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Gina Pazcoguin's "Swan Dive"


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If preordered, one has access to the book before its launch date.  As not to give spoilers for those who have not had a chance to start the book yet, I'll keep my initial thoughts brief. Pazcoguin writes in a conversational style and is often humorous.  I love the details, the chronology, and the information she gives.  I'm really liking this book. What does everyone else think?

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I read the "exclusive excerpt" in Elle. As an audience member who loves Mr. B's Nutcracker, I'm getting tired of dancers writing how much they hate dancing in it. 

To be clear, I'm not talking about the racism and being uncomfortable with dancing in 'yellowface', that's understandable. It's just annoying to hear about dancers being bored out of their minds dancing the same thing year after year. It's their job. 

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6 hours ago, Petra said:

I read the "exclusive excerpt" in Elle. As an audience member who loves Mr. B's Nutcracker, I'm getting tired of dancers writing how much they hate dancing in it. 

To be clear, I'm not talking about the racism and being uncomfortable with dancing in 'yellowface', that's understandable. It's just annoying to hear about dancers being bored out of their minds dancing the same thing year after year. It's their job. 

You sentiments are totally understandable.  Before I started reading her book, I formed opinions based on excerpts.  But when reading them in their proper context, it takes on an entirely different meaning.  

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12 hours ago, Petra said:

I read the "exclusive excerpt" in Elle. As an audience member who loves Mr. B's Nutcracker, I'm getting tired of dancers writing how much they hate dancing in it. 

To be clear, I'm not talking about the racism and being uncomfortable with dancing in 'yellowface', that's understandable. It's just annoying to hear about dancers being bored out of their minds dancing the same thing year after year. It's their job. 

And yet so many NYCB dancers perform in Broadway shows,  where you do the same show eight times a week for months and years on end.  GP herself did a stint in Cats,  which would have been tough on a lot of people.  There was one member of the original cast who got a story in the NY Times after being in the show for fifteen years!  (During which time she was able to buy two houses and put her kids through school,  so there's that.)

I read the Elle excerpt - not bad.  I never noticed that NYCB had enough minority dancers to have a white cast and a non-white cast for Nutcracker.   She's talking about the corps and solo parts of course.   The only "non-white" Sugar Plum Fairy that I can recall is Maria Tallchief.  I saw her when I was very young and she made an indelible impression on me,  with her glossy black hair,  brownish skin and dazzling white smile.

Pazcoguin is absolutely right about Tea being yellowface minstrelsy.  Honest question - has anyone ever raised concerns about the Arabian dance?  Meanwhile the Times has a nice story about corps dancer Clara Miller's singer-songwriter ambitions,  and a shocking one about ex-Boston Ballet ballerina Dusty Button,  who apparently is more of a rogue than GP in her wildest moments.

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21 minutes ago, On Pointe said:

Honest question - has anyone ever raised concerns about the Arabian dance? 

Yes, but it never stuck.  The original was Francisco Moncion smoking a hookah with four child attendants, changed to the current female solo, one of several bones "for tired businessman."

Although PNB never said, Kent Stowell's Drosselmeier-turned-Act-II-Pasha, with his menace, whips, child slaves, and captive (literally) entertainment, was so politically un-correct that, whatever the box office after the premiere of the Balanchine version, some local calls for the Stowell/Sendak version to be revived is a non-starter.

I don't know that much about Broadway, but aside from Annie and a few others, in how many shows are the adults upstaged by the kids, night after night after night?  Snow -- with the danger of slipping on the paper snow -- and flowers corps can be pretty thankless when you're deeper into your career.  But as the counter to that, Peter Boal's anecdote about ex-senior corps member Nancy Casciano as she was leaving at the end of the season was that she wanted to be in every show and turned down offers for a rest.  Of course, PNB's schedule isn't as brutal as NYCB's, but I wouldn't be surprised if she had wanted to dance every show when she was at NYCB before coming to Seattle.

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1 hour ago, Helene said:

I don't know that much about Broadway, but aside from Annie and a few others, in how many shows are the adults upstaged by the kids, night after night after night?  Snow -- with the danger of slipping on the paper snow -- and flowers corps can be pretty thankless when you're deeper into your career. 

