NEW YORK CULTURE
Ballet's Gritty Inside Story
The ethereal beauty of ballet depends in part on not acknowledging the grit, sweat and gnarled feet that make it possible—especially among the unknown dancers in the corps de ballet who gracefully toil in the ballerinas' shadows.
On Oct. 10, one of those unsung performers will step forward with a fictionalized insider's account of that underdog experience.
"Bunheads," a young-adult novel written by former corps dancer Sophie Flack, depicts a world where the characters' most intimate friends are also their greatest obstacles to success. The dancers are ravaged by eating disorders and driven with questions over what must be sacrificed to succeed—even as they relish moments of exceptional beauty.
"What people see on stage is something that looks effortless, flawless, perfect," said Ms. Flack, 28 years old, who gained fame for criticizing the New York City Ballet after she and 10 other dancers were fired two years ago. "There's a lot that goes into it—a lifetime of training and sacrifice and, every day, working and working."
Ms. Flack performed with the New York City Ballet for nine years until the company let the dancers go, it said, to slash costs.
She was reluctant to talk about her firing in a recent interview.
"It's not something I like to think about a lot," she said, her feet tucked under her on a sofa, as she recalled difficult days. She had danced for nearly a decade and was not ready to be erased.
Now, she said, "I really feel like I've moved on with my life."
A spokesman for the New York City Ballet declined to comment.
Her outspoken interviews in the wake of the downsizing caught the attention of Elizabeth Bewley, an editor at Poppy, an imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
"Something sparked in my imagination," said Ms. Bewley, who contacted Ms. Flack.
Ms. Flack said she toyed with the idea of writing a memoir before ultimately proposing a fictional account. "I realized I had a lot more freedom if I wrote fiction," she said.
She drew heavily on her own diary entries over nine years, producing an intimate look at the grueling and exhilarating life of a corps dancer.
The novel tells the story of Hannah Ward, a 19-year-old dancer at the prestigious "Manhattan Ballet" who comes to question whether the sacrifices required to achieve the status of a soloist are worth the immense costs.
It is a work of fiction but the parallels to Ms. Flack's life are unmistakable. Both Ms. Flack and Hannah are tall and blond, hail from Massachusetts and have architect fathers.
Like Ms. Flack, Hannah is forced to confront to the development of her body in the unforgiving world of professional ballet.
"I had to go through puberty eventually; it's a biological necessity!" Hannah narrates bitterly as she studies herself in a mirror, devastated after an instructor demands she somehow lose weight from her breasts at the risk of being dropped from a production.
With a slight smile, Ms. Flack recalled her own humiliating conversations on the topic and said Hannah might have handled them better.
"There aren't a lot of older dancers who had breasts, so it was difficult for me to find someone to look up to," she said.
With the book, "I sort of was able to rewrite my experience."
In another instance in the book, a dancer collapses backstage, likely after having starved herself. "I can't help thinking about the other [Manhattan Ballet] girls who've damaged themselves," Hannah narrates, listing a series of blood disorders and permanent thyroid conditions she's witnessed, all caused, she says, by unhealthy dieting.
It continues to be an issue, Ms. Flack said.
"We're athletes and in order to be a professional dancer you cannot have a career and starve yourself," she said firmly. "You won't last very long."
Ms. Flack can be pitiless in portraying the unvarnished truth behind even the loveliest productions—like the snowfall scene in "The Nutcracker."
"This 'snow' is swept up for reuse after each performance," Hannah says. "All the dust and dirt and lost earrings" pour down on the dancers every performance, getting slightly more disgusting each time. The fake snow "gets into our hair and our mouths," she writes, "and tastes like permanent marker."
But perhaps the sharpest language in the book is reserved for the head of the Manhattan Ballet, whose characterization evokes the public persona of the ballet master at the New York City Ballet, Peter Martins.
Mr. Martins, who is Danish and a former dancer, has been described as controlling and distant. In "Bunheads," the company leader, Otto Klein, is also a former dancer who wields total control and is handsome but aloof. Ms. Flack writes that he possesses "a certain feline grace and subtle malevolence."
One character calls him a "sadist" and the culture he creates at the company is described, half-jokingly, by another character as "cultish."
Hannah initially resists this description, then muses, "Otto does kind of reign over us. Like, his word pretty much determines the course of our lives. And we can never question him—I hardly know anyone who's even talked to him."
The spokesman for the New York City Ballet didn't respond to requests for comments about the comparison.
When asked about similarities between Mr. Klein and Mr. Martins, Ms. Flack erupted into laughter. "Oh God," she said. "Can I skip this one?"
When pressed, she said, "I'd prefer not to discuss that."
Ms. Flack stressed: "This is fiction. Hannah is not me."
Still, the final story "drew from what I knew from the ballet world first hand," she said.
That is, with a twist: As she embarked on the project, her father gave her some advice.
"This is a great opportunity for you to create the experience you wanted to have," Ms. Flack recalled him telling her. "Walk away on your on your own terms."
Photographs by Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal