Bunheads by Sophie Flack is out today! If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes in a ballet company, then this is going to be your new favourite book…but it's also a tale of first love set against a stunning Manhattan backdrop which will make non-dancers happy too. What's not to like?!
My name is Hannah Ward. Don’t call me a ballerina.
Ballerinas are the stars of the company. They dance center stage under the spotlight, and they get their own curtain calls. Their head shots are printed in the program, with their names in large print. Me, I’m a dancer in the corps de ballet, just one of the dozens of girls who dance in graceful unison each night. My mother thinks I’m a star, but she’s biased.
Besides, the word ballerina sounds too pink, too froufrou. Yes, we wear tutus and tiaras, but only when we perform each night. We spend most of our time hidden from the audience, working as hard as we possibly can to strengthen and control our bodies so that when we step onstage, everything we do looks perfect and effortless.
We rehearse in old leotards, threadbare tights, and torn leg warmers. We rarely buy new dance clothes because we know that most ballet careers are short-lived. Today, for example, I’m wearing a faded navy cotton leotard and black, slightly less faded leggings. There’s nothing pink or froufrou about that.
“Throw yourself into your dancing now,” one of my teachers once said, “because the life span of a dancer can be as short as a fruit fly’s.”
“Five minutes to curtain, ladies. Let’s shake a leg!” Christine, the stage manager, stands in the doorway with her hands on her hips. Her headset crackles, and she hastily barks something into it, then turns back to us. “Adriana, you don’t even have your shoes on. Am I going to have to hold the curtain?”
Adriana wrinkles her pointy, powdered nose and holds up her shoes, plus the needle and thread she’ll use to sew herself into them. “See, I’m doing it,” she responds. “Anyway, there’s plenty of time. I have the whole overture.”
Christine smiles then, looking affectionate but also a little tense. It’s her job to make sure that every performance of the Manhattan Ballet goes the way it should. This means worrying about everything from the placement of the spotlights to the egos of prima ballerinas. With one last glance at us, she turns and scurries out, her short, platinum blond hair sticking up in all directions. “Places,” she calls.
I sympathize with Christine: It looks chaotic in here. We’re backstage in the Green Room before a Friday night performance, and all around me dancers are being fastened into their pristine white tutus. The room is a tangle of satin, tulle, and long, lean limbs. Some girls look deep in thought, while others chat loudly with one another. On the floor are discarded bits of clothing, lone pointe shoes, leg warmers, and half-empty water bottles.
“I took, like, eight Advil today,” a dark-haired dancer named Olivia says as she smacks her gum. “I hope I don’t die before the curtain comes down.”
“You’d better not let Christine see that gum or she’ll grab it right out of your mouth,” Adriana says as she sews into her pointe shoes. Her legs are long and almost skeletally thin.
But as I step into my own circle of ridged white tulle, I leave the chaos behind. It happens every time I dress for Waltz Variations: I feel as if I’ve time-traveled to a past, more glamorous era.Fake diamonds drip down my sternum, and my false eyelashes seem as large and as dark as butterfly wings. Laura, one of the dressers, fastens the hooks on my bodice as I pull on my ivory gloves.
As soon as my costume is secure, I scurry out through the Green Room curtain and into the hands of the hairdressers. My friend Zoe is already there, impatiently tapping her foot in its pink pointe shoe.
“Hurry,” she growls as a flustered hairdresser attaches a diamond headpiece to Zoe’s pale blond bun. “No, that’s not it!” She pushes the hairdresser’s hand away.
Because there’s hardly any time, I decide to secure my headpiece myself. And apparently Zoe has decided to do this as well, because she shoves the hairdresser out of the way and steps in front of me, blocking my view of the mirror.
“I’m on before you,” I tell her, but she’s too busy with her bobby pins to listen. I place the diamond-encrusted tiara around my bun while trying to peer around Zoe, who refuses to relinquish her place before the mirror. I stab myself in the scalp with a bobby pin. “Ouch,” I yelp. Then I sigh loudly. “Z,” I say, “you know, you’re totally in my way.”
“What? Oh, hi, Hannah.” Zoe whirls around as if she’s only just noticed me. Her green eyes feign surprise. Her mouth, like mine, is full of clips and pins.
“Hi,” I say, putting my hands on my hips. “Do you mind?”
Zoe grins, turns back to her reflection, and scoots about a quarter of an inch to her left, so now I can almost see myself in the mirror.
