Two things that make us human are art and sport, and ballet is where those two things converge. When I was writing Watch Her Fall, a thriller about two rival ballerinas, I began with the basics: textbooks to learn the technical stuff; the big biographies. I was greedy for the ballerina’s routine, the rhythm of her day, the shape of her childhood.
More fascinating than the huge physical demands was the ballerina’s psychological steel. She must be tough enough to dance on bleeding toes and survive rejection and rivalry yet remain able to access vulnerability when she performs. The career is a time bomb, with few principals dancing beyond their 30s, and one wrong step can destroy everything. I read stories of passion and madness, ambition and addiction, heartland territory for a psychological thriller. The following are some of the best.
1. Ballerina by Deirdre Kelly
This is a comprehensive history of the ballet from its origins in the French courts, when the positions were more etiquette than art, and dancers were as much courtesans as artists. The book’s subtitle is Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, and Kelly expertly blends juicy gossip with an almost academic look at the contradictions of the ballerina: idealised, stylised, sexy but virginal, in constant pain but always, always poised.
2. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
This 1936 classic remains a touchstone for balletomane children. Orphans Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are adopted by eccentric Great Uncle Matthew; when the money runs out, they take to the stage to pay the bills. I believe the book’s endurance is down to its depictions of adolescence as much as the dance detail. The characters are complicated, enviable, flawed. Pretty Pauline’s temper tantrum is one of the best meltdowns in any literature, and results in one of the most relatable comeuppances. The writing is suffused with a teenage sensuousness: costumier’s fabrics such as organza and taffeta seem to caress the reader’s skin as well as the characters’.
3. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
There are surprisingly few adult novels about ballet, but this exquisitely written book sets the bar. It takes its title from legendary New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine’s command to his dancers, and his ghost is on every page. Joan, a young American dancer, helps Russian ballet star Arslan Ruskov defect from the USSR, then stages a defection of her own, to the Californian suburbs, to teach and raise a family. The book is as powerful on the sacrifices of motherhood as it is when evoking the heady atmosphere of 1970s Manhattan. But her son’s prodigious talent becomes impossible to ignore. She is pulled back to the east coast, and Arslan, with shattering results.
4. A Body of Work by David Hallberg
Hallberg was the first American to join the Bolshoi as a principal, and this book is an emotionally raw crisis of injury and ego, the story of a world-class athlete pushing the limits of sports medicine. He evokes the loneliness of success and his ostracism as a young man at the Paris Opera makes the tentative friendships he forges in Moscow all the sweeter. Hallberg writes as beautifully as he moves.
5. Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh
The definitive story of the definitive danseur draws on letters, diaries, home-movie footage and interviews. This blockbuster – the basis for the Ralph Fiennes’s film The White Crow – covers everything from his birth on a Siberian train to the sex drive that was as high as his professional ambition, his partnership with Fonteyn, his friendship with Jackie Kennedy, the way he defied HIV for nine years after diagnosis, working until his death from Aids in 1993. The account of his defection at a Paris airport is nailbiting stuff.
6. A Proper Little Nooryeff by Jean Ure
Ure wrote several young adult books about ballet but this 1984 novel is her best: I read my own Puffin Plus copy until it fell apart. Sixteen-year-old Jamie’s hobbies include cricket and trying to put his hand down his girlfriend’s top. He is recruited as a stand-in for an injured dancer when he collects his little sister from her ballet lesson. Ure is as astute on adolescent boys navigating the choppy waters of class and masculinity as Sue Townsend was. Readers will wince with sympathy the first time Jamie tries on a pair of ballet tights.
7. Dancing on My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland
This 1986 memoir delivers melodrama that would raise eyebrows in a work of fiction. In the 1970s, Kirkland was a protege of Balanchine (him again) and later the on-and-offstage partner of Mikhail Baryshnikov. She acknowledges that the obsessive, narcissistic personality that propelled her to the top also destroyed her relationships and ultimately nearly killed her, detailing her many plastic surgeries, addiction and eating disorders. In one unforgettable anecdote, she performs high on cocaine before collapsing in the wings. Kirkland’s elaborate, often gothic prose is as compulsively readable as she was watchable on stage.
8. Life in Motion by Misty Copeland
Copeland was the first African American female soloist in the history of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. At 13, she came to the barre relatively late and from a chaotic home life, but talent and drive quickly saw her outshine her peers. Copeland is frank about the racism and sizeism she experienced in an environment that still favours pale skin and narrow hips. She turns the spotlight back on the women of colour who wore pointe shoes before her: the way she talks about her mentor Raven Wilkinson is especially moving. There’s also an abridged, accessible version for younger readers, for so many of whom Copeland is an icon.
9. Bolshoi Confidential by Simon Morrison
The book opens not with the founding of the theatre in the 18th century but in the 21st, with an acid attack in a freezing Moscow street, the work of a disgruntled dancer. And that scandal is only a footnote in the Bolshoi’s history. Bombings, terror threats, organised crime, corrupt politicians – there is seemingly no aspect of Russian history that hasn’t affected the Bolshoi. Morrison’s book takes us from the company’s tsarist beginnings, through revolutions and coups to its present status as a flagship of Putin’s neo-imperialism.
10. No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton
Primary school teacher Bruton’s book is a Ballet Shoes for our times. Aya is a Syrian refugee in Manchester, her love of ballet the only constant between the horrors of her past and an uncertain present. The ballet storyline is interspersed with unflinching flashbacks – Aya fleeing the rubble of Aleppo, going through Turkey in a container, crossing the Mediterranean in a storm. Ballet in fiction is often a place of cruelty and excessive discipline, but here it is ultimately the medium through which Aya comes to terms with her losses, and begins to build a future.
Watch Her Fall by Erin Kelly is published by Hodder & Stoughton. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.