In his novel Our Lives as Kites Marius Hancu traces the peripatetic life and career of a female ballet dancer from her training in Canada through periods as a soloist with major companies to becoming a choreographer commissioned to make work for international ballet companies and events.  The title reflects his heroine Yvonne’s fascination with kites, originally kindled by her father, and the kites serve throughout as a metaphor for the different strands and relationships in her life; flying them becomes an almost choreographic task of keeping them moving freely and untangled.  Perhaps this is the guiding structure too of this book, which adopts different voices and perspectives for each chapter, maintaining story episodes and characters interwoven across a wide sweep of time (from late 1960s through to mid 1990s) and geography.

Novels about ballet are few, and I read with great curiosity, not least as Yvonne begins to make the transfer from dancing to choreographing.  Here Hancu writes from inside her head to show the evolution of ideas for the highly ambitious works she is imagining, and the somewhat ascetic creative procedures she demands of the dancers she works with.  I admire Hancu’s attempt to write the creative process, even if some of the planned works are improbable – and the premise of an apparently novice female choreographer being let loose with generous resources and numbers of dancers to work in an experimental way with a major ballet company hard to believe.  Here one of the drawbacks of the episodic structure becomes apparent in that it allows for big gaps in the narrative; Hancu is inevitably selective in the episodes he chooses to highlight, but the leaving out of substantial parts of his heroine’s story only tantalisingly alluded to in hindsight left me wondering how on earth she arrived at certain situations. As a dance professional I was disappointed not to read more about Yvonne’s time as a company dancer, and would have liked this and her subsequent independent trajectory to be grounded in more realistic detail about professional practice.

Yvonne is very much the focus of the work, with other characters glancing in and out, clearly subsidiary to the main love of her life, the dance.  The principal dancer Patrick is perhaps the most fully realised, but the nature of their relationship and reasons for its dissolution seem skimmed over.  Similarly other interesting threads, ideas and characters are introduced but not always followed through in development. Hancu’s story covers a broad international canvas, but despite episodes in Germany, Monte Carlo and with the Royal Ballet in London, the main and underlying perspective remains a transatlantic conception of ballet and its culture, an opportunity perhaps missed here to explore and ground his protagonist’s experience in the reality of different settings at specific times in recent dance history.  The abrupt and shocking ending comes out of the blue.

I like aspects of this book and its poetic approach; its independent minded heroine who in her physicality and mentality seems to go against the grain of ballet dancers of the period, and yet reaches some artistic fulfilment; and Hancu is at his best when capturing the immediacy of a dancer’s life from inside, with sympathetic portrayal of episodes of artistic loneliness and limbo.  But I feel that both language and narrative could have benefited from closer editorial scrutiny throughout, and that the unlikely development of his heroine’s career needs more explanation to be convincing.

Susie Crow

1st April 2013

Buy it for Kindle on Amazon here or in paperback here.

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