Various Positions by Martha Schabas ~ 2011. This edition: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-374-38086-1. 325 pages.
My rating: 5/10. Reasonably readable, but left me feeling queasy.
Well, my last review was of a sensitive coming-of-age novel set in the late 1930s, Maureen Daly’s deliciously sensuous Seventeenth Summer. I have just read the contemporary counterpart, young Torontonian Martha Schabas’ highly praised (and seemingly as often highly damned) first novel concerning a fourteen-year-old facing a similar turning point in her life. The two heroines couldn’t be more similar in their focus on themselves and their emerging womanhood, or more different in their morals and actions.
“It was like sex was in everything,” writes Martha Schabas in her deeply unsettling first novel, “lodged in men’s heads and drowning in women’s bodies.” The thought is given to Georgia, a 14-year-old student at the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy, whose increasingly fraught and confusing reactions to her own burgeoning sexuality lead her into a horribly inappropriate and dangerous interaction with the academy’s artistic director. Schabas is unforgiving in her examination of the way sex and ballet collide, often with terrible consequences for the young women who are too innocent to comprehend the nature of the forces they are trafficking in. No lazy moralist, Schabas lays bare the misunderstandings and insensitivities on all sides: the well-meaning adults who want nothing more than to help Georgia in large part end up making things much worse. The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said that being an artist means never averting your eyes. Schabas, to her enduring credit, resolutely refuses to do just that.
Steven. W. Beattie, Quill & Quire, November 14, 2011
First off, though I’ve tagged this story with a “dance” designation, it isn’t really about ballet. The dance academy background does allow for the extreme focus of the characters on themselves, their bodies, and the brutal competition between young teens to be better in every nuance than their peers, which is actively encouraged by the adults in charge of these fragile egos encased in steel-strong musculature tightly strung on still-growing bones and covered by the freshly dewy skin of early adolescence.
And though it’s also tagged “young adult”, and was found on the teen shelves at the library, I’m thinking it’s not really a story for many younger teens, even though the main character is just fourteen. There are very graphic passages describing pornography, and the pages of this deeply disturbing story are soaked in sex. Actual sex between teens, and the forbidden sexual yearnings between adolescents and adults. The student-teacher crush has doubtless existed since time immemorial, and has been frowned upon with very good reason. Outwardly repressed young Georgia is a seething mass of inner emotional conflicts, which find vent in the most inappropriate ways possible.
Here follow loads of spoilers.
Fourteen year old Georgia Slade is the daughter of an upper class, outwardly successful but deeply dysfunctional family. Her father Lawrence is a cold, emotionally distant psychiatric doctor who openly sneers at Georgia’s ballet fixation; her mother Lena is a much-younger university lecturer who became involved with Dr. Slade while in a student-professor position; their affair was the cause of Dr. Slade’s first marriage break-up. Lena is teetering on the edge of a mental and emotional breakdown; the marriage is fragile as eggshells and cold as ice. There is a vibrant, scholarly, Mediterranean first wife in the background, and a university student older stepsister, who turn out to be the most empathetic and likeable members of Georgia’s dreadful little world.
Georgia lives her life on a knife-edge, playing peacemaker and go-between at home, and carefully navigating the increasingly complicated waters of her school world. Everything there is all about peer pressure and implied and actual sexual relations; Georgia frigidly refuses to participate in any of the games, but is nonetheless very aware of the avid stares of the boys and the casual cruelty of the girls. The only place she can let down is in ballet class, though let down is perhaps an inapt term – Georgia’s quest for control and perfection have taken her to the head of her class, and her teacher recommends an audition with the prestigious Royal Ballet Academy.
Georgia passes her audition, and breathes a sigh of relief. Surely here there will be less focus on sex and more on the purity of the dance. To her dismay, the dancers are decidedly interested in all the usual teen girl preoccupations, including boys and sex. And Georgia now comes into contact with the cruelly demanding but physically attractive Roderick Allen, senior instructor and choreographer at the school.
As the dancers are pushed hard to achieve their highest potential, Roderick’s classes take on a special importance to Georgia. Every look, every fleetingly necessary placement touch from her instructor is analyzed and brooded upon, until she convinces herself that she and Roderick are involved in an unspoken mutual relationship. How best to bring it out into the open?
