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