There have been a number of shows where children have prominent roles,  like School of Rock and Matilda.  But the adults know that going in.  I've been in shows with kids,  but I've never heard of adult actors considering them to be competition.  If anything,  they are treated pretty much the same as any other actor.  If they "upstage" the grownups,  it's because they're better performers.  Many Broadway shows have elements that are a lot more dangerous than Nutcracker snow.  That's why you get hazard pay.  The late,  unlamented Spiderman musical took out actor after actor with serious injuries.

You get your thanks at the end of the show when the audience applauds,  and at the end of the week,  when you're paid quite well to do what you love.  

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Yeah, I read dancers’ memoirs for candid reflections on a dancer’s life experience. If that includes some complaints about experiences that, from an audience member’s very different perspective, I cherish — well, I’m not going to get annoyed. That’s part of the deal. It’s showbiz.

”It’s their job.” Well, I complain about my job too.

Edited by nanushka
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I guess I've seen too many ballet performances with kids where the applause is disproportionate to their technical quality.  Of course, a lot of audience members are the family and friends of child performers -- can be in A Midsummer Night's Dream or "Hours" in Coppelia or the kids in Harlequinade as well -- and part of the thrill is seeing and cheering your own.  I haven't seen that much Broadway, but, where I have, and in other professional theater, the kid performers are a lot more skilled than their ballet counterparts until most dancers have a are in their mid-teens and training pre-professionally.

Company dancers, unlike freelancers, who are generally appreciative of the bundle they can make dancing Nutcracker, aren't signing up for one show.  It's a trade-off to dance other rep, get a salary, etc.  They don't always love everything they dance, and the Nutcracker schedule alone is a grind.

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5 minutes ago, Helene said:

I guess I've seen too many ballet performances with kids where the applause is disproportionate to their technical quality.  Of course, a lot of audience members are the family and friends of child performers -- can be in A Midsummer Night's Dream or "Hours" in Coppelia or the kids in Harlequinade as well -- and part of the thrill is seeing and cheering your own.  I haven't seen that much Broadway, but, where I have, and in other professional theater, the kid performers are a lot more skilled than their ballet counterparts until most dancers have a are in their mid-teens and training pre-professionally.

Yes, I adored the Disney+ show On Pointe but it’s true that, at least to my sense, the duo who played the child leads were not Broadway quality for their age. Their training had not primarily prepared them for acting/miming roles.

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34 minutes ago, nanushka said:

Yes, I adored the Disney+ show On Pointe but it’s true that, at least to my sense, the duo who played the child leads were not Broadway quality for their age. Their training had not primarily prepared them for acting/miming roles.

This reminds me that I actually saw Macaulay Culkin play the Nutcracker Prince and sat next to his very excited parents.  Not long after that,  he was cast in Uncle Buck,  then Home Alone,  and the rest is history.

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Pazcoguin writes in a conversational style and is often humorous.  

I suppose foul language and general coarseness of expression does qualify as "conversational style" these days. I found the Elle excerpt difficult to get through and it's not long.  I will withhold judgment until I get hold of the book and come to it with an open mind, but I sure hope the whole thing doesn't read like that.

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As an audience member who loves Mr. B's Nutcracker, I'm getting tired of dancers writing how much they hate dancing in it. 

This put me off also. I'm not saying they should gush about how much they love it, or not be frank about the challenges involved, but at least show some respect and/or take a minute to explain its quality to the reader.  At least NYCB's seasonal cash cow is a masterpiece, not something many other companies can say.

Thank you, ECat, for starting the topic! I look forward to hearing people's views, and I imagine they'll be lively reading. :)

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12 hours ago, dirac said:

I suppose foul language and general coarseness of expression does qualify as "conversational style" these days. I found the Elle excerpt difficult to get through and it's not long.  I will withhold judgment until I get hold of the book and come to it with an open mind, but I sure hope the whole thing doesn't read like that.

This put me off also. I'm not saying they should gush about how much they love it, or not be frank about the challenges involved, but at least show some respect and/or take a minute to explain its quality to the reader.  At least NYCB's seasonal cash cow is a masterpiece, not something many other companies can say.

