep a journal, describing her day-to-day activities and looking back on her past. The result is perhaps the closest that most of us will ever come to knowing what it feels like to be a dancer, on stage and off. It also offers memorable glimpses of some notable members of the City ballet, with, at the center, the man whose vision they all served—George Balanchine.”
5. Perpetual Motion by Otis Stuart
“A revealing biography of the greatest male ballet dancer of our time–the first full-fledged portrait since Nureyev’s death from AIDS in 1992, and the first book to disclose the private life he worked so diligently to obscure. 8 pages of black-and-white photos.”
6. Raising the Barre: Lauren Kessler
“Like generations of little girls, Lauren Kessler fell in love with ballet the first time she saw The Nutcracker, and from that day, at age five, she dreamed of becoming a ballerina. But when she was twelve, her very famous ballet instructor crushed those dreams-along with her youthful self-assurance-and she stepped away from the barre.
“Fast forward four decades. Lauren-suddenly, powerfully, itchingly restless at midlife-embarks on a “Transcontinental Nutcracker Binge Tour,” where attending a string of performances in Chicago, New York, Boston, and San Francisco reignites her love affair with the ballet-and fuels her girlhood dream.
“What ensues is not only a story about The Nutcracker itself, but also an inside look at the seemingly romantic-but oh-so-gritty-world of ballet, about all that happens away from the audience’s eye that precedes the magic on stage. It is a tale told from the perspective of someone who not only loves it, but is also seeking to live it. Lauren’s quest to dance The Nutcracker with the Eugene Ballet Company tackles the big issues: fear, angst, risk, resilience, the refusal to “settle in” to midlife, the refusal to become yet another Invisible Woman. It is also a very funny, very real look at what it’s like to push yourself further than you ever thought you could go-and what happens when you get there.”
7. A body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back by David Hallberg
“David Hallberg, the first American to join the famed Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer and the dazzling artist The New York Times described as “the foremost classical stylist of our day,” presents an intimate journey through his artistic life up to the moment he returns to the stage after a devastating injury almost cost him his career.”
8. Life in Motion by Misty Copeland
“When Misty Copeland first placed her hands on the ballet barre at an after-school community centre, no one expected the undersized, underprivileged and anxious thirteen-year-old to become one of America’s most groundbreaking dancers. A true prodigy, she was attempting in months roles that take most dancers years to master. But when Misty became caught between the control and comfort she found in the world of ballet and the harsh realities of her own life, she had to choose to embrace both her identity and her dreams, and find the courage to be one of a kind.
“In this instant New York Times bestseller, Misty Copeland tells the story of her historic journey to become the first African-American principal ballerina at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. With an insider’s passion, Misty opens a window into the life of an artist who lives life centre stage, from behind the scenes at her first classes to her triumphant roles in some of the world’s most iconic ballets. Life in Motion is a story of passion, identity and grace for anyone who has dared to dream of a different life.”
9. Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet by Simon Morrison
“A critical triumph, Simon Morrison’s “sweeping and authoritative” (Guardian) work, Bolshoi Confidential, details the Bolshoi Ballet’s magnificent history from its earliest tumults to recent scandals. On January 17, 2013, a hooded assailant hurled acid into the face of the artistic director, making international headlines. A lead soloist, enraged by institutional power struggles, later confessed to masterminding the crime. Morrison gives the shocking violence context, describing the ballet as a crucible of art and politics beginning with the disreputable inception of the theater in 1776, through the era of imperial rule, the chaos of revolution, the oppressive Soviet years, and the Bolshoi’s recent $680 million renovation. With vibrant detail including “sex scandals, double-suicide pacts, bribery, arson, executions, prostitution rings, embezzlement, starving orphans, [and] dead cats in lieu of flowers” (New Republic), Morrison makes clear that the history of the Bolshoi Ballet mirrors that of Russia itself. 16 pages of illustrations.”
10. The Dance Goodbye by Merrill Ashley
“1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opera, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Emile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
“Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modelling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Emile Abadie, must choose between honest labour and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.
“Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of ‘civilized society’. In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.”