Just as I get the tiara fixed, I hear the intro to my music. I run down the dark hall toward the stage, a piece of loose blond hair trailing behind me. I tuck it up into my bun and cross my fingers that it stays. My partner, Jonathan, is waiting for me in the darkened wings, a reassuring smile on his strong, handsome face. I lean back into his arms and allow him to support my back as he lifts me into the bright lights of the stage.
There I join the dozens of corps dancers, and as we swirl together, it seems as though we are an undulating sea of white. I am lifted off my feet, and it feels like flying.
“Whee!” I exclaim to Jonathan, who giggles.
Above us, chandeliers illuminate our twirling bodies, and I wonder if this is what a prom must be like. I didn’t go to my prom, because I was already performing with the Manhattan Ballet. I’ve seen Pretty in Pink and 10 Things I Hate About You, though, so I can imagine it well enough: There would be limos to ride in, and hidden flasks of liquor; the girls would be dressed Bunheads in strapless satin gowns, and the boys in rented tuxedos. They’d slow-dance under spinning multicolored lights and make out in dark hallways.
Sometimes I think I must have missed something great. But then I tell myself that things experienced onstage are usually more exciting than things experienced in real life anyway.
The music swells, Jonathan lifts me again, and there’s a surge of applause as Lottie, the aging star of the Manhattan Ballet, enters stage left, her auburn hair in a slick, tight twist and diamond studs sparkling in her ears. I can’t see the audience members in the darkened house, but they’re out there in their velvet-cushioned seats, watching us with anticipation and delight.
And I don’t feel like a teenager onstage — I feel like a princess waltzing with her prince.
I wanted to be a dancer for as long as I can remember. When all the other little girls in my neighborhood were riding around on their pink-tasseled bicycles or comparing the latest fashion accessories for their Barbies, I was taking ballet classes at the local studio and fantasizing about dancing the role of Marie in The Nutcracker.
Every day after school, my mom would pick me up and drive me to dance classes in Boston. I’d change into my leotard in the backseat of our minivan and do my bun in the mirrored sun visor. I didn’t fit in with the other kids at school, but when I got to the studio, I felt completely at home. I loved the discipline of the practice: There was always some step to improve upon, some position to perfect. And the adrenaline rush I got from dancing — it was intoxicating.
When I was ten, I told my mom that I was going to be a professional dancer. Instead of smiling and patting me on the head, as if that was just another silly idea from a headstrong fifth grader, she took me seriously. Maybe that’s because she’s an artist herself — a pretty successful ceramicist, to be specific — and so she values the creative impulse over just about anything else.
We began taking road trips to New York City so I could train with some of the best coaches in the country. The summer I turned fourteen, I studied at the Manhattan Ballet Academy, and when August came I was invited to enroll full-time. It was an amazing opportunity, a dream come true. The hitch? It meant moving to New York — alone.
My parents weren’t thrilled at the prospect: My mom worried that I was too young, and my dad worried that I’d get mugged. They had qualms about the academy dorms — were the doors locked at all times, were the floors coed? — and they wondered whether the high school I’d attend, the School of the Arts, offered classes in creative writing, my favorite subject. They realized that, even after I’d made it so far, there was still no guarantee that I’d actually become the professional I wanted to be. That’s why I had to tell them, over one of my mom’s hippie dinners of baked tofu and mashed yams, that this was the chance of a lifetime and that I was willing to take the risk.
I could see them struggling with the idea as they chewed (though my dad may have been struggling with his dinner, too; he’d never liked tofu). They understood that I’d be miserable if I stayed home in Weston, Massachusetts — that every day I’d wish I were at the academy, working toward a chance to be a part of the Manhattan Ballet, which was one of the best companies in the world.
After a few moments I saw my dad nod his head, ever so slightly. My mom turned to me, and her smile was happy and sad at the same time. “All right, then,” she whispered.
Today, five years later, I’m a senior corps member with the Manhattan Ballet. We perform three to four ballets a night to packed houses in New York City, and when we go on tour, our audience can fill five-thousand-seat amphitheaters.
I’m a ballet dancer, but I’m not a ballerina. And it’s the most amazing, wonderful, and crazy life I ever could have imagined.
“Monique’s dress was so busted,” Daisy says as she pulls her silky dark hair into a bun. “It would make Gisele Bündchen look like Susan Boyle.”
I laugh as I sip a venti drip. It’s nine forty-five in the morning, and I’m in the dressing room — my home away from home — listening to two of my three best friends in the company dissect the most recent episode of Project Runway. “Was it really that bad?” I ask.
“I mean, it was a total potato sack,” Daisy says. She leans toward the mirror with her mouth agape as she applies mascara.
“Well, you would know about potatoes,” I smirk, pulling on my black Repetto leotard.
