For Martha Schabas' first novel and for someone who is not a ballet dancer or a self-confessed balletomane she has written a brave and compelling story set within the world of ballet. Various Positions is not frills, pink pointe shoes and sweetness. It delves into some heavy issues but instead of trivializing the world of ballet and using ballet as the all encompassing element for her story, she just utilizes it as a setting and context. The main issues the characters deal with and the experiences of the protagonist are things that can so easily happen in any part of the world, but it's interesting how Schabas uses ballet to highlight the darkness within each of them. It's no Black Swan and it's not at all a supernatural themed story with any over the top thriller sequences. It does deal with some serious issues however.
To describe the story without giving away too much detail, I would probably liken it to a modern-day Lolita tale that goes horribly wrong and then veers off towards a Fatal Attraction-meets-Jordan Scott's film - Cracks (starring Eva Green) but with a few gender differences. The story examines the teacher-student relationship and how the world of ballet can have the effect of "blurring the lines" of appropriateness. That is not to imply or say that the ballet world is steeped in abuse and filled with dark perverse secrets. Not at all. But it's the nature of the art itself and the demands that are required of the body - the pursuit for perfection and how a teacher is supposed to help guide their student and understand what is required of their body for the technicalities of ballet which can in some ways, as highlighted in this novel, be dangerous and yet, for Schabas prove to be such a perfect setting. She could have easily used the world of gymnastics or any other competitive sport to highlight her story - the things that happen in the novel could easily happen in a high school or a boarding school even, however she has chosen ballet.
I will repeat that Martha Schabas is not a former ballet dancer or teacher. She is a Scholar of Queen's University and her expertise is literature and creative writing. She does know how to research - I will grant her this. For ballet dancers or those associated very closely with the ballet world, any story that is concocted within the world of ballet is heavily scrutinized for its technicality and accuracy. The Black Swan's, Centre Stage's, Fame's - all those films have been (and still are) heavily scrutinized for their accuracy from the dance world. Just Google Black Swan and "ballet dancer's thoughts" and you will get a myriad of criticism regarding its portrayal of the ballet world. I think for a writer, a director, or even an actor for that matter - anyone involved in film or literature, to delve into the ballet world can be a tricky business - so you will want to get your facts right. Granted I still believe Darren Aronofsky did a fabulous job with his film and I stand by the testament that the film itself is intended to be over the top and heavily exaggerated - but that is a different argument and topic of discussion altogether. Let's stay focused on Schabas' gripping novel.
Schabas has been careful to remain as accurate as possible to the terminology and specifics of ballet. She has gone to the trouble to research different Ballet's - she doesn't reference Swan Lake once (thank goodness) but she does reference other ballets which may not have been known to the average individual - for example, Sir Kenneth MacMillan's masterpiece, Manon. Manon is referenced throughout this novel and it almost becomes a theme within itself - the "doomed ingenue", it almost becomes symbolic of the protagonist's own fate. She has also gone to the trouble to research the daily routine of a professional ballet school and what classes a student participates in, referencing technique, pointe, pas de deux. I commend her for at least doing some research on the individual ballet steps themselves. She has taken an active interest in portraying the artform of ballet as accurately as she possibly can. Of course, there are some errors that one can pick at such as her portrayal of ballet school auditions - usually, there is only the panel of adjudicators observing the audition and the pianist. Members of public are not invited to observe. Nevertheless, overall, she has done a good job at demonstrating her respect for ballet by remaining as faithful as she can to what is real.
There are a few exaggerated elements in the novel, like her depiction of the ballet teacher, Roderick - whom comes off as a domineering bully and not even half the comments that leaves his lips during the story I believe, in Western Society, a ballet school in this day and age would get away with. Maybe twenty, thirty years ago possibly - definitely I could see this kind of behaviour in former-Soviet ballet schools, but not in New York (where this story is set). All the characters have their own idiosyncracies however and Schabas is careful to make sure that each ballet student is not a carbon copy of one another (which is refreshing). Her protagonist, Georgia Slade is a ballet-crazed teen whom admires the legendary Gelsey Kirkland and dreams of becoming a successful ballet dancer. She is fourteen and just beginning to learn about the adult world - Schabas is flawless in executing this character and highlighting her inexperience and immaturity as well as her view on the world. You are introduced to her family - her psychiatrist father who is painted to be a man that is less than amused with girls and their aspirations to be a dancers; her mother who I believe for much of the novel one spends speculating whether this woman is mentally ill as her behaviour is so erratic and withdrawn - however, you learn later on that there are reasons behind her strangeness and you discover that throughout the novel you are looking at the world through Georgia's eyes, which unfortunately, do not pay much attention to what is going on around her outside the world of ballet - which kudos must be granted to Schabas because this is so true of so many teenagers, they won't admit it, but a lot can pass through them without their knowledge simply because they are not aware of what is really happening and too concerned or preoccupied with what they deem is important. You are also introduced to her half-sister Isobel, who is a central support mechanism for her for much of the story and later, Isobel's mother, Pilar - an intelligent Scholar herself.
It is interesting to note that all of Schabas' female characters that are related to Georgia are all "Women of the University" - all of them studying, or have had studied, Psychology. They are all very intelligent and independent thinkers in their own right. There are no dimwit females in this story and any hint of stupidity is explained away as immaturity.
The story deals with issues that include adolescence, growing up, competition - healthy and the unhealthy, obsession, anorexia, even mental health issues such as depression. It also delves heavily into sex and how a young female comes to understand the nature of sex within society. Schabas is very clever with how she deals with this topic - it does not come off as perverse but instead you come to understand how it feels for someone so young to be learning about this part of being human.
Overall, this is an excellent novel and a great effort for Schabas' first. I look forward to her next book (as I hear she is currently writing away now) - ballet or no ballet, it will no doubt be a great read. For someone who is intimately involved in the world of ballet, I enjoyed this novel and did not at all feel that it was a prude misrepresentation of the artform. Yes there are some little inaccuracies, but you have to give her credit for at least doing her research and for stepping into this world to begin with. Your fiercest critics if you ever decide to delve or present the world of ballet in film or in literature are the ballet dancers and balletomanes themselves. For this critic, it was worth every cent I paid at the book store.