The show must go on

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark considers the enduring appeal of ballet fiction

Since Noel Streatfeild first wrote tales of starry eyes and sore feet in Ballet Shoes (1936), stories about stage-struck young dancers have had mass-market appeal. Streatfeild's books are enjoying something of a renaissance as several of her books - including Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes - have been reissued by Hodder (Pounds 3.99 each).

Today, however, there is a different market for ballet stories. Streatfeild, Pamela Brown (Stage Door) and Lorna Hill (A Dream of Sadler's Wells) in their heyday captivated teenage girls; today's titles are pitched younger.

Extracts from classic ballet fiction, collected by the doyenne of the new corps of ballet writers Harriet Castor in Ballet Stories (Kingfisher Pounds 5.99), map a shift from intense interest in the details and neuroses of performers (lasting until the 1970s), to today's soap operas, where ballet is just a background. The jolliness of Castor's "Grace" (who isn't graceful), and Jahnna N Malcolm's "Rehearsal Revenge" contrast with the drudgery depicted in the autobiographies of Lynn Seymour and Dame Margot Fonteyn. It's odd how such an erotic, strenuous and technical art form now decorates stories more akin to Neighbours than The Nutcracker.

Even series by today's accomplished storytellers - for example, Little Swan by Ad le Geras (Red Fox Pounds 2.99 each) and Dancing Shoes by Antonia Barber (Puffin Pounds 2.99 each) - do not deliver the rich detail of Lorna Hill's novels or James David Landis's story, "Ugly Feet are Beautiful" (in the Kingfisher collection).

Castor's Ballerinas series (Hodder Pounds 3.50 each) reveals her as the true heiress of Streatfeild and Co. Her books feature ballet as it is danced, with one exception - black dancers hardly figure in them, despite the numbers of them in the profession.

There is a welcome dash of multiculturalism in Diane Redmond's Starstruck stories (Hodder Pounds 3.50 each), while Emily Costello's entertaining Ballet School books (Mammoth Pounds 3.99 each) follow a multicultural group of 10-year-olds from West Coast America. Stage School by Geena Dare (Orchard Pounds 2.99 each), an American series, features one black dancer. In all three series, in defiance of real life, the girls support each other and steer clear of obsessional behaviour. It's good for you, but is it ballet?

Dance tales retold

The Orchard Book of Stories from the Ballet (Pounds 12.99Pounds 8.99), retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, evokes 10 of the most famous ballets including "Swan Lake" (pictured below left), "The Nutcracker" and "The Firebird". McCaughrean's lush prose brings out the lyricism and musicality of ballet, but she also captures its drama in snatches of crisp dialogue and rapid action. Her descriptions, which veer between the magical and the comic, also echo the flickering grace of dance; her frequent appeals to the reader ("How would you feel?" she asks) mimic the effect of a stage performance, reaching for imaginative response. In much the same way, Angela Barrett's illustrations depict either three-dimensional stage sets or magical details (feet, hands). A book to savour either as a companion to performance or in its ownright.

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