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Tiny Dancer

COLLUSION: Memoir of a Young Girl and Her Ballet Master;\o7 By Evan Zimroth; (HarperFlamingo: 230 pp., $23)\f7

May 09, 1999|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the cultural reporting and criticism department at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book Review

Evan Zimroth's story goes like this: When she is 12, Zimroth, an ambitious ballet student, falls under the sway of an older Russian ballet teacher--identified (rather annoyingly) only as F. He is seductive, controlling, a bully. He promises to make her a great dancer, but his methods are odd, and they include, most significantly, whacking his students with a cane--on the arm, the thigh, the wrist, the ankle--sometimes as a form of correction, sometimes as a form of punishment and sometimes, perhaps, as a form of fun. Zimroth is romantic and emotionally starved and falls madly in love with him. But after two years of study, she flouts his authority, and he kicks her out of his school. She goes on to become a dancer--although not, by her own admission, a great one. Years after they part, F. and his former student meet, and the great obsession of Zimroth's life barely remembers her.

In recounting her story, Zimroth expertly reveals the paradoxical mind-set of the young girl who is drawn to ballet: stoical yet daring; submissive yet narcissistic; ecstatic yet disciplined; self-critical yet audacious. She reveals, too, the ways in which ballet functions as religion: Zimroth yearns "[t]o purify myself, to pare myself down to some formal essence of beauty . . . to achieve the tensile delicacy and fastidiousness that a life in ballet demanded." Like so many other girls who become dancers, Zimroth aches for authenticity, spirituality and self-expression and--mysteriously, preternaturally--finds the strict idiom of an 18th century French art form the perfect vehicle for achieving them. Thus, she scorns the improvisational, freestyle dance class in which her mother briefly enrolls her: "I wanted order and beauty and the stylized disposal of the limbs."

Yet from the beginning, "Collusion" is a tease. Zimroth drops a series of hints that suggest, at least to the ballet aficionado, that F. may be George Balanchine--which would indeed be shocking news, because Balanchine was known for his unerring courtesy to his dancers. "F. . . . stares at us, his wiry, lithe body folded together, knees crossed, elbow on knee, and head in hand. . . . He has a hooked nose, I notice, and intense, brooding eyes that measure us, as if he were calculating when to uncoil himself and spring." Anyone who has studied with Balanchine, or even seen Martha Swope's photos of him in rehearsal, will instantly recognize this portrait. It is with a start, then, that the reader realizes, some pages later, that F.'s ballet academy is not even located in New York City (though we are never told where it is), and that F. could not, of course, have been Balanchine. Indeed, far from being a great master, it slowly emerges that F. is not just a has-been but a never-was, "a lesser figure in a legendary ballet dynasty," whose "life in the ballet world had not gone quite as he had hoped." His children, his three marriages and, from all available evidence, his career: "How bitterly disappointing they all were," Zimroth writes.

Zimroth regards F.'s training techniques--his mind games, his insults, his physical abuse (he hits his students' hands with a hairbrush as they turn, measuring their velocity by how much blood is sprayed)--as the paradigm for all ballet training and the template of all ballet discipline. "[D]ancers covet violence as a gift," Zimroth pronounces; the smack, she writes, epitomizes "the very moment--the sharp, transient moment--of intimacy. . . . [F]or a dancer it takes on breathtaking sweetness; a dancer can't get enough of it."

These assertions may sound bizarre to the non-dancer, and I suspect they will sound equally bizarre to most professional dancers and dance students too. It is not at all clear how or why Zimroth has decided that her own experiences of violence are typical. And because she never deigns to identify F. or his school, she has shielded herself from any judgments about how representative--or aberrant--those experiences really were.

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