Ballet Lover's CompanionDavid Mead

The title says it all. Zoë Anderson’s new book is indeed one for the ‘ballet lover’, the person who simply enjoys going to the theatre to watch ballet, and who wants to know a little more about what they are seeing.

Although essentially a reference work, the book is not an encyclopaedia and Anderson (dance critic for The Independent and Dancing Times) sidesteps the obvious alphabetical listing of the ballets themselves. Instead, she divides things up into chapters, each considering a particular period of ballet history. There’s a very quick look at its beginnings in Italy and the French court, before she moves on through the Romantic and Imperial Ballet, the Ballet Russes, National Ballet (by which she largely means British and American mid-twentieth century ballet), Soviet Ballet, and ballet of today.

Each chapter includes a description of the key choreographers and dancers; and developments, innovations and styles of the time. After that come the ballets, arranged in chronological order. Fortunately the book is well indexed, so finding what you are looking for is no problem.

In total, Anderson has chosen 140 works that are performed by ballet companies. I hesitate to say “140 ballets” since many will regard some of the choices as contemporary dance. They run from La Sylphide in 1832 to Benjamin Millepied’s Daphnis and Chloe in 2014. For each she gives basic details of date of premiere, choreographer, composer and designer, and a description or synopsis at the sort of level you would typically find in a theatre programme. There is also the occasional anecdote. There is little here that would be new to the balletomane, but then that’s not really who the book is for.

The most interesting chapter is the final one, International Ballet: Crossing Boundaries, which shows just how far the art form has changed, and how much boundaries are being blurred. Yes, in here you will find the likes of Christopher Wheeldon and William Forsythe (some comments about his work are among the more interesting in the book), but there’s also Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and more.

The book’s claim to cover “the most successful and loved ballets on the stage today” is valid, especially if you watch your dance in London or New York. The sheer breadth of coverage is a strength, but equally, it means some things have had to be left out, and it’s not difficult to imagine those ballet lovers of the title arguing over why any number of ballets and choreographers are not there.

In Britain, ballet outside London is passed over almost completely. David Bintley, for example, barely gets a look in. Not one of his ballets merits a full entry, not even ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, which is performed worldwide, although his 2010 Cinderella does get a paragraph, and Tombeaux a passing reference. And although Sir Peter Wright’s 1984 Royal Ballet Nutcracker does get mentioned, his superior Birmingham version does not. Of the many much loved Northern Ballet productions there is nothing, and of Scottish Ballet works almost nothing. It’s also disappointing to see much of European ballet passed over. Surprisingly, the prolific John Neumeier only gets one main entry (Lady of the Camelias), while his striking Little Mermaid, a co-production with San Francisco Ballet, is not mentioned. And talking of San Francisco, no doubt some would argue against the omission of anything by Helgi Tomasson or Yuri Possukhov. Ditto Canada and James Kudelka. At the same time, Justin Peck – still with much to prove in many people’s eyes – does get a look in with Everywhere We Go (actually not his best work).

It’s easy to go on, but we all have our preferences and favourites – ballets we love – especially when you start to move beyond the classics. It also just goes to show that, while 140 ballets sounds a lot, it’s just a dip in ocean.

While one can argue about the layout of the book, and the ballets included and not, what is indisputable is that it is let down badly by the total lack of photographs. There is not a single one, which is most odd for an art form that relies on the visual. Putting aside the truism that “a picture speaks a thousand words,” it makes the book less inviting than it should be. Quickly thumb through it, and it doesn’t yell “read me.”

And that’s a shame, because The Ballet Lover’s Companion is engaging. Anderson conveys everything in a friendly, easy going way; and there is a lot of detail and information to convey. She makes reading what she has to say a pleasure, whether looking at whole chapters or dipping in and out, which is, I expect, what most people will do. It reminded me a little of going along to one of the more friendly, easy-going, twenty-minute or so pre-performance talks that the likes of New York City Ballet are so good at. The title includes the word ‘companion’, for which read ‘good friend’; and for many it will be just that.

The Ballet Lover’s Companion by Zoe Anderson
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published by Yale University Press
Publication dates: UK, May 28; US, July 14.
ISBN-13: 978-0300154283