Various Positions explores a young dancer's awakening
By Martha Schabas. Doubleday Canada, 368 pp, softcover
Reading Martha Schabas’s debut novel, Various Positions, one can’t help but think of Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic triumph Black Swan. Both works address the particular challenges of ballet dancing—the discipline required to execute choreography and maintain a ballerina’s physique—and feature the sexual awakenings of their naive heroines.
The charged dynamic between dancers and directors, and the presence of mothers freighted with their own palpable disappointments, are also included. Yet, despite these similarities, Schabas’s story possesses its own distinct identity. While Black Swan is a mesmerizing study of the razor’s edge between art and madness, Various Positions is the observed tale of a ballerina’s coming of age.
Narrated by Georgia Slade, a 14-year-old whose gradual loss of innocence coincides with her enrollment at the fictional Royal Toronto Ballet Academy, the passages illustrate her daily life and its emerging infatuations. Schabas, who lives in Toronto, writes realistically in the voice of this precocious adolescent, articulating perceptions exaggerated by hormones and juvenile longing, and portrays a girl puzzled by young adulthood.
Witnessing her parents’ strained marriage and unsettled by her increasing awareness of the opposite sex, Georgia nevertheless develops a crush on the school’s artistic director, Roderick Allen. Unlike her peers, she views sex as a danger which “could so easily ruin ballet”, and this belief conflicts with her physical and emotional changes, creating further confusion.
Ballet is transcendence, a grace and restraint that momentarily bypasses gravity and physiology. “In ballet,” Georgia muses, “I had control over my own maturity. I could work at things until I achieved them, train my muscles with microscopic commands until my body became what I wanted it to be.”
Spurred by her feelings for Roderick, she approaches her dancing with extra determination but soon finds that her misplaced affections inflict unintended consequences.
The writing here is fair, though it never reaches the kind of emotional power or visceral beauty that these characters strive to convey through their art. Filtering multiple themes through the narrative prism of a teenage mind has diluted what could have been deeper examinations of the body and its capacities, self-acceptance, desire, and artistry’s perils.