I suppose it's possible she just doesn't agree with that assessment of Nutcracker as a masterpiece, or just doesn't experience it in that way. She does make a point early on of praising certain specific works (e.g. a highly appreciative description of Concerto Barocco, in the context of discussing the challenges of corps dancing), so she's apparently not immune to their pleasures.

Listening to the book, I've been wondering if the frequent profanity comes across differently in print. On audio, it contributes to conversational voice, though it does at times seem a bit lazy or uninventive. I don't have a particular problem with it, though: language is language. (I don't view profanity as any more "foul" than any other language — except, perhaps, when it involves interpersonal slurs.)

Again, I guess it's a matter of what one turns to particular books hoping to find. For me, the primary appeal of a dancer memoir is not in its prose style; if the prose gives pleasure, that's a bonus. I'm reading the book for the candid insights about a dancer's experience.

Edited by nanushka
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12 hours ago, dirac said:

I suppose foul language and general coarseness of expression does qualify as "conversational style" these days. I found the Elle excerpt difficult to get through and it's not long.  I will withhold judgment until I get hold of the book and come to it with an open mind, but I sure hope the whole thing doesn't read like that.

 

Thank you, ECat, for starting the topic! I look forward to hearing people's views, and I imagine they'll be lively reading. :)

Well I must admit that there is a lot of coarseness and language.  I assume it is a generational thing.  Personally, I found her to be hilarious but I can absolutely see how it would put many people off. In all honesty, I am sad that the book isn't longer. She gives so many details and information about things I've wondered about in the ballet world.

I'm looking forward to hearing people's views as well!  I imagine some strong reactions.

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42 minutes ago, nanushka said:

Listening to the book, I've been wondering if the frequent profanity comes across differently in print. On audio, it contributes to conversational voice, though it does at times seem a bit lazy or uninventive. I don't have a particular problem with it, though: language is language. (I don't view profanity as any more "foul" than any other language — except, perhaps, when it involves interpersonal slurs.)

I'm listening to the audiobook as well and I'm enjoying it. Pazcogiun is an excellent narrator—she sounds authentically herself and she's able to inhabit other voices as well. (Not many authors can narrate their own work well, and even fewer do it with genuine flair, so kudos to her.) I suspect that @nanushka is onto something in observing that the profanity may come across differently on the page; in my ears she sounds like a considerable portion of my acquaintance.

One thing about the audiobook that does give me some pause is Pazcoguin's willingness to mimic the accents of people whose first language isn't English—Peter Martins and Antonina Tumkovsky in the early chapters, for example. I don't think she's trying to mock them by doing so; it's clear that she has nothing but respect and admiration for Tumkovsky and her killer classes:

"These exercises were meant to humble our bodies and build strength—all in sync with the speed of the music ... I willed my body to keep moving, and eventually the anxiety and loneliness started to slide off my shoulders. The combination she was calling out was crazy-intense, like nothing I’d ever done before—but my body and soul were buzzing from delight. My homesickness faded. I no longer cared about who was taller, longer, more experienced, more talented, or had the right weird shoes. I wanted to throw myself all in. I was here to learn Balanchine’s way, and if that meant busting my ass for the Michael “Mickey” Goldmill of ballet, well then, I was down."

While I'm happy that Pazcoguin's editor didn't flatten her voice by ironing out the slang, I'm going to guess that "I was down" will sound as amusingly outdated as "hep cat" a generation or two hence.

While Pazcoguin is clearly out to de-mystify some of the trappings of the ballet world, she's also dead-set on celebrating ballet as an art, and I'm, you know, down with that.

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Well I must admit that there is a lot of coarseness and language.  I assume it is a generational thing.

Oh, certainly not, ECat! Some of our elders would make Pazcoguin sound like Jane Austen. Not to take the thread down the side alley of Profanity Through the Ages, but to take only one example, there is reason to believe that the now almost universal use of the F-word as an intensifier and otherwise was first made commonplace by American GIs in World War II, who had a lot to be intense about (another favorite was "chickensh--;" the men had many good reasons to employ that one, too). I would expect there's a lot of it in the ballet world as well). These uses could be rather ingenious and funny.

