The Everyday Dancer

The Everyday Dancer
Deborah Bull
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £14.99

Deborah Bull, for many years one of England's leading ballerinas, should know a thing or two about the thrill of living in the spotlight. She spent more than two decades at the heart of the Royal Ballet, performing with other stars such as Jonathan Cope and Darcey Bussell. She has premiered new work by Wayne McGregor and Siobhan Davies and danced classics by Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan.

Bull became a principal performer with the company on the eve of British ballet's great leap into modernity at the turn of the 21st century, just as a refurbished Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Ballet, opened its doors to a new era. Dancers could count on the comfort of airy studios and light-filled dressing rooms where previously they had huddled together in corridors and corners. At the same time, the emergence of Lycra was bringing about revolution of a different sort, as ballerinas said goodbye to the wrinkly knees and pale pink nylon of the past, cladding themselves in bright, skintight, flexible dancewear.

So, Bull's latest book, The Everyday Dancer, should be able to give us her distinct perspective on the buzz of having worked through this exciting period of modernisation. The narrative is shaped around the elegant conceit of a dancer's life told through the regular routine, from morning class through to evening performance, and promises an honest account of the business of ballet.

Bull meticulously talks us through the structure and shape of a dancer's day. She tells us how one should stand at the barre, what and when ballerinas should eat, how to prepare the perfect ballet shoe. Along the way, we gather fascinating information, such as a dancer's vital statistics, which include "point to point" measurements (the distance from one nipple to the other). We discover that an asymmetric skirt might be on a designer's wish-list, but can make dancing impossible, throwing a ballerina's weight off-centre. Yet what starts as a guided tour by an informed insider soon begins to feel like reading a railway timetable. All those years of being drilled in the precise art of timing may add up to a great dancer on stage but, in a book, the obsessive timekeeping, the constant references to schedules, become repetitious and start to seem uninventive.

There is also the problem of our knowing perhaps too much of the reality of the ballet world. It was the wife of a former Royal Ballet dancer, the writer Julie Kavanagh, who in 1996 finally broke the taboos surrounding the company in her often sexually explicit biography of Ashton, Secret Muses. With the publication of this and other books such as Meredith Daneman's biography of Margot Fonteyn and Peter Watson's revelatory study of Rudolf Nureyev, the vanities, peccadilloes, tyrannies and bullying of ballet have long been in the public domain. As a result, classical dance can never pretend to be quite so prim and proper again.

What we get here, however, is more redolent of the ballet books of yesteryear, in which it was enough to gush about one's craft. Though Bull emphatically does not set out to write a kiss-and-tell or an exposé, it is hard to take seriously her repeated assertions about how nice it all is. When she writes of getting cast in The Firebird, all she recalls is that she was "very pleased". And when she is chosen to perform a nerve-racking solo, one of her peers whispers: "Don't worry - we will all applaud." We hear too much about how marvellous it is to have a bespoke shelf in one's dressing room to apply shellac to pointe shoes and not enough about the angst at being passed over for a role or the moments before curtain-up. In short, The Everyday Dancer does not communicate the extreme sensory, emotional or physical experience of dancing. Instead, it gives us platitudes and truisms that belie the deep knowledge that Bull indisputably has of her subject.

There is still a book to be written about the harsh physical challenges of dancing, the disappointments, the elation of standing in front of a wildly applauding crowd. One doesn't just want gossip about which celebrated dancers argued or slept with each other; what readers and balletomanes everywhere would relish is a well-written book that takes us under the skin of ballet. The Everyday Dancer, in contrast, is as coldly detached and distant as the rictus smile of a prima ballerina.

Suzy Klein is a presenter for BBC Radio 3

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B