Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Ballet & Dance’ Category

Book Review: “Up to this Pointe” by Jennifer Longo Random House (2016)

cover70949-mediumAs the mother of a ballet obsessed 12 year old girl, I jump at any opportunity to read books about ballet.  I’m calling it research since I know nothing about ballet.  In fact, where ballet is concerned I’m the elephant in the corner of the room tripping over my own feet.  That said, many of the books on this topic I’ve read, have tended towards being vomit worthy or saccharine at best.  Up to this Pointe is neither.  In fact, its brutal honesty, rent my aching heart in two.   You see this is not a story about a young woman’s dizzy journey to success, rather, it is an account of failure, of life long dreams shattered irreparably.

Harper Scott is a dancer.  She dreams of dancing for the San Francisco Ballet along with her bestie, and fellow dancer, Kate.  In fact, the dream or “the plan” as they call it, is outlined neatly and to the minutest detail.  When things don’t go to plan Harper decides to run.  She runs to Antarctica, to experience the long winter in isolation following the tradition of her ancestor Robert Falcon Scott, the famous Antarctic explorer.  Beautifully crafted in a narration which switches from telling the story leading up to the trip with a chapter situated in the American McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Longo reveals Harper’s heart breaking story of disappointment and enlightenment.

While Up to this Pointe will hold great appeal for YA readers from the upper end of the middle years with an interest in ballet, this is a story that will engage readers more broadly.  Young people of course will easily relate to Harper.  Absolutely, dedicated, beyond committed to her art, her failure is absolutely beyond her control.  Of course Harper could be a footballer, a pianist, a basketballer or a hopeful in any one of numerous disciplines.  Her experience of failure is a universal and unavoidable fact of life.  What is interesting then, is Longo’s exploration of this experience and her evaluation of what must one do when confronted with this?

Up to this Pointe would make appropriate reading for independent close analysis by students from year 9 upwards.  It would work well as a shared text, particularly in schools with elite specialist programs, giving a voice to discussions that are otherwise tricky to broach.  What if you are not selected?  What if, despite your best effort, you fall short?

Longo’s descriptions of ballet are vivid, thoroughly engrossing, particularly for readers with limited knowledge of the discipline.  However this story reaches deeper, delving into a range of issues including those of body image, eating disorders, anorexia nervosa, love, friendship and depression.

Up To This Pointe is due for publication by Random House, January 19 2016

Tanya Grech Welden

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“Hope in a Ballet Shoe” by Elaine & Michaela DePrince, Faber & Faber (2014)

Hope in a Ballet shoeI first heard the story of Michaela DePrince after watching the acclaimed documentary “First Position” a couple of years ago. I am no fan of ballet. In fact initially I had watched it purely for the sake of my ballet-mad daughter. The documentary, which explored the lives of several young dancers, was notable for me only because of the story of Michaela. For me her story shone brighter than the others by a long way. Consequently little persuasion was needed to get me to read and review this memoir.
Written as a collaborative project between Michaela and her adoptive mother Elaine, “Hope in a Ballet Shoe” tells the story of a young girl living in war ravaged Sierra Leone who goes on to become a successful ballerina in the US. The story begins in Africa and encompasses Michaela’s first memories living as the only child of devoted parents in rural Sierra Leone. When civil war breaks out she is orphaned and so begins a life of uncertainty until her eventual liberation and journey to the US.
Obviously, this is a story about ballet, and it is clearly one that will be enjoyed by those with an interest in this genre. However, Michaela’s story transcends this and is equally a tale about survival and triumphing against adversity. For me this nearly overshadowed her dancing journey (one marked by persistence) and eventual success as a dancer. Thematically the story’s celebration of the refugee voice and exploration of racism in contemporary society make it a sound choice of text when exploring these specific issues in the classroom. However, the account of Michaela’s experiences in Sierra Leone, while not overtly graphic, might be distressing for very young readers making this text suitable for older Young Adults (14+).
While the language is not notable for its beauty or sophistication it is highly accessible. It is relatively short read making it a suitable choice for shared study in class from grade 10 upwards. Senior students might find this an excellent choice for independent study and it would pair harmoniously with the likes of Li Cunxin’s “Mao’s Last Dancer”, the film of the same name (2009), or the picture book “The Peasant Prince” by the same author.
Michaela’s story, speaks to a broad audience extending beyond those with an interest in dance. Though brief, is an inspiring and worthwhile read, suitable for older YA readers and the mainstream adult audience.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**Allen & Unwin provided me with a free review copy for this book.  I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.**

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