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Ballet novel full of ideas that dance through mind

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Various Positions

By Martha Schabas

Doubleday Canada, 361 pages, $22

There is no escaping it. This beautifully descriptive and disturbing debut novel is destined to draw comparisons with last year's Hollywood hit movie Black Swan.

Both the film and the novel use the world of ballet as their setting. Both stories draw extensively upon the notion that the world of ballet offers an escape from the growing sexual feelings that "normal" teenagers explore. And both force their audience into an uneasy state as they bear witness to the downward spirals of their unstable protagonists.

Toronto-born Martha Schabas's narrator is an aspiring and talented dancer, Georgia. At 14, she has just earned her place in the prestigious Royal Toronto Ballet Academy.

While the pressures and perfectionism of the ballet have always made her feel whole, the presence of her first male ballet teacher -- and the unwanted feelings he arouses in her -- are an entirely foreign element.

Schabas's prose is engaging and provocative, full of images and ideas that dance through the mind. "Yonge Street extended north in a blur of lights, parkas and car exhaust," Georgia recalls. "I felt safe beside her, my dark and beautiful mother. But I also sensed there was something reciprocal about that safety. I was like the third prong on a wall plug, grounding a dazzling but precarious surge."

Schabas deserves a standing ovation for her accurate portrayal of the inner workings of a professional ballet school. From the hushed tension charging the atmosphere of the audition room, to the internal language ballet dancers use when self-correcting their technique, to the duality of the camaraderie and competition present in the peer groups within a professional ballet school, Schabas describes it all with impressive insight.

Those who know the National Ballet School in Toronto will recognize that its building is standing in for the fictional Royal Toronto Ballet Academy. Either Schabas attended the NBS -- and thus has the firsthand knowledge of a very serious ballet student -- or she did an amazing job with her research.

Whenever a story involves the ballet world, it seems a subplot involving an eating disorder is a prerequisite, whether or not it's necessary. Schabas deftly deals with the topic from multiple perspectives and uses it to beautifully echo the main plot.

When one of Georgia's classmates succumbs to an extreme case of anorexia nervosa, the director of the school claims that eating disorders were less prevalent in the days when the subject of weight was a viable topic for open, frank discussion. Once it was deemed taboo to discuss a dancer's weight problem, eating disorders became a more common issue.

In a similar manner, Georgia's inability to discuss her budding sexual desires leads her to a warped sense of normalcy and threatens to ruin more than just her future in dance.

The one aspect of the novel that is hard to accept is the normally observant Georgia's apparent cluelessness around her parents' relationship -- both its current state and the circumstances surrounding its beginning. Perhaps Schabas was trying to display Georgia's ability for self-deception.

It's fair to say that the ballet world has not had this much popular attention since Nureyev and Baryshnikov defected from Russia. And while it has been stated that all publicity is good publicity, both Black Swan and Various Positions may have the public questioning the psychological stability of female ballet dancers.

Dancers constantly push themselves to new limits, ignoring the pain and fatigue present in muscles and joints. They override these internal messages and, instead, project an image of ease, grace and serenity to the audience.

Extreme contradictory states manifesting simultaneously -- sounds like a psychological condition waiting to be diagnosed.

Though Various Positions is about more than just ballet, ballet is one of the many topics Schabas has skilfully given us a chance to look at from numerous angles and through various perspectives -- various positions, if you will.

Her multi-faceted view shows us that there is no such thing as a perfect scenario, perfect innocence or a perfect transition through life's difficult phases.

CindyMarie Small is a former Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer who hopes her psychological stability is not delusional.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 J9

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