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From Low Life Noir to Tragic Flight: John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet

By Des Barry.

John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet

John Haskell, The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts (Graywolf Press, 2017)

When I saw the title of John Haskell’s book The Complete Ballet, I asked the obvious question: why on earth is Haskell writing about ballet? In his previous three books, he has been constantly engaged and fascinated by the finest and artistically richest of cultural creations in visual art, in film and in literature. But he doesn’t shy away from so-called low culture either; he weaves all manner of TV shows and movies into the narrative of his stories or novels when there is a narrative, or into the collage of his prose when a piece is composed of fragments. Before reading this book, I thought of ballet in the way that I used to think about opera some sixteen years ago. I grew up in the post-industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in the south of Wales, a place of high unemployment, high crime, high teen pregnancy and high incidences of cancer and heart disease, all indicators of dire poverty. Ballet and opera were not major topics of cultural conversation.

The structural underpinning of John Haskell’s new novel uses five romantic ballets. Haskell is also a master of digression. By way of digression, I reminded myself of how, when I moved back to Wales after living for twenty-one years outside Britain, a visit to a Merthyr friend at Cardiff University, Martin O’Neill,  changed my mind about opera. On the wall of O’Neill’s office was a poster for Madame Butterfly. Aghast, I said to him, “You go to see opera?” He said, “Have you ever been?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, go and see one. The Welsh National Opera is world class. And it’s based right here.” So I went to see La Bohème. I was shocked and moved by the sound of a live orchestra, human voices and the absurd theatricality of telling a story through this hybrid form. And, of course, La Bohème is a Romantic story. It’s a tragedy. And Aristotle says that tragedy is the ultimate form of art. As Haskell points out early in his novel, ballet, too, is romantic and tragic. Having read all of John Haskell’s previous books that combine fiction and nonfiction, I felt inclined to trust him.

The Complete Ballet begins with a man sitting on a chair in front of a fire and he’s dreaming of “a girl, a young girl, a thin, young ballerina playing the role of a sylph”. In the second paragraph of the book, Arnold Haskell appears. No relation – as far as I know – to John. My puzzlement as to what is truth and what is fiction in The Complete Ballet had already made me anxious. John Haskell is very good at making a reader feel anxious. Despite my resistance to leaving the novel for a few minutes, I felt compelled to go to Google to check on the veracity or otherwise of Arnold Haskell. I found out that Arnold Haskell really was a ballet critic and historian; such is my ignorance of ballet, I wanted to know the story of La Sylphide, the first act, because I had trouble believing that a romantic ballet, first danced by a woman called Marie Taglioni, could be set in Scotland with a character by the name of Gurn. I should have trusted Haskell. John Haskell, that is.

La Sylphide

In two paragraphs I already wanted to know more about ballet as form in the same way that I wanted to know more about opera after seeing La Bohème. La Boheme was the light taste that led onto darker and more addictive cravings for Berg and Schoenberg.

It’s possible to learn a lot about ballet in Haskell’s book but that’s not the point. Or not the only one. That the book takes the form of a nonfiction essay in these first pages is an act of seduction that quietly evolves into the anxiety-generating plot of what is also a psychological noir novel. And such is the authority and conviction in the narrative voice that it took a while before I was sure that I was in fact reading a novel rather than thinly disguised autobiography, which it isn’t. Of Arnold Haskell, the unnamed narrator states:

Unlike Haskell, I’m not interested in writing a guide to dance, I’m trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing, like the moving body thinking itself into existence. Not being a dancer I don’t understand the intricacies of a bourrée or pas de chat, and partly because I don’t… what I see in the story is a version of life enough like mine but different, not necessarily better but yes, in a way, more beautiful and meaningful and we all have desires. Like any myth a great ballet expresses both my desires and the afflictions that follow.

Ballet is a romantic form: “All ballet is about idealization.” The narrator is a man who carries within himself a sense of tragedy that he is both trying to escape and also has to live out. He begins “the story of my ballet” through an anecdote about his three-year-old daughter, who he once took to see The Nutcracker. When he reads her stories in children’s books based on classical ballets, she becomes obsessed by “Odette and Giselle and although they suffered and died in the end, my daughter started imitating them. She called herself Aurora or Clara, and wearing Halloween butterfly wings she danced around the house in a way she thought a sylph would dance.” Each of the essays focuses on one particular ballet, and each act parallels the life of a man who has recently arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of his failed marriage. And it’s through ballet that the narrator can still feel connected to his love for his absent daughter.

In Los Angeles, the narrator becomes a masseur of sorts, so he knows about basic anatomy: muscles, nerves, tendons and ligaments. He can understand what it takes for a human body to perform ballet: “In the story of La Sylphide the wings seem to actually exist. And they do. We all have them, vestiges of what birds have, and what angels have…” The latissimus muscle is “a sheath, covering the scapula… and this is where our vestigial wings attach”. The descriptions of the strains on the muscles and bones and ligaments of dancers, and those of the masseur’s clients, grounds the reader in his/her own body so that another aspect of the book is a meditation on physicality, and the transcendence of physicality. It’s also a meditation on how ballet, and thus tragedy, is an expression of love and desire and sexuality. He is what Arnold Haskell would call a balletomane. The narrator saw his first ballet at the age of fourteen and he imagined the dancers naked. While his life runs parallel with the ballets that he describes in some detail in each of the acts, the narrator is also fascinated by the history of ballet and the fraught relationships among its main protagonists from its origin in 1832, when Romanticism was in full bloom and Maria Taglioni danced La Sylphide for the first time. This strand of the novel continues through to stories of Nijinsky and Diaghalev, Nureyev and Fontaine, Ballanchine’s many lovers, and Joseph Cornell’s fascination and infatuation with the ballerina Tamara Tamanova, among many others. This aspect of the book’s engagement with the history of ballet and its intersection with culture, politics and its intense sexuality is in itself completely captivating for a non-balletomane.

