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Rita Kohn
Book Reviews

Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet - a book by Stephen Manes

by Rita Kohn
November 31, 2011
Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet
by Stephen Manes
Seattle: Cadwallader & Stern Publishers, 2011. $35 cloth; 912 pages; monochrome photos throughout; notes; index
ISBN: 978-0-9835628-0-1
Also available as an electronic book

Kohn, arts critic and columnist for NUVO Newsweekly and board member of Dance Critics Association, is a playwright and author. Her recently published books include True Brew: A Guide to Indiana Craft Beer [Indiana University Press, 2010] and Full Steam Ahead: Reflections on the Impact of the First Steamboat on the Ohio River 1811-2011 [Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011].
A must read book for anyone vaguely interested in or passionately engaged with ballet [or dance generally]. Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear is a delightfully engaging insider story by an outsider wanting to know, "How does ballet happen?" Stephen Manes uses his clear-cut yet chatty writing style "making arcane worlds accessible to the uninitiated" as a personal technology columnist and as biographer of Bill Gates, to the seemingly inscrutable "Land of Ballet." Manes deftly navigates through the basics of the 2007-2008 season of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. We're in the midst of running a business and making art — a transferable phenomenon to any other such enterprise in any other city. What makes this book about PNB hard-to-put-down is the pace-setting pursuit of running a school of dance and a dance company in a constantly changing economy.

Connecting with and growing an audience and supporters for funding demands the highest levels of business acumen. Income over expenditures requires keeping an eye on balance between what gains and retains the loyalty of people in the seats and in corporate and foundation offices. Manes shows how PNB's artistic and business staffs in unison bring a varied, vigorous and stimulating season to Seattle, working in partnerships with other organizations for the greater good of community, region and genre of dance. In this no off-limits expose we're in the mix at board and staff meetings, classes, rehearsals, casting conferences, major and minor flaps, jealousies and tender moments of support; fitting in as a guest stager, sweating through the arc of turning technique and precision into artistry, waiting to going on, flying across stage going off, glowing into a curtsy and a bow. Cultivating a company of professional dancers is the requisite bottom line.

You get into people's skin, and their shoes. While the actual and metaphorical buck stops with artistic director Peter Boal and executive director D. David Brown, there's a kaleidoscope of drama shifting in bits and pieces as several hundred people move in and out of Manes narrative-laced-with-direct quotes, layered with color. An avid baseball fan, Manes puts us 'in the play.' Probably the most breath-taking expose is "the secret" behind David Parson's Caught and the most honest insider appraisal is what happened with Romeo and Juliet. Dancers are not machines—they have to translate dimensional characterization to an audience of all ages and walks of life. Manes equally shows the significant role of a critic on a company, a dancer, a choreographer, a designer, etc. He quotes reviews and relays reactions to them. At PNB what you learn from doing is on equal par with learning to do. To that end, the role of teachers in both the school and the professional company is fully developed. Numerous tug-at-the heart moments stay with you, as when Bruce Wells, who "has done just about everything there is to do in ballet," recounts his teachers recognizing more about him than he did himself during his teenage years. Wells' story is one of many encapsulating a trajectory getting you into the bones of a dancer.
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