(Erin Kelley’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/26; Photo: The Bolshoi ballet premieres its production Krakatuk in Moscow in January 2020. Photograph: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Tass.)

From Noel Streatfeild to David Hallberg, this is a literature of passion and madness, ambition and addiction

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.

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