Body-Shamed as a 12-Year-Old, One Woman Attempts The Nutcracker

Lauren Kessler headshot by David Loveall

Ballet is such a rarefied field that on those infrequent occasions when a mainstream publisher releases a ballet-themed book, we devotees race to read it. Thus I dove enthusiastically into Lauren Kessler’s ridiculous new memoir, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker. In concise, snappily written prose, it tells the improbable story of how, as a middle-aged woman, Kessler arrogantly decided she would—in nine months—prepare herself to perform in a professional production of the beloved Christmastime classic with Oregon’s Eugene Ballet Company. 

Kessler hadn’t practiced ballet since she was a tween. At the age of 12, she abruptly quit her training after overhearing her instructor, the great male ballet star André Eglevsky (then operating a school on New York’s Long Island), state that she would never be a dancer because her shape was wrong. Bottom-heavy was the term he used.

With her book dedicated to someone identified only as “AE,” Kessler clearly had embarked on an “I’ll show him” mission. Driven by deep-rooted insecurities concerning her body and appearance, the memoir is far more self-indulgent, self-help psychobabble than insightful, ballet-focused storytelling.

The ballet content is limited to Kessler’s personal observations of dancers (filtered through her self-deprecating, body-issues-obsessed psyche), her amateur assessments of various Nutcracker productions, and general ballet information scarred by egregious factual errors. To correct just a few: The Nutcracker Suite jazz album was made by Duke Ellington, not Duke Wellington; dancer Misty Copeland is not a Balanchine ballerina; the company George Balanchine operated in the 1930s was called the American Ballet, not American Ballet Theatre; and a pas de chat can’t possibly look “beautiful on toe,” because it’s a jump.

Lauren Kessler dancing (Cliff Coles).
Lauren Kessler dancing front and center. (Cliff Coles)

Yet most aggravating is the book’s presumptuous premise: that in less than a year a 60-something nondancer could achieve the level of competence needed to perform a role in a professional Nutcracker production—a named role, at that, not just an Act 1 party guest. Kessler sets out to accomplish this feat not by dedicating herself to full-day ballet studies but by continuing to work her full-time job as a writing instructor, meet her responsibilities as a mother, decrease her social media and coffee shop hangout time only somewhat and go to more fitness classes. She had planned to take a community adult beginners ballet class, but that didn’t last long. Then about a month prior to rehearsals she thought she would begin attending the ballet troupe’s daily company class. Company class! To anyone with even an iota of knowledge about ballet (not to mention respect for the art form), that notion is preposterous, as well as insulting to the profession.

Raising the Bar_largeKessler’s book is well structured, generates suspense and culminates with amusing stories of performance mishaps and the rigors of touring. However, Kessler’s writing embraces the vernacular in a self-conscious fashion that steals our attention from the content and reminds us that it’s all about her. She adopts a silly “gee whiz” tone when presenting historical facts, likes to start sentences with “Did I mention” and precedes what she considers a shocking anecdote with “Prepare to gasp.”

So as not to spoil the story, I won’t reveal the results of Kessler’s Nutcracker journey, though I’m inclined to compare it to those of the plus-size ballerina wanna-bes depicted in the reality show Big Ballet, which aired on Ovation last year. They too were driven to challenge the body-type discrimination of the big, bad ballet world but, like Kessler, also failed to understand an essential point: You can’t combat ballet’s body prejudices with women who have not undergone years of disciplined training. That discipline is what the practice of ballet is all about. Which was not really Kessler’s concern. She just used the ballet world as a milieu for a ludicrous exercise in self-satisfaction.

Feature Photo: David Loveall