Customer Reviews of Dancer
So I bought this book at the airport -- assuming it was going to be a present for a member of my family when I got home.
How foolish of me.
I started to flick through the pages on the plane and was immediately sucked in. The way the book starts really is astounding --- and the worlds it cuts through as it continues on its journey is breathtaking.
The story is told from different people's viewpoint of Nureyev's life and what they remember of it. The fabric of it all is of course what they remember is the story -- it may not necessarily be the truth of Nureyev's life.
The characters themselves are so wide and varied that at times you want to rush forward to hopefully meet up with them again. But also at the same point there are times when you want to stop and start the book again --- just to re-experience it.
All in all a really wonderful book --- surely destined for something great.
Dancer who met the Author
Buy this book and read it. I have never read a ballet novel that rose above the level of execrable. This one is a masterpiece. That the NY Times gave it a merely descriptive review should only alert you to the noncommittal torpor into which their book section has drifted of late.
I went to a reading Mr. McCann did here and everyone spent the evening cooing about Nureyev; I saw him here, we worked together there, seeing him on tv inspired me to........ nobody said a word about how brilliant this book is, least of all Mr. McCann, who seems genuinely surprised by it, as if he awoke one Easter Sunday and discovered each of its pages in baskets hidden in his house.
What's slick about the book is that the presentation reflects the subject. As monumental, as unerringly unique as Nureyev's achievements were, and in spite of his incivility to most of the people he encountered, EVERYONE could relate to him in some very personal way, so the book examines him in short vignettes from the viewpoints of the people around him, some of them historical, some fictional, some not even identified.
At the reading Mr. McCann said that he had made up a name for one of Rudik's teachers, and when he visited the real teacher's grave in Russia, the woman who tended the cemetary had his fictional character's name! Now that's either really remarkable, or it's really first rate blarney; either way I admire him for saying it. It's precisely the risk that great artists are addicted to.
The book shows the immense power of our art form to draw all the threads of history into the fabric of the present and the future. It also demonstrates how a dancer starts with mud, blood, and determination and creates the airiest of fantasies.
Mr. McCann is an ecstatic with his feet firmly on the ground, so Nureyev is the perfect hero for him. One segment, I believe the only one from Rudik's POV (other than his "to do" list), that describes one turn around the stage in about 3 pages (I don't have it here, you will know it when you read it) reminds me of that central chapter in Great Gatsby about the party at Gatsby's house that ends "one girl tosses down a drink for courage, steps onto the floor, and the world flies away...." That is, the descriptive power is so realistic and yet the subject matter is so transcendent that we are launched on a miraculous centripetal joyride into the unknowable. Melville's rapturous, rhythmic descriptions of the sea come to mind too.
Whatever you think of Nureyev you shouldn't miss the experience of reading this book. I personally feel all those "Man of the Century" lists three years back were rendered meaningless by omitting him from nomination, not because of his greatness but because so much of what happened in the 20th century flowed through his life. McCann has given us a work of literature as audacious, entertaining, and pitilessly brilliant as its subject.
Didn't think I was going to like this book much -- I know nothing about and don't care all about ballet, and all I knew about Nureyev was the popular myth of a life lived extravagantly. I'd read McCann before, and thought he was pretty good, but, basically, couldn't have been less interested in this book. But I bought it because of the quote on the back from Aleksandar Hemon, who's one of my favorite writers (and who I can't imagine writing about dance, but maybe...) and I'd never seen a quote from him before. And I guess this is the way those back-of-the-book quotes are supposed to work: it made me take a chance on something I never would have read -- and it turned out to be the best book I've read in months, easily one of the two or three best I've read this year. I read it basically in one sitting (two days of sustained, obsessive reading). I still don't care about ballet, though I can now imagine caring, but the book's not really or at least not only about dancing. It's about a person named Rudi, a person named Rudi who dances with preternatural grace, but more importantly a person named Rudi who moves through the 20th century on the most astonishing arc of a life, the beauty of his work and the generosity of his spirit changing forever the lives of all the people who witness his progress. But the fact that this arc begins in the cold poverty of WWII Russia and makes it all the way to NYC's coke-fueled, sex-filled, money-burning go-go 80s allows McCann to write about much more than one remarkable person -- he opens the book with some of the best, most visceral writing about war I've ever read, and by the end is writing tender love stories about cobblers and French maids, and he's more than up to all of it. It's a difficult book to describe: it's a book full of so much, and it's all so well done, but in the end it's even more than the sum of those parts. Truly astonishing.
Falling in Love with Rudi
Although I have always held a deep love for the ballet, I had never given much thought to dancers I had never seen on stage, except to keep a detached respect in the back of my mind. However, upon reading McCann's book, I have fallen in love with the passionate, willful dancer who is the subject of his novel. Immediately captured by the beginning description of the horrors of WWII and intrigued by his portrait of young Rudik as a boy, I found myself unable to extract myself from the novel. In addition, it made me long to learn more about Rudi--to look at photographs, samples of his dancing, non-fictional biographies. I highly recommend this book for anyone loving dance--but beware. Some of the facts have been changed or omitted to improve the book's readability. If you are someone who gets frustrated by minor deviations from bare facts, this book is perhaps not for you. For anyone else who enjoys richly drawn characters, skillful writing, and engaging stories, buy this book today, for it is surely worth the read.
"A sort of hunger turned human."
Dancer is an extraordinary novel, affecting me more profoundly than any other novel I have read in a long time. Vivid and hard-edged, rather than lyrical and beautiful, it fuses fact and fiction seamlessly, bringing to life ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and the many secret worlds he inhabited. From his first public performance, when, at the age of five he performed an exuberant dance in a hospital ward for Russian soldiers wounded in World War II, he was considered more athletic than subtle, and as he grew older, his legs were regarded as the source of "more violence than grace."
Nureyev's "wild and feral" style of dance meshes perfectly with McCann's prose. Paralleling the athleticism and drive of Nureyev, McCann's writing is bold and straightforward, characterized by short, powerful, descriptive sentences, often in a simple subject-verb-object pattern. Avoiding all frills and sentimentality, McCann favors strength over lyricism, and power over prettiness.
Through the first person observations of almost two dozen characters who touched Nureyev's life in some way, McCann shines light on Nureyev's personality and his development as a dancer. His family, teachers, lovers, and even a schoolboy bully, a stilt-walker, and the captain of an airplane, who filed an "incident report" about his atrocious behavior aboard a plane, all comment on his actions and the choices he makes, personally and professionally, as his career soars.
The deprivation and sadness experienced by most of these sensitive observers in their own lives contrasts vividly with the excesses and hedonism of Nureyev's adult life and illuminate, without need for authorial comment, his arrogance and boorishness. At the same time, however, these multiple viewpoints also humanize Nureyev in many ways by showing the extent to which these other characters are connected by love to others and to their history, while Nureyev becomes a "living myth...cared for and coddled and protected by the mythmakers."
Filled with intriguing characters, ranging from simple Russian peasants to Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, John Lennon, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and the stars of ballet, the novel is a monument to the power of the creative spirit and a testament to the dangers inherent in a life from which all other controls have been removed. Rudi always "tore [a] role open...by the manner in which he presented himself, a sort of hunger turned human." McCann brings this voracious human to life. Nureyev leaps off these pages in a huge and stunning grand jete. Mary Whipple