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A Literary Ode to Ballet and Cassavetes

John Haskell’s "The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts" breaks new ground in the practice of adaptation.


As its title suggests, John Haskell’s new book, The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts, is difficult to categorize. It is a novel in the form of a nonfiction essay; it is also a literary work about another art form (dance). Haskell, whose previous works have attempted to inhabit figures as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Glenn Gould, and Steve Martin, has long been interested in literature’s ability to cross-pollinate. Here, he is concerned with different kinds of adaptation—from one genre to another, from one medium to the next—and what effect these adaptations have upon the resulting work. In the process, he has produced a book of truly unusual quality.

There are two major strands to The Complete Ballet. One is the first-person narration of a life. The narrator lives in Los Angeles, working as a masseuse and getting into trouble with his magnetic friend Cosmo and a beautiful dancer named Rachel. The defining events of the narrator’s life are the death of his daughter and subsequent breakdown of his marriage, which took place at some undefined moment in the past, and the loss of all his money and more money that isn’t his at a poker game, which leads to further trouble.

If you’ve ever seen the 1976 Cassavetes movie The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, you’ll recognize that plot, even down to the names Rachel and Cosmo. As in Charlie Kaufman’s movie Adaptation, the narrator of The Complete Ballet places himself—a purported memoirist—inside a ready-made, appropriated work of art.

The other major strand is an exercise in ekphrasis, when an artist in one medium describes an artwork in another. The book is divided into five “acts,” which are structured like essays. Each is titled for a different major ballet: La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka. They are all Romantic ballets except the last, which is a modern burlesque. The narrator describes the plots of the ballets as if he himself is writing them, putting words in the characters’ mouths when they are actually silent on stage. “Albrecht’s problem is that he’s still alive,” he writes of Giselle, in which Albrecht has been cursed to dance until death after betraying his love promise to the title character. “Giselle is dead, and the curse on him is that he has to keep dancing. If he can dance through the night his life will be spared, but at this point, having already danced for hours, his will to dance is exhausted. Whether he’s alive or dead barely matters to him.”

Graywolf, 200pp., $16.00

By expressing the ballet characters’ emotions in writing, when in the actual ballet those emotions are only conveyed physically, Haskell’s narrator casts himself as a choreographer of a dance in words. Perhaps we could call him a translator. Just before the narrator describes “Albrecht’s problem,” he recalls the final emotional collapse after his daughter’s death. One night he was with his wife “in the kitchen, watching steam rise from a pot of cooking noodles, and I don’t remember how but we found ourselves in each other’s arms and we stayed like that, swaying and crying, and I was supporting her and she was supporting me and then I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t stand.”

There is a clear resonance between the narrator’s failure to stand, literally, and Albrecht’s failure to keep dancing. The statement that “Whether he’s alive or dead barely matters to him” applies to both Albrecht and to the narrator. This emotional fact in turn bears upon the adapted plot of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, because it gives the narrator a reason to act in nihilistic and violent ways.

So, the character’s motivation has been borrowed from one work of art—Giselle—and transposed into another work of art—The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—to create a core emotional principle of the fictional essay, The Complete Ballet. Adaptation acts like a delivery system, bringing the contents of one artwork into another, and both of those works lend implications to the new one. Giselle colors the book with the tint of betrayal, since Albrecht broke his promise to the heroine. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, meanwhile, gives the narrative a kind of textural grit. The story promises violence and bullet wounds, which is a very interesting lens to see Swan Lake through.

In a final layer of adaptive technique, the narrator describes the history of each ballet’s staging. These are the least interpretive sections of the book, although they contain the most intriguing stories. Of Swan Lake, for example, we read that, “Although he doesn’t get the credit, Ivanov, who was Petipa’s assistant, is the one who understood the complexity of Tchaikovsky’s music, and the dances he made express the somber mood of the minor key by sometimes subverting it.” The consideration of ballet’s history becomes a third strand in this book’s rope. We read that Rudolf Nureyev, the famous Soviet defector, literally danced himself away from the hired goons who came to take him back to the USSR and kill his career.

The most complicated elements of The Complete Ballet are the unspeakable fact of the daughter’s death, and the representation of the lives of ballet dancers and choreographers. These two parts of Haskell’s work do not fit into the easy, supple adaptation-play that governs the rest of it. But since they stick out, undissolved into the body of the work, the history of ballet and the dead child take on a marvelous quality. The extraordinary fact that men and women labored to create a spectacle in which a woman acts the death of a heartbroken bird is too extraordinary to fold into writing. Likewise, the horrifying cancellation of the person for whom one is responsible and loves the most in the whole world is an inexpressible event.

The Complete Ballet is a very absorbing, even thrilling, novel. It feels reductive to call it an exploration of the limits of a medium to describe an experience. But Haskell’s achievement lies in both the sustained emotional stakes of his book and in the fruitful experiment in adaptation and ekphrasis. Not all feelings can be given voice, either in literature or in dance. Nor are gesture and language always connected by an open channel of translation. By occupying that difficult channel and refusing to budge, however, The Complete Ballet has changed its shape.