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Rita Kohn
Book Reviews

Book Review: Stephen Manes' Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet

by Rita Kohn
October 31, 2011
Rita Kohn is a member of the Board of the Dance Critics Association.
A must read book for anyone vaguely interested in or passionately engaged with ballet [or dance generally]. Stephen Manes' Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet is a delightfully engaging insider story by an outsider wanting to know, "How does ballet happen?" 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 goings on of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet during their 2007-2008 season. We're privy to PNB's business dealings and art making — a transferable phenomenon to any other such enterprise in any other city. What makes this book about PNB hard-to-put-down is the fast-paced pursuit of running a dance school and dance company in a volatile 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 the balance between what gains and retains private patrons and corporate and foundation sponsors. Manes shows how PNB's artistic and business staffs bring a varied, vigorous and stimulating season to Seattle, working in partnership with other organizations for the greater good of the community, region and the dance world.

In this unfettered expose we sit in on board and staff meetings, classes, rehearsals, casting conferences. We experience major and minor flaps, jealousies and tender moments. We see through the eyes of a guest répétiteur, sweat through the arc of turning technique and precision into artistry, get a backstage view of dancers waiting to going onstage and seeing them onstage from the wings. 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. An avid baseball fan, Manes puts us 'in the game'.

Probably the most enlightening section is "the secret" behind choreographer David Parson's "Caught" and the most honest an insider appraisal of what happened with PNB's production of "Romeo and Juliet".

Manes shows the significant role of a critic on a company as well. He quotes reviews and relays reactions to them by dancers, choreographers, designers, etc. 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 of getting you into the bones of a dancer in the book.

More information at www.cadwalladerandstern.com
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