Georgia’s newly awakened curiosity about the possibilities of a sexual relationship with a much older man lead her – where else? – to the internet, where she discovers the pornographic permission for all sorts of illicit relationships. Looking at the poses of the nubile young women on her computer, Georgia is inspired to take similar self-portraits of herself. She prints these off, wraps them in her underwear, and, after confronting her instructor in his office with a passionate advance, slips the photos into his desk drawer.
Meanwhile a subplot has been going on regarding one of the other dancers. Not quite as slender as her peers, Chantal has been brought to tears by the comments of Roderick and the sneers of the inevitable clique of mean girls in the class. Georgia, in a mood of commiseration, decides to help Chantal out, and gives her advice on how best to starve herself to lose weight, information Georgia has used in her own turn to maintain her stick-thin dancer’s figure. Turns out Georgia has had a long-time obsession with Gelsey Kirkland, hardly a healthy role model, for all her undeniable talent and ethereal beauty.
Chantal comes back to school from Christmas break a mere skeleton of her former self; she is checked into an eating disorders clinic, and her parents talk of suing the Dance Academy. Roderick is pinpointed as the esteem-breaker of the students, and is under investigation on this matter when the photos of Georgia come to light, dramatizing the situation even further.
Roderick loses his job, and only avoids criminal prosecution by Georgia’s confession that she has made all the advances. Her parents separate, with Lena and Georgia moving to an apartment. Rejecting her stepsister’s caring advice, Georgia alienates herself from the one normal member of her family. She willingly surrenders her virginity to an old classmate at a drunken house party, and we find ourselves not really caring if her sexual inhibitions are fixed by this or not. Georgia leaves the Academy, and the last we see of her, she is auditioning for a place in yet another ballet school, along with none other than the very anorexic girl she previously “helped” into a hospital room.
There’s other stuff as well, but I think this is enough to give a broad picture of this dramatic little novel. What a soap opera!
What are my conclusions regarding this one?
Well, first off, I’m not terribly bothered by all the sex. Teens, even those as young as (and often younger than) fourteen, think about, talk about, and (hide your eyes!) even have sex. We have no grounds to get all huffy and pretend that it’s not going on, because it is. It went on back in Maureen Daly’s time, it went on in my teenage years – and though I was one of the late bloomers myself, I had ears and eyes – nothing in Various Positions was all that shocking, seen it all before – and by golly, they’re still doing it today, albeit much more openly and possibly more inventively than in the immediately previous generations.
For every sexually precocious teen there are lots of more conservatively minded ones; from observing my own teen children’s friends and acquaintances I see the whole array, and I’m not seeing anything terribly worrisome – good sense is there in abundance, and our up and coming generation is fine and pure as gold in many ways.
Are the striving dancers painted as too competitive and cruel? No, not at all. My teen daughter has been heavily involved in dance for the last twelve years, and I’ve been privy to some shocking displays by the most sweetly innocent-looking creatures you can imagine. Again, this is not the norm – there is a wide range – but it certainly exists.
Anorexia and bulimia are still the elephants in the room; good teachers and studios deal openly with those issues, but the onus on private behaviour and how far to go does lie with the individuals. Dance, especially at the more advanced levels, can be a cruelly competitive world, especially if the career track is a possibility and a goal, and there are many pitfalls for even the best-nurtured teen in navigating that particular labyrinth. Bodies do matter tremendously, particularly in ballet, and the stick insects are still in vogue, thanks to Balanchine’s long reaching influence and his preference for the sylph-like form.
My biggest quibble was that I just did not like the character of Georgia. Even allowing for her dreadful home life, she made all the wrong choices, right up until the last pages. What was this obviously very bright, talented and focussed child thinking? Not just about the sexual thing with her teacher, but everything in her personal life seemed to have a serious kink. I’m not quite sure if this was deliberate, or if we’re supposed to understand the whys and wherefores and make allowances.
Martha Schabas certainly has writing talent, but I have some qualms at how she’s used it here. First novels are notoriously autobiographical, and much is made of the fact that Ms. Schabas seriously studied ballet herself, until being asked to leave the National Ballet School at age fifteen because of problems with her feet. While a number of critics have breathlessly gasped – and I here paraphrase – “How bold and daring! A courageous debut!” – I see instead perhaps something of an infatuation with the titillation of the sexual adventures of a Canadian Lolita-ballerina.