John Haskell’s writing has always engaged with art forms in the same way that The Complete Ballet engages with dance. His first book, I am not Jackson Pollock, is a collection of stories, some of which take as their starting point the life of artists (Jackson Pollock, Glenn Gould, Basho and more); movies (A Touch of Evil, The Third Man and more); or actual events (the suicide of the actress Capucine; the brutal electrocution of Topsy the elephant at Coney Island in 1903). His first novel, American Purgatorio, portrays a man’s existential and metaphysical road trip in search of his wife who has disappeared at a gas station. It’s like a David Lynch movie in prose. Out of My Skin, his second novel, is the story of a Steve Martin impersonator, who becomes possessed by his role. I’ve never liked Steve Martin but this novel’s absorption of a cultural icon into Haskell’s fictional narrator is a meditation on the fragility and fragmentary nature of the conscious persona. It casts a skewed and shrewd gaze on the world that is going on around us.

Apart from the overt references to dancers, choreographers and visual artists, The Complete Ballet has overt and often covert references to TV and cinema, particularly the movies of John Cassavetes, a second underpinning beneath the ballet in five acts.


Early on in the novel, the narrator meets up with Cosmo, who runs a nightclub that specialises in dances other than ballet. It’s a strip joint. And it’s through Cosmo’s connections to other nightclub milieus run by “not mobsters exactly, or gangsters” that the narrator is forced to face up to the consequences of decisions he makes when confronted with choices that can influence the direction that his life may take at any given moment; choices that may well be ill-judged. And because the narrator’s life is paralleled by stage versions of life represented by five different ballets, that are idealisations or distillations of the forces of rationality and irrationality, the consequences of misdirected actions are potentially dire. Along with the erudite digressions on the history and nature of ballet as romantic art, The Complete Ballet develops an ever darker and disturbing narrative.

What is this book? It’s compassionate, it’s tragic, it illuminates the history of ballet and how this romantic art form affected the lives of its dancers and impresarios and those who became involved with them. It essays five particular ballets that run parallel with the life of a narrator who is struggling with loss and trying to find a life that has some kind of meaning, some integrity in a trajectory that can never be ideal, though he tells himself he’s always aiming for it. The narrator reveals his commitment to pure form, pure art and nothing less when he says: “I walked out of a performance of La Bayadère one time, because the dancer had forgotten the reason for dancing, which is life.”

What drives all of his writing is Haskell’s extraordinarily unaffected style. The artfulness and compelling power of his prose is deceptive in its apparent simplicity: and raises the question of how it can be so funny, insightful and lightly worn while at the same time putting the reader through such anxiety with a profound and compassionate engagement with what it is to be a flawed and distracted human being, always walking on a knife edge of disaster. The Complete Ballet is full of narrative surprises — often from one sentence to another. It can be read as a sophisticated noir novel even as it pointedly undercuts its own sophistication. It is something of a treatise on dance even though that’s not its avowed aim. It reveals the chthonic power of tragic myths, a drift toward catharsis that taps into the Dionysian roots of theatre, and the carnivalesque distortions of those myths and rites as the narrator follows his ill-starred path through the tacky underworld of Los Angeles.

The Complete Ballet is an engagement with art and tragedy, a clown’s eye-view of the narrator’s own failings in a world beyond his control. It’s a meditation on choices made in the moment and the way those choices take us into an irrevocable future. The movement between each strand of story opens up space for the reader’s own creative responses to what is said and not said. John Haskell’s writing in The Complete Ballet has the sense of being maintained effortlessly, though I suspect that there are parallels with those who witnessed Marie Taglioni when the narrator states:

They didn’t see the years of subjugation, the hours spent molding the muscles of her legs and feet, the laces of her slippers tied so tight the blood stopped flowing. What people saw when they saw her was a vision, part girl, part creature, an ethereal creature who, flying across the stage, balancing literally on the tips of her toes, reflected their ideas of what an ideal person could be.

While many may seek to push the boundaries of the novel, John Haskell does it, and is consistently unique in the work he produces. Whatever suffering he’s gone through at his desk in order to achieve it, the writing on the page appears effortless. Grounded in its Cassavetes-influenced noir story, Haskell has composed a complete ballet that’s funny, harrowing, dark, and vertiginous.


Des Barry

Des Barry is a writer and Butoh artist. He’s published three novels with Jonathan Cape: The Chivalry of Crime, A Bloody Good Friday and Cressida’s Bed. His shorter prose has been published in The New YorkerGranta, 3:AM Magazine and in anthologies including Sea StoriesLondon Noir and Wales, Half Welsh. He’s putting the final touches on a Faustian novel set in New York City. His alter-ego David Enrique Spellman wrote Far South, published by Serpent’s Tail. He tweets from @farsouthproject.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 14th, 2017.