If there is a new ballet fan in your family, this could be the ideal Christmas present.  Zoë Anderson’s book assumes no specialist knowledge, and includes a glossary of the ballet terms she uses, so that any reader can visualise her descriptions.

Anderson is very knowledgeable, and she has chosen to write a highly readable work that also touches on some of the issues that ballet as an art form faces today. She has selected 140 ballets, for each of which she gives what are in effect programme notes: synopses of plots, information about the original performance, and sometimes descriptions of the dancing or reports of the critical response.

This is a great deal of material to organise, and Anderson uses a combined historical and geographical approach: Imperial (Russian) Ballet and Soviet Ballet have chapters of their own, while the chapter on National Ballets covers the rest of the world, from Frederick Ashton’s Facade (1931) to George Balanchine’s Agon (1957). The chronological arrangement within each section inevitably results in some disconcerting and thought-provoking juxtapositions. For example, Ashton’s The Dream is sandwiched between Fleming Flindt’s The Lesson and Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

Anderson’s writing is engaging and catchy (if sometimes rather sweeping), referring to Diaghilev’s ‘swagger and daring’; to Nureyev’s ‘adored partnership with Margot Fonteyn’; to the ‘vogue’ for ‘Shakespeare’s free-ranging genius’ in the Romantic period, or to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet ‘flex[ing] its dance muscles’ when it moved to the Royal Opera House.

In compiling this book, Anderson has had to make choices, and she explains her rationale in the Preface. There are bound to be some omissions, but I was surprised that Robert Helpmann’s works are not included, particularly given the recent revival of Miracle in the Gorbals by Birmingham Royal Ballet. More generally, Anderson has also had to decide what makes a work a ballet, and which version of a work is the ‘real’ one. She offers alternative endings for Swan Lake, and refers to both Mats Ek’s and Matthew Bourne’s versions. However, while Ek’s works have their own entries, Bourne’s are relegated to just a couple of brief references as part of other discussions. These are difficult judgements and Anderson is certainly aware of current discussions about dance, for example referring to the ‘male gaze’, or noting that by the time that Jennifer Homans’ book Apollo’s Angels had been published, Homan’s thesis that ballet was ‘a story that may have come to an end’ was actually out of date, as ‘ballet was already rediscovering its confidence’.

I enjoyed this book very much. Although it is not illustrated, it is an attractive volume to read. Beneath the dust jacket, with its image of Carla Fracci taking a curtain call, the binding is in a dark blue-purple shade, with gold writing on the spine, and deep burgundy-coloured end papers. It would be a nice book to unwrap on Christmas Day.

Maggie Watson

29 November 2015

The Ballet Lover’s Companion, by Zoë Anderson. Yale University Press, 2015

You can buy this book here