Would I give this book to my own sixteen-year-old dancer daughter? I had originally checked it out for her – she asked me to pick her up some interesting books, and this one looked like an easy winner. I read it and then offered it to her, and she asked what it was about, glanced through it and shrugged it off. “Too mainstream, too pop-fiction,” she said. “Too drama-queen for me.”
And for the final word, to balance my rather dismissive review, here is Angela Hickman’s National Post review, from July 5, 2011, found here.
When Martha Schabas was five years old, she took her first ballet class, kicking off a decade of intense training and dreams of becoming a ballerina. Then, at 15, she was kicked out of the National Ballet School’s summer program for having bad feet — her arch wasn’t pronounced and she had a low instep. “I just didn’t fit into the ideal,” she says. “That very precise balletic ideal.”
Although she quit ballet after that, Schabas has now returned to the National Ballet School in her debut novel, Various Positions. Despite its setting and the balletic ambitions of Georgia, the 14-year-old central character, Schabas didn’t set out to write a ballet novel. Initially Georgia was older, but as Schabas started to dig into the issues of feminism that interested her, she says the character just started getting younger.
“I wanted to write about some facet of being a young woman in our so-called third wave feminist climate,” she says. From there, she adds, it made sense to place Georgia in a context that she was familiar with.
The novel opens in the middle of an unexplained disaster, with Georgia arriving at the ballet school in the morning and discovering it is closed for the day. Georgia feels responsible, but we don’t know what happened, which sets up a sense of dark uncertainty and unease that carries forward throughout the novel. After the initial scene, the story rewinds to the beginning before bringing us back to the steps of the school with a full understanding of what it is Georgia has done, and continuing forward into the aftermath.
But Schabas takes her time setting up Georgia’s life — her parents’ dysfunctional marriage, her idolization of her stepsister Isabel, and her all-consuming love of ballet. When Georgia is accepted into the National Ballet School, it is as if her life is just beginning. She wasn’t happy at her previous public school, where sex was starting to tint the air around her in a way she didn’t understand or like, and ballet seemed like a perfect escape from that.
“She starts off with this idea that she will pursue this very asexual, pre-adulthood aesthetic form of ballet, and that will be her means of staking out her own parameters for her body and for power,” Schabas says. “And then the real world slowly starts to seep back in: she’s inundated by ordinary, healthy teenage girls who have an interest in sex; she’s starting to piece together information about her parents’ marriage; she’s studying men on the subway and realizes that, you know, ‘I made a mistake. Ballet is not separate from sex. The two must go together because sex is in everything.’ ”
The tension between the body and power and sex propel the story forward as it climbs toward the crescendo you know is coming. When Georgia ties ballet and sex together, she begins to see her teacher, Roderick, as a sexual person; she also assumes he sees her the same way. Georgia becomes acutely aware of each time Roderick touches her or notices her, and she becomes fixated on the idea that if she can work out what Roderick wants, he can propel her career.
“When she’s pursuing Roderick in a sexual way, it’s more about getting at the heart of what it means to be a woman for her, and also a woman as a dancer,” Schabas say. “So the two things get conflated.”
Georgia is a dancer at a very high level, and her connection to her body and its movement is pronounced. In a way, Schabas says, Georgia tries to understand the world through her body, which means that every touch and movement takes on other dimensions. Georgia’s physicality means that she doesn’t just think about doing things, she does them, often without a thought about consequences.
“I think a lot of these issues haven’t really been written about much before,” Schabas says. “The idea that [Georgia] actually looks up porn and tries to recreate porn, thinking that this is OK. She actually pieces information together and thinks ‘This is a pretty logical way to pursue what I want to get.’ That can seem outrageous on the one hand, but at the same time, when we look at the millions of mixed messages that we send young women and … the idea of sexuality and the public sphere, maybe she’s a bit of a whistle-blower calling us on the real implications of our values.”
Much like the heroines of classical ballets, after the action, Georgia is left powerless, and it’s devastating to watch her grapple with what happened and then to be unable to take responsibility for what she did.
“Horrible things happen to ballet heroines and they die and go mad – it’s the mad, bad, sad thing – but [they] are ultimately victimized,” Schabas says. “In a way it’s Georgia who’s victimized by something of her own perpetration.”
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