'Astonish Me' Raised My Eyebrows, But Not for the Reasons You Might Think
I can only agree with the title. I am astonished.
In 1977, director Hebert Ross captivated American moviegoers with The Turning Point. An inside look into the world of professional ballet, the film starred Anne Bancroft, Shirley Maclaine, Tom Skerritt, and a gorgeous young Russian named Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Based on Ross’s wife, ballerina Nora Kaye, and her friend and fellow dancer Isabel Mirrow Brown, The Turning Point incited a brief bout of American balletomania. Actresses Anne Bancroft and Shirley Maclaine were already superstars; Baryshnikov soon joined them. Co-stars Leslie and Ethan Brown, Mirrow’s children, enjoyed long dance careers.
The '70s was a wonderful time to be a ballet fan. The world had yet to splinter into niche interests: the classical arts had broader appeal. As a child bending her spindly legs into the five positions, I hungrily scavenged any information I could get about dance. By subscribing to Dancemagazine and reading dance books, I learned about George Balanchine and his New York City Ballet. Given A Very Young Dancer for my tenth birthday, I scrutinized Jill Krementz’s photographs for glimpses of the Balanchine ballerinas: Patricia McBride, Colleen Neary, Karin Von Aroldingen. Later I read books by and about Merrill Ashley, Suzanne Farrell, and Gelsey Kirkland.
Although author Maggie Shipstead is barely 30 years old, she is clearly a devotee of the same balletic era. In fact, her second novel, Astonish Me, borrows so heavily from it that I am astonished by the lack of fallout.
Shipstead’s novel follows dancers Joan Joyce and Elaine Costas, corps members in an unnamed, famous New York City dance company run by artistic director "Mr. K.": Mstislav Ilyich Kocheryozkin. The year is 1977.
Lacking both talent and drive, Joan realizes she will never advance beyond the corps. She accepts her career-ending pregnancy with surprising equanimity.
Bancroft to Joan’s Maclaine, Elaine Costa is a talented, driven mashup of multiple dancers, including Farrell, Kirkland, and Merrill Ashley. Astonish Me’s most interesting character, Elaine, devotes her life to dance and Mr. K. Their relationship mimics Balanchine and Farrell’s intense artist/muse bond.
Like Kirkland, Elaine is fond of cocaine, though she’s too disciplined to become addicted. Also like Kirkland, Elaine has mastered the role of Don Quixote’s Kitri, including its infamously difficult "bravura sissone leap".
Mr. K. is homosexual. Otherwise, his history is identical to Mr. B’s. Both fled Russia for the States, bringing with them a balletic style emphasizing speed and technical prowess. Each becomes known for choreographing plotless ballets that exploit a ballerina’s specific gifts before growing restless and moving on to new flesh.
Balanchine famously irritated Kirkland by telling her: "Don’t think, dear, just do." Mr. K., speaking to Elaine, instructs: "Just dance. It’s only about the steps."
As for the wild speculation surrounding Farrell and Balanchine -- did they or didn’t they? -- see Elaine, lunching with Joan: "And after we’re dead, people will still be wondering if we had sex. "
Arslan Rusakov is clearly modeled on Baryshnikov. With Joan as his lovingly naïve assistant, he defects from the USSR to Toronto. Baryshnikov also defected to Toronto, aided by American girlfriend Christina Berlin, here the socialite Felicia. Once stateside, the hugely gifted Rusakov dumps Joan, taking up with ballerina Ludmilla Yedemskaya. Ludmilla, a fellow defector is "custard blond", with a penchant for headscarves and unitards. See Baryshnikov’s former lover, fellow defector and dance superstar Natalia Markarova.
Shipstead’s Stanford education, numerous awards, prior publications and bestseller status all attest to her skill. So does a plot wound finely as a Swiss timepiece. Why then, did this talented writer borrow so generously from a famous film and actual dancers’ lives without noting her sources? Following that, why has nobody else found this questionable?
Acknowledgments in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Kate Moses’s Wintering, Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister cite the people, places, and written sources informing their fictionalized accounts of actual persons. Had Shipstead done his, I’d feel far differently about Astonish Me. I have no wish to attack Shipstead, and understand the line between "reality" and invention a wriggly thing. But so much of Astonish Me takes from actual events and drops them, unadulterated, into the plot.
This leaves me unable to join the happy chorus surrounding Astonish Me. Instead, I can only agree with the title. I am astonished.