 All I can tell you is that the swearwords and hyper-colloquial style did not work for me in this excerpt and made it a slog.  I just hope I get a few breaks from it in the book.

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6 hours ago, Kathleen O'Connell said:

One thing about the audiobook that does give me some pause is Pazcoguin's willingness to mimic the accents of people whose first language isn't English—Peter Martins and Antonina Tumkovsky in the early chapters, for example. I don't think she's trying to mock them by doing so; it's clear that she has nothing but respect and admiration for Tumkovsky and her killer classes:

Well Martins is a white European male,  and he was the boss,   so mimicking (or mocking) his accent could be considered punching up.  But it's an odd stylistic choice for someone dedicated to eradicating Asian stereotypes in the theater.  If she gives her Black and Latino colleagues the same treatment,  which she hints at in the Elle excerpt in print,  it may not be as acceptable to listeners of the audiobook.  

I haven't decided to buy the book yet,  but I hate the cover.  Pazcoguin looks like a drunk sitting on a transparent toilet,  not an artist offering insight to her creative process,  which is my main motivation for reading books by performers.  Gossip gets old faster than slang.

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37 minutes ago, On Pointe said:

Well Martins is a white European male,  and he was the boss,   so mimicking (or mocking) his accent could be considered punching up.  …

I haven't decided to buy the book yet,  but I hate the cover.  Pazcoguin looks like a drunk sitting on a transparent toilet,  not an artist offering insight to her creative process,  which is my main motivation for reading books by performers.  Gossip gets old faster than slang.

Interestingly, her Martins voice sounds (to me) not at all convincing or even successfully mocking. She’s a very good reader but doesn’t seem to have a voice for impressions.

I also don’t much like the cover, though it fits the persona in its “rogue” way.

The book doesn’t seem too gossipy so far. (I’m only a quarter through.) There’s enough substance throughout to keep me, at least, engaged.

Edited by nanushka
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I've just finished Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina. Yes, the style is conversational. Yes, there is profanity. You almost feel like you're sitting down with Gina over drinks or coffee, probably after a long, physical work day. It's a quick read, and I wish it had been longer. If she writes another book I'd like to hear more about her preparation for specific roles in the ballet, even how she learned she was cast, what rehearsals were like. Her love of the art form really comes through, and her dedication to ballet and dance in general.

There is substance to how she recounts her journey. I would caution those that have only read excerpts, or have only read reviews that the book is much more than its excerpts. I thought the most damning account she had regarding Peter Martins was the Hippolyta incident.

 

[mild spoiler]

 

 

 

It showed him letting his temper get the better of him in a way that obstructed the rehearsal process. There was no reason for him to yell at anyone (particularly the way she explains it) and no reason for him to start the music before the performer was ready. 

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Jumping in to say I finished the book and really liked it - I do think some of the coarseness of the language isn't for everyone, but I like that overall she clearly reveres ballet as an artform and takes a pretty realistic and nuanced approach to ballet in the 21st century.  I liked how honest Gina was that ballet is a physical/visual art - so to some degree there will always be pressure to look a certain way - but I liked the nuanced point she made that more often than not the pressure to be stick thin is tied to artistic directors wielding power over young dancers.

The book was pretty short, I got through it in maybe 2-3 days.

Perhaps this would have taken the book too far into the gossip territory, but Gina kept alluding to the tumult immediately after Peter Martins left.  I wished she had dug in more there, and I wanted more around how they picked the new leadership team, what has changed in NYCB since (if anything!), and what the future holds for NYCB.  We got very little insight into the post-Martins era.

I also wished she spent more time reflecting on her time on Broadway.  I think those bits were the most interesting, since I know so little about the Broadway world!  I can very much see why many NYCB dancers end up doing Broadway stints, as it seems like a much healthier atmosphere!  If I had a bone to pick, I'm surprised she tired so much of dancing Nutcracker (and repeatedly called out how devoid it is of artistic expression compared to, say, The Cage) yet didn't seem to have the same issues performing on Broadway.  I assume part of it is the easier pace on Broadway with ample understudies, etc, but I'd love to know more.