Daisy rolls her eyes and sighs. “God, Hannah, for the last time, it’s Idaho that grows all the potatoes.”
I grin because of course I know that; I just like to tease Daisy because at sixteen she’s the youngest in our dressing room and she’s been in the company for only six months. She’s a total bunhead: She lives and breathes ballet. “Idaho, Ohio, Iowa,” I say, waving my arm dismissively. “They don’t call it flyover country for nothing.”
“I’m from Nebraska,” she says, her dark eyes flashing. Even though she’s from the Midwest, Daisy looks olive-skinned and exotic because her mother is Jordanian. She’s five foot three, with tiny bones, knobby elbows, and a wide, infectious smile. “Nebraska is known for its corn.”
“Oh, riiiight,” I say, smiling. “My bad.”
She sticks out her tongue at me.
“I thought the dress was all right,” Bea says as she pulls her bright red hair into a high ponytail. “I mean, it was kind of baggy, but what she did with the pleating was interesting.”
“Oh, Bea,” I say, “it’s just like you to find something nice to say.”
Beatrice Hall — Bea — is from Maine. Like me, she’s nineteen, and she’s been my best friend since we roomed together at the Manhattan Ballet Academy. She was brought up ultrareligious (as in going to church all the time and praying before you eat and all that), and she’s the youngest of eight kids, so she had to learn patience and diplomacy early on. But Bea has a wicked sense of humor, too. She has huge, beautiful blue eyes and pale, freckled skin. Her ears stick out slightly, and she has incredible coltlike legs that seem to go all the way up to her armpits.
“My mother raised me right,” she says, nudging me with her toe.
I giggle and push it away. “Get your gnarly foot off of me.”
“My gnarly foot? Have you looked at your bunions lately?”
Then the door bursts open and Zoe Mortimer leans in the doorframe, a Diet Coke in her hand. She’s wearing her new cropped Prada blazer and skinny jeans. She looks haughty, as usual, but it’s not on purpose; it’s just the way her face is. She grew up on Park Avenue and is as rich as anyone I’ve ever met. That kind of privilege just shows.
She puts her hands on her narrow hips and grins, looking like the cat that ate the canary.
“What?” Bea demands as she braids her ponytail. “Are you going to tell us why you’re smiling like that?”
Zoe tosses her long blond hair and steps delicately over Bea’s clothes, which are scattered on the floor in piles of tights, leg warmers, sweatpants, and leotards. “Yes,” Zoe says. “Just a sec, I’ve got to get changed.” She slips off her jeans and very slowly roots around in her theater case for a fresh pair of tights.
“Take your time,” I say sarcastically. “Keep building the suspense.”
She grins slyly at me but doesn’t say anything. Then, after she’s changed into a gray Lycra leotard and shell-pink tights, she turns to face us. “Adriana heard that Otto’s going to start rehearsing his new ballet.”
Otto Klein is the director of the Manhattan Ballet, the man who selects the ballets and decides who will dance them — in other words, the man who determines our futures.
“Whoop‑de‑do,” Bea says, sounding bored. She puts the finishing touches on her hairdo and opens one of Zoe’s old issues of Vogue magazine. “Does Gumby think that’s news?”
“Who’s Gumby?” Daisy wants to know. Bea smiles. “Adriana! Because she’s freakishly flexible. Gumby — that green rubber guy who can bend . . . oh, never mind, you’re too young.”
I giggle. “Yeah, but we dance, like, forty different ballets a season. So what’s the big deal about this new one?” I yawn and twist my hair into a high bun.
Zoe raises an eyebrow as she continues. “Adriana said Otto wants to cast a corps girl in the lead, and that’s why he’s been watching class.”
Now, this is news. Daisy puts down her eyebrow pencil, and Bea closes the magazine and sits up a little straighter. I take another sip of coffee and wait for Zoe to continue. Now that she’s mentioned it, I realize that Otto has been around a lot more lately. Usually we see him only two or three times a week, but he’s been slipping into the studio during our center work nearly every day recently. He lingers at the back of the room, along the mirrored wall, his jaw clenched as he taps his fingers on his thigh.
“I saw him giving you the up‑down in class yesterday, Hannah,” Bea says. “The day before, too. Maybe you’ve got a shot at it.”
“You think?” I ask, feeling a little shiver of excitement. “I doubt it,” Zoe snorts under her breath. She leans toward the mirror, retouching the lip gloss on her full, pouty lips.