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6 minutes ago, Phrenchphry11 said:

I liked how honest Gina was that ballet is a physical/visual art - so to some degree there will always be pressure to look a certain way - but I liked the nuanced point she made that more often than not the pressure to be stick thin is tied to artistic directors wielding power over young dancers.

I was particularly struck by Pazcoguin's analogy between the visual/cognitive impact of a dancer's line and the sound of a bat connecting with a baseball:

"The line is meant to be a full-on experience of the human body, designed in a way that is pleasing to the eye, but beyond the cognitive response of your brain thinking, Huh. I don’t think having your foot that close to your ear is normal. Beautiful line makes watching ballet seamless. It encompasses that just-perfect combination that makes the experience unforgettable. Think the loud crack of a baseball bat that charges the stadium with an energy that signals, Whoa, dude just hit a home run. Your body is out of the seat cheering, your beer splashing before the ball lands in the bleachers ..."

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Great to read all these comments. I'm going back and forth about buying this one. I'm so enjoying Gavin Larsen's Being a Ballerina, I'm afraid Pazcoguin's book might be a rough jolt in terms of voice and presentation. Maybe I'll wait a few months between the two reads. 

 

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1 hour ago, Phrenchphry11 said:

Jumping in to say I finished the book and really liked it - I do think some of the coarseness of the language isn't for everyone, but I like that overall she clearly reveres ballet as an artform and takes a pretty realistic and nuanced approach to ballet in the 21st century.  I liked how honest Gina was that ballet is a physical/visual art - so to some degree there will always be pressure to look a certain way - but I liked the nuanced point she made that more often than not the pressure to be stick thin is tied to artistic directors wielding power over young dancers.

The book was pretty short, I got through it in maybe 2-3 days.

Perhaps this would have taken the book too far into the gossip territory, but Gina kept alluding to the tumult immediately after Peter Martins left.  I wished she had dug in more there, and I wanted more around how they picked the new leadership team, what has changed in NYCB since (if anything!), and what the future holds for NYCB.  We got very little insight into the post-Martins era.

I also wished she spent more time reflecting on her time on Broadway.  I think those bits were the most interesting, since I know so little about the Broadway world!  I can very much see why many NYCB dancers end up doing Broadway stints, as it seems like a much healthier atmosphere!  If I had a bone to pick, I'm surprised she tired so much of dancing Nutcracker (and repeatedly called out how devoid it is of artistic expression compared to, say, The Cage) yet didn't seem to have the same issues performing on Broadway.  I assume part of it is the easier pace on Broadway with ample understudies, etc, but I'd love to know more.

Broadway gives ballet dancers the opportunity to branch out and try their hand at acting and singing.  Performing the same material eight times a week also helps to strengthen abilities.  If you fall a bit short at the Wednesday matinée,  you can redeem yourself at the evening performance.  Broadway shows are products as much as they are artistic expressions,  so there are constant notes and frequent rehearsals to keep performances consistent.  Broadway producers are not interested in your longterm potential.  You get hired for what you can deliver now.

All of this can be very freeing.  You get treated like an adult employee - no one refers to Broadway performers as "boys and girls".  You don't have to put much effort into personal relationships,  unless you want to.  And you can always leave without it affecting your career negatively.

What you can't do is expect your understudy to cover for you on a whim.  You are expected to perform eight shows a week,  unless you're contracted to do fewer because of extreme vocal or dance demands.  Broadway performers are famous for their " the show must go on" work ethic,  even when they're suffering physically or emotionally.

And while the pay is not high by Hollywood standards,  the lowest paid performer in a Broadway show makes over $100,000 per year.  Someone with a ballet reputation,  like Megan Fairchild,  Robert Fairchild or Misty Copeland can negotiate for a lot more.  Misty actually increased the box office for On the Town,  which bodes well for any future Broadway endeavors.

It's not for everyone,  but dancing on Broadway can be a pleasant respite for a ballerina.  Personally though,  while I never tired of dancing in Nutcracker because of Tchaikovsky's glorious score,  I would have gone bonkers in Cats!

Edited by On Pointe
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