“Excuse me?” I say. She turns to me and gives me one of her special Zoe smiles, the kind that’s only about 10 percent sincere. “No offense, Han, but I wouldn’t get my hopes up,” she says. She carefully lines her lipsticks up in a neat row. “There are a lot of corps girls for him to choose from. He might have someone else in mind. Like Adriana herself, say. Or like . . .”
“Or like you?” I ask.
Zoe nods. “Yes, like me. I mean, I’m just trying to protect your feelings, Hannah.”
“Yeah, right,” I say, suddenly annoyed. “Of course, you’re only concerned about my feelings.”
“Absolutely!” Zoe replies. She blots the corner of her mouth with a tissue and then makes a kissing face at her reflection.
Daisy and Bea pretend to be absorbed in whatever they’re doing. They’ve learned to stay out of it when Zoe and I have one of our occasional spats.
I meet my gaze in the mirror. Staring back at me is a hazel-eyed teenager with high cheekbones and dark blond hair that sometimes, on rainy days, gets a bit frizzy. I set my jaw and straighten my shoulders. I can feel Zoe looking at me from across the room, but I ignore her. Each of us knows what the other is thinking: That part is going to be mine.
Otto encourages competition between his dancers, as if there weren’t enough already. He likes to put Zoe and me together because we’re both blond and tall, and no doubt he’d get pleasure out of causing a rift between us over a new part. Otto’s of the Nietzschean “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” school.
“Anyway, I’m going out for a puff.” Zoe gets up and throws on a loose cable-knit sweater over her leotard. She’s headed up to the roof, where the smokers like to gather. “Don’t miss me.” The door slams behind her.
“We won’t,” Bea mutters under her breath as she throws a pir of pointe shoes into her theater case. Bea has no patience for Zoe’s attitude; she tolerates her mostly out of loyalty to me. “God forbid someone suggest that Otto was looking at something other than Zoe’s bony behind,” she says when Zoe’s safely out of earshot. “Her ass is so concave, I could eat soup out of it!” She mimes ladling soup into her mouth, and Daisy succumbs to a fit of giggles.
I laugh so hard I nearly spit out my mouthful of coffee, but there’s a part of me that wonders what gets said about me when I leave the room.
“I don’t care what you say,” Daisy sighs, starry-eyed. “I would love to look like Zoe.”
I rest my head on my hands for a moment. Even though she’s kind of a brat, I never like fighting with Zoe. I still have ten minutes before company class, so I decide to go clear the air with her.
I take the elevator to the top floor and hurry up the stairs to the roof. The heavy metal door that says emergency exit only groans as I push it open. There aren’t any windows in the theater — not in the studios or the dressing rooms or anywhere — so the bright September sun makes me squint.
I look around for Zoe, but for some reason she’s not up here. An empty Starbucks cup rolls toward me in the slight breeze. The building’s huge air-conditioning unit makes a loud humming noise and spews hot air over the flat black roof.
I walk to the edge and look down over the plaza. Below me is the vast courtyard of Avery Center. There are clusters of tourists here and there, and I think I see Jonathan, late as usual, hobbling toward the theater because he pulled his ACL in rehearsal yesterday. Behind him the fountain at the center of the plaza sends up sparkling jets of water.
I close my eyes and breathe in, and all thoughts of Zoe vanish. The first autumn bite is in the air, and it marks the beginning of another year with the company.
Is Otto really looking for a corps girl to dance a new lead role? If so, then maybe he’s looking to promote one of us to soloist.
The life span of a fruit fly. “What am I waiting for?” I ask aloud. “This is my year.” I look up at the sky, and the wispy clouds seem to dance overhead. “This year,” I tell them, “I’m going to be promoted.”
I walk to the other side of the roof and look out over the traffic on Broadway. Two taxis are having a honking war, and on the corner of Broadway and Sixty-Fifth, a man in jogging clothes is doing jumping jacks as he waits to cross the street. A yellow school bus disgorges a group of high school students on a field trip to Avery Center. I watch them walk single file up the steps to the plaza, their mouths open in awe at the grand architecture of the buildings.
I spend most of my waking hours in the building directly below my feet, but beyond that lies a whole bustling world. I think of all the neighborhood sights that I never actually see: the lights and crowds of Times Square, the restaurants and bars of Hell’s Kitchen, the galleries of Chelsea, the tree-lined streets of the West Village, and the shops and rock clubs of the East Village. If I weren’t a professional dancer, maybe I’d feel more a part of New York City. But for now this theater is my entire world, and I don’t miss the outside one bit.
I turn and walk back toward the door, scattering a flock of pigeons that had settled on the roof. My pledge will be my secret. “You can do this